Michigan State basketball, known for its grueling non-conference schedule year in and year out, faces yet another daunting task in No. 3 Arizona on Thanksgiving Day in Palm Springs, Calif.
Ranked No. 4 to begin the season, the Spartans have since dropped to No. 21 in the AP Top 25 poll after losses to James Madison and Duke. Their most prominent shortcomings have been shooting, rebounding and leadership.
The good news for head coach Tom Izzo and his staff is that they expect graduate students Tyson Walker and Malik Hall to be ready for action in the Acrisure Classic against what Izzo called the Spartans’ toughest opponent yet.
Walker was scratched from the lineup in the Spartans’ 81-49 win over Alcorn State Sunday after experiencing “flu-like” symptoms the day prior. Hall sat most of the second half following an ankle tweak.
“I was surprised Tyson made it. He took a few breaks but was in most of the practice,” Izzo said following practice Monday. “He said he woke up this morning and felt 99% better. So that was encouraging. And Malik doesn't seem to have any problem with his ankle.”
Walker leads all Spartans with 23 points per game on 53 percent shooting through four games. There’s no question whether the Spartans will need their top scorer and go-to guy in crunch time against the highly-touted Wildcats.
“Right now, he's been our most consistent worker, (most) conditioned guy, defensive player, offensive player and coach,” Izzo said of Walker. “He's been the most consistent in all areas.”
Izzo has consistently harped on his team’s need for more leadership both on and off the floor, particularly from Walker and senior guard A.J. Hoggard. He said Monday that while it’s improved, he wants to see more.
“There's no question: we're still not where we need to be,” Izzo said. “Some of that's going to come. But the length of intensity and the attention to detail and what you gotta do time after time after time, not one or two times, not three or four times. That's gonna be the seniors.”
The Spartans leave for Palm Springs on Tuesday. The trip, where both climate and time change will come into play, marks the first major one for MSU’s freshmen.
“One way to get used to it is to try to play as hard as you can as long as you can every day and stay focused on the task,” Izzo said. “That’s kind of what we’re trying to get out of a couple of our freshmen. Some of them got to play hard earlier.”
Arizona has also faced Duke early in the season, beating the Blue Devils 78-73 on the road. MSU lost to Duke 74-65 at the Champions Classic in Chicago.
Arizona’s combination of size is something MSU hasn’t seen thus far in the season. The Wildcats, who rank sixth in the nation in rebounding, boast four 7-footers and five other players between 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-10.
This presents yet another unprecedented challenge for MSU’s frontcourt, which will be tasked with taming such length. The Spartans were outrebounded 41-38 by Alcorn State on Sunday.
“You can be weak, but you gotta be aggressive. Some of that’s a work in progress and it’s going to be a work in progress,” Izzo said. “That’s what makes it so hard, maybe the way the schedule is right now and we need to get some games where we can get some guys some reps. That’s not happening. So, in the meantime, it’ll probably shrink our playing group a little bit.”
The Spartans have the opportunity to re-enter themselves into the national conversation with a win over the Wildcats.
Tip-off between MSU and Arizona is slated for 4 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 23 at Acrisure Arena.
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