EAST LANSING, Mich. – Thursday was one of those days when the media was told basketball practice should end around a certain time and that players and coaches would be available afterward. That was the honest expectation.
Tom Izzo wasn’t concerned about those expectations. His Michigan State team has started the season 0-2 with losses to No. 10 Arizona and No. 2 Kentucky. Izzo wants to nip a couple of concerns in the bud before they grow into lasting issues, so if practice goes a little long, well, so be it. If it goes longer than a little long, even better.
The Spartans host Mississippi Valley State on Friday night and Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday night in the first two home games of the season. These are early-season games that are supposed to be comfortable wins for the big-named, nationally ranked home team. After what Izzo saw the first two games, nothing is going to be comfortable.
“This weekend I’m not worried about anybody being tired. I don’t really care if anybody is tired,” Izzo said. “We’re going to do like a boxer: you get punched in the face and knocked to the canvas you’ve got two choices: you can get up or you can lay there. So, I’m going to find out more about my team this weekend than I did last week in Madison Square Garden.”
It wasn’t the losses that angered Izzo, although he certainly wasn’t fond of them. It was the manner in which the Spartans lost the games. They committed 18 turnovers that led to 26 points against Arizona in a 65-63 loss. They committed 20 more against Kentucky that led to 24 points in a 69-48 loss at MSG.
“Everybody can get up for that game (Kentucky). Everybody can get up and do their thing. We embarrassed ourselves and our program a little bit in how we played,” Izzo said. “If we embarrass ourselves, that’s one thing. If we embarrass what this program has stood for as far as the foolishness of just being casual, we’re going to put it on these guys and we’re going to see if they’re ready to play.”
Mississippi Valley State has started the season 0-3 with losses to Northwestern, No. 19 West Virginia and Kent State. The Delta Devils have been outscored by an average of 98-64 in those three games. Florida Gulf Coast is 1-1 and plays at Baylor on Friday night before making the trip to East Lansing. These games are part of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. The main draw will be in the Bahamas next week, where Michigan State plays St. John’s in the opening round next Wednesday.
“My job (Friday) is to make sure we’re ready to play the game. Everybody knows that it’s not Kentucky and Arizona but this is about Michigan State. This is about what Michigan State hasn’t done so far this year. We’ve played hard enough defensively but we haven’t run enough on offense and we have not taken care of the ball well enough. Those two things create a ton of problems.”
The last time Michigan State began 0-2 was the 2011-12 season. That Spartans team went on to win the Big Ten championship and earn a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed after opening with losses to North Carolina and Duke. There is no sense of panic, but there is a sense of urgency in making sure a team with four freshmen starts figuring things out sooner than later.
“We haven’t lost faith in our season and we haven’t lost faith in our guys. We’ve got some talented guys, some very smart guys,” senior guard Eron Harris said.
Harris has been a surprise the first two games, but not in a good way. He’s scored just nine points on 4-of-11 shooting. He’s played just 33 minutes in the first two games, some because of foul trouble but he also drew the ire of Izzo against Kentucky for a lack of intensity on the defensive side.
“I’m feeling comfortable. I had a great practice today. I’ve just got to get my mind right,” Harris said. “I had meetings with coach. We had great meetings. I’ve just got to figure it out because I understand that I’m a huge component. As a senior, I haven’t been producing offensively as I should. That’s going to pick up. We’ve just got to figure out how we’re going to spread around our offensive production.”
Holding onto the ball would be a good start. The two opponents were partially the problem but there has been carelessness as well. Michigan State hasn’t moved without the ball as well as Izzo wants, and that will be a focus this weekend.
“We’re losing games over mistakes that we can easily fix,” freshman point guard Cassius Winston said. “Not focusing, not spacing. It’s all the little things that we can kind of control, spacing and moving without the ball. We were just passing and standing there. Those things that we can control, we have to fix.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo