With a 6-3 record, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo sees his team as “one game off” from where he thought it would be in mid-December. But with a stretch of home nonconference games, it is a time of year that should lead to a lot of progress for the Spartans leading up to the Big Ten opener against Maryland on Dec. 30 at Breslin Center,
”I think Christmas is always critical here at Michigan State,” Izzo said. “I think at most places, but it seems like we have always made some progress.
”I can’t think of a Christmas more critical than this one just because of the people we’ve had out and just because of the youth of this team compared to maybe some that I’ve had.”
As has been well-documented, the Spartans had to replace plenty of scoring and experience from last season as seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne graduated, while Gary Harris left early for the NBA, Kenny Kaminski was dismissed from the program, Russell Byrd transferred and Alex Gauna left the team. As a result, plenty of new faces have filled the Michigan State locker room from incoming freshmen to transfers and the influx of new members has brought with it expected growing pains.
Junior center Matt Costello said it is that youth as a team that makes the upcoming two-week stretch so essential.
”We aren’t going to win by Gary hitting 15 3s in a game or AP going nuts in the post, we are going to win as a team,” Costello said. “With that, we have to play a lot more together and that’s what this Christmas time gives us to work together and get close as a unit.”
It also gives a pair of players a chance to get back to health, as sophomore guard Alvin Ellis returned from a high right ankle sprain last week to play sparingly against Notre Dame and Arkansas Pine-Bluff. On top of that, freshman guard Javon Bess – whom Izzo had high praise for in preseason camp – is resuming basketball activity after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot.
”You’ve got two keys players for us this summer,” Costello said. “Y’all haven’t seen Javon play yet, but he is a very good player. It’s going to be good having them back.”
But as the next two weeks unfold, it figures to be a good time for the Spartans to take a jump beyond where they are presently – which is what senior Travis Trice said makes it such a critical time.
“We’ve got three losses already and so we can’t afford any slip ups, so we have to stay locked in and focused,” Trice said.