East Lansing, MI
The #5 Michigan State Spartans are 14-1 (1-1) and marching towards another NCAA run. Before their postseason dreams can commence they have to take care of business during the Big Ten regular season.
They will be tipping off at the Breslin Center on Thursday night against the Fighting Illini 8-7 (0-2) and donâ€™t let the record fool you, this game seems to be a rivalry every year. Izzo says there are a lot of reasons that this rivalry in hoops has lasted so long, but is it just a coincidence?
â€œI donâ€™t think so, because there have been different coaches, different players. You hear all these different stats. Like Alabama, they have beaten Clemson something like 13 out of the last 13. Someone finally said on TV, â€˜Well who cares?â€™ Different coach at Clemson. Different players. Does it really matter? Only if youâ€™re one of those guys that is superstitious, which Iâ€™m not.â€
Izzo added about the Illini that, â€œI think they play hard all the time. They have some tough kids, some Chicago kids that are tough kids and thatâ€™s just the way it is. I donâ€™t expect it any different on Thursday, unfortunately for us. I think itâ€™s going to be a battle. Getting home is going to help us. Weâ€™ve been gone (Longest stretch away from home since the â€˜80s). Itâ€™s been closer to 27 or 28 days. So Iâ€™m anxious to get back home. I think they are.â€
Izzo thinks the Illini record is deceiving, â€œIllinois, they lost some games early when they were playing without Nunn. Theyâ€™ve had some injuries to some guys, but Nunn was their leading scorer and he missed some games they lost. They had a kid with the mumps that now is supposed to play, and he was a starter and they lost him for the first two games of the Big Ten. So you go to one of those things where youâ€™re getting different players, sometimes itâ€™s hard on you. Weâ€™re anxious but yet weâ€™re looking forward to a very good battle.â€
According to MSU SID Matt Larson over the past 65 seasons, Michigan State has posted a 45-20 mark in Big Ten home openers. That doesnâ€™t mean this is a given. Izzo hasnâ€™t had a ton of time coming off of a tough non-conference schedule and the start of Big Ten play (and the passing of his father Carl) but he finally has taken a long look at Illinois.
â€œIâ€™ve only got a chance to look at a little bit of Illinois but, theyâ€™ve had some players hurt, and yet theyâ€™re playing at a pretty good level right now as far as stretches of games. They played really well at Michigan, then all the sudden they did a poor job. They played really well at Ohio State, then poor, then really well down the stretch, so theyâ€™ve had segments, but Nunn and Hill are still back and those guys have been a thorn in our side theyâ€™re the dynamic duo, both are averaging 18 points a game, I thinkÂ they come here kind of desperate with some confidence because they beat us here before.â€ Izzo doesnâ€™t think his team can coast to 15-1, the Illini are better than that. â€œWeâ€™re going to have to play well, they gave Ohio State a helluva game, and weâ€™re going to have to play better than weâ€™ve been playing, if you asked me, and yet I donâ€™t think weâ€™ve been awful, I just think something is missing. The something missing is a pretty important guy, and the other things that are missing are, weâ€™ve gotten away from, we changed up so much we made adjustments at Minnesota to change up our personnel, our small guards, weâ€™ve had to make some adjustments with Denzel out because he could guard so many different people, soÂ Itâ€™s not just on the offensive end itâ€™s on the defensive end, and when you do that you change how you cover ball screens and when you do that you confuse the McQuaids and DDs of the world, and so it hasnâ€™t been easy, I can tell you that.â€
So while the MSU head man admits it hasnâ€™t been easy the glass is certainly half full for the Spartans. â€œBut weâ€™re 14-1 so it hasnâ€™t been that bad either, Iâ€™m gonna look at the glass at least partially half-filled and figure that these four days are a critical four days for us.Â We have practice time, we have boot camp, we have film time, we have time to really take a good look at us, and we didnâ€™t get that after Christmas, just because of the Big Ten schedule the way it is now.â€ While a win or loss to the Illini wonâ€™t make or break the season, Izzo knows the big question is about his star Denzel Valentine. Izzo updated his health after Valentine declared he expects to return this weekend at Penn State. â€œThe update on Zel that everybody wants to know, I guess he updated that heâ€™s playing this weekend, I sure didnâ€™t see that. He shot-around at Iowa, shot a little bit at Minnesota, has not stepped foot in a practice or has ran on the treadmill very limited, has done some biking. Itâ€™s only been two weeks (Since his surgery) so Iâ€™m hoping by this week weâ€™ll get him practicing somewhat, I doubt it will be today but I donâ€™t know. I think heâ€™s going to do someÂ treadmill work, with less weight on him and see how that pans out.â€
So does Izzo disagree with his starâ€™s expected return date of Sunday? â€œIâ€™m on the same page with Denzel, I really am. I guess thatâ€™s the good news. He has the freedom to say, and he should know.Â His injury is one of those injuries where there really is no time table. Itâ€™s nothing etched in stone. Like a broken foot, six to eight weeks is almost minimum. This thing, Suton was back in 10 or 11 days playing. Similar. Theyâ€™re not all the same.â€
One thing we know is that MSU doesnâ€™t need Valentine to beat Illinois (But it would be nice) but they do need him to win a title and there is no need to rush him. Izzo wonâ€™t. He knows this teams goals are much bigger than beating a scrappy, but meager Illinois.