For the first time in months, No. 22 Michigan State (23-8, 12-6) is at full strength. Yes, after starting 18-1, the Spartans were hit hard by the injury bug and lost seven of their last 12 games as a result.
Nevertheless, Tom Izzo is optimistic about the weeks ahead.
“I have the confidence that we’re going to figure it out,” the Spartans head coach said on The Morning Show. “I’m hoping we don’t run out of time as we get all these guys back. But it’s no magic wand. It’s not what Tom Izzo does. It’s what the players do.”
Izzo has been without six of his top seven players at one point or another this year. All five starters, in fact, have missed at least 17 days since mid-January. Some have missed more than a month.
“We got our guys back,” Izzo said. “We’ve had them back for a week and a half, but we missed so many days, so many games, that our rhythm isn’t there. We don’t know who our go-to guy is.
“It’s a big excuse, but it’s a reality.”
Izzo, unbeknownst to many, often calls coaches in other sports – college and pro – to see how they handle adversity. Earlier this season, he phoned Georgia football coach Mark Richt, whose team started 4-1 but was devastated by injuries last fall.
“I think sometimes it’s good to go out of your venue because you lose perspective in it sometimes,” Izzo said. “But yet, you’re still in sports, and I’ve gained so much on that. I’ll look you in the eye or tell you on the phone, I’ve never had six of my top seven injured for any significant time, and I searched the planet in basketball and couldn’t find that either.”
Izzo hopes his team can avoid a different fate than Richt’s. Georgia went 4-4 in its final eight games, including a bowl-game loss to Nebraska, to finish 8-5.
“I do think we have a chance to change that,” Izzo said. “I really do. We are getting better and we’re playing together. The Big Ten Tournament becomes more important.”
The Spartans lost three of four to close the season, but all three losses were close, including a 69-67 defeat at Ohio State on Sunday. For Izzo, it was nice just having Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine all in the starting lineup.
“I probably like this team more than any team I’ve had in a while,” Izzo said, “ because I’ve got good players and good guys – and that’s a great combination.”
The Spartans, seeded third in the Big Ten Tournament, play Friday against the winner of sixth-seeded Iowa versus 11th-seeded Northwestern.
“I think we’ve got a lot of good teams in the league,” Izzo said. “We’ve beaten up on each other, which has hurt us a little bit, (but) hopefully (it will) make us stronger in the tournament.”