No. 2 Michigan State in fine-tuning mode
An in-state rival gave them a big scare. Now the second-ranked Michigan State Spartans want to iron out some issues before their Big Ten conference schedule begins in earnest.
The Spartans face four unheralded nonconference opponents the remainder of the month, beginning with Houston Baptist on Monday. Michigan State defeated Oakland 86-73 at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena on Saturday, requiring a 17-5 late run to put away the Golden Grizzlies.
“We just need time to get better and yet statistically, it doesn’t say that,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “I just didn’t think we were as smooth as we needed to be. I do think we have a lot higher ceiling. That’s the good news.”
The Spartans (10-1) have won nine straight and the streak is likely to continue. The next four opponents — Houston Baptist, Long Beach State, Cleveland State and Savannah State — have a combined 15-30 record.
Izzo wants to clean some things up before Big Ten play resumes after New Year’s Day, particularly 3-point defense. Opponents are averaging eight made 3-pointers per game with a 36.4 percent success rate. Yet the Spartans are holding them to a 33.3 overall shooting percentage.
Oakland made 10 shots from long range with a 37.0 percent success rate.
“We’ve not defended the 3 well and it’s got to be my fault for not putting a big enough emphasis on it,” Izzo said. “Not getting a hand up, getting a hand up late … it will be fun to try to fix it over the next four days.”
One thing that Izzo did like was how feisty his club became in the late going, especially after star forward Miles Bridges took exception to a hard foul. Point guard Cassius Winston exchanged words with some of Oakland’s players, then proceeded to score the team’s last 14 points.
“We’ll have to learn, it’s going to get chippy at Purdue, it’s going to get chippy at Minnesota,” Izzo said. “Last year, we were playing to play. This year, we’re playing for something. If you play for something, it’s going to get a little chippy. I like the way we responded.”
The Huskies (4-7) are only shooting 31.7 percent from long range. Their best 3-point shooters are freshman forward David Caraher (15.2 points, 6.7 rebounds) and sophomore guard Jalon Gates (10.2 points). Caraher has made 40.4 percent of his long-range attempts, while Gates has hit 36.9 percent.
“We know that it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our program but our guys are excited about playing,” Huskies coach Ron Cottrell said. “Any time you can play against a team ranked that high you know it will be a great experience for your guys to carry forward to the rest of the season.”
Cottrell knows his team will have its hands full at both ends.
“You always know you’re going to be playing against a team that’s really hard-nosed and tough defensively,” he said. “You’re going to have to be at your best to be able to compete against them because they’re going to bring it every night defensively. He’s got a team that’s really talented, that can get up the floor and really push the tempo of the game and we’re going to have to do a good job of trying to guard all five positions.”