Michigan State basketball’s biggest factor down the stretch just might be … practice

EAST LANSING — Call it the residual effects of a win. Or the byproduct of taking a day off and having a little more prep time than usual.

That Tom Izzo, Michigan State basketball‘s return to practice felt a little different than it has in recent weeks.

“We had yesterday off, and it was a good practice today,” Izzo said Thursday. “I think there’s a little freshness to them, which I think is really important right now.”

And for once, the Spartans (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) will be the ones coming into a game with a little more rest than their opponent when they travel to Ohio State on Sunday.

MSU will have five days between games after its 63-58 home win over Maryland on Tuesday night. It is the fifth time the Spartans will have four or more days between Big Ten games and the third time in five games with that big a gap; nine times they have played with just three days between games.

Michigan State's head coach Tom Izzo calls out to players during the first half in the game against Maryland on Tuesday, Feb.  7, 2023, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Michigan State’s head coach Tom Izzo calls out to players during the first half in the game against Maryland on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

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“We’re getting some more practice time for our game on Sunday, just getting to go over some of the little stuff and getting the good prep for them,” sophomore guard Jaden Akins said after practice Thursday. “So I feel like it’s helping.”

In five of those 13 conference games, the opponent had more rest than Izzo’s team. MSU is 5-1 in those contests, the lone defeat coming at home to Northwestern on three days’ rest and the Wildcats having played six days prior.

Ohio State hosted Northwestern on Thursday night before welcoming the Spartans to Columbus, Ohio. That means the Buckeyes will be off for two days between games to MSU’s four – just the third time this season the Spartans have been off longer than their opponent. They are 1-1 in the previous two, a win over Michigan with an extra day off and a loss to Rutgers in New York with six days off to the Scarlet Knights’ three.

“I think coming off a win always helps,” Izzo said. “But I really think it’s the days (off), I really do. Our schedule has changed a little bit here in the last week, so we got a little more (practice) time. … When I say time, it’s just normal time — it’s just not the normal that it’s been (historically).”

Usually this time of year is when Izzo whittles playing time for his bench and carves out a more definitive rotation, but not this year. Despite having only 10 scholarship players, Izzo has limited playing time from his bench throughout conference action. Minutes for sophomore Pierre Brooks II (12.5) and freshmen Jaxon Kohler (11.2), Tre Holloman (8.2) and Carson Cooper (6.3) have fluctuated depending on the matchup and the health of Malik Hall’s left foot.

Izzo is using four players for extensive minutes in Big Ten play — forwards Joey Hauser (33.9), Tyson Walker (32.0), AJ Hoggard (31.2) and Akins (28.5). Starting center Mady Sissoko plays 21.2 minutes a night, while Hall has averaged 22.5 minutes despite sitting out five league games.

“You feel a lot different. You can see everybody’s energy today when you win,” Sissoko said after Tuesday’s practice. “Coming off the win, it was a big thing for us today in practice. The big thing for our next step is that we just have to keep moving forward like this.”

Michigan State's Mady Sissoko, right, collides with Maryland's Julian Reese during the first half on Tuesday, Feb.  7, 2023, in East Lansing.

Michigan State’s Mady Sissoko, right, collides with Maryland’s Julian Reese during the first half on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in East Lansing.

Izzo has pointed to that frantic January pace of game-workout-travel-game that consumed most of the month as keeping his players from building cohesion and him and his staff from etching roles more definitively without practice time. This may be the last chance he’ll have to do that. Of the Spartans’ remaining six games after Sunday, four have three days between them and two have four.

And that stretch run will be critical towards trying to secure one of the four double-byes to the Big Ten tournament, one of which already appears fait accompli with No. 1 Purdue running away with the regular-season title. Ten other teams, including the Spartans, each have between eight and five league wins and still have a shot at the other three.

Izzo and his players hope Tuesday’s win over the Terps will springboard them toward finishing among the top four.

“Nothing changes for us,” Akins said. “It feels good to win, but we gotta play like it’s a must-win game every time out — like we’re desperate, like we’re lost. That’s just the mentality going into every game.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.

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Next up: Buckeyes

matchups: Michigan State (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) at Ohio State (11-12, 3-9).

Tipoff: 1 pm Sunday; Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio.

TV/Radio: CBS; WJR-AM (760).

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball’s biggest factor now just may be practice

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