No. 13 Michigan State gets boost with Izzo back for opener

NCAA Men's Basketball

Tom Izzo’s 26th season as Michigan State head coach begins Wednesday, and the Spartans learned 48 hours before tipoff that they won’t have to go it without him.

Izzo, who had been away from the team since Nov. 9 after he was diagnosed with COVID-19, returned to practice on Monday.

Michigan State said he is cleared to resume his usual role as the Spartans play their season opener at East Lansing’s Breslin Center against Eastern Michigan on Wednesday.

It’s been an odd experience for the Spartans, though Izzo was in frequent contact via video. With the pandemic affecting so many programs, they know this season could be a wild ride.

“We’re going to have to get used to stuff like this,” forward Thomas Kithier said. “It’s almost kind of preparing us in a way, because you know anybody could go down at any point of the season. You could have an assistant coach go down, a player go down, our trainer go down. So you’re always going to be ready for stuff like this and just expect the unexpected.”

What hasn’t changed is that the Spartans harbor championship aspirations. They’re ranked No. 13 in a bloated Big Ten and loaded with experience, despite losing Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston, who were selected in the second round of Wednesday’s NBA draft.

The Spartans return their third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-highest scorers from a 22-9 team. That group is led by junior swingman Aaron Henry (10.0 points, 4.6 rebounds per game), who projects as the top offensive threat. Henry declared for the draft but ultimately chose to return to MSU.

“I just wanted to maximize my opportunity here at State,” Henry said. “I realize I had a solid, maybe decent, two years, but I have a lot more to give and a lot more to get out of myself for this team and for this university.”

Sophomore Rocket Watts takes over point guard duties for Winston. Joshua Langford, who hasn’t played since December 2018 due to a serious foot injury, provides perimeter shooting and defense when he’s healthy.

Izzo also has high hopes for another wing, Gabe Brown (6.8 points, 3.6 rebounds).

“We could do a lot of different things with Gabe,” Izzo said. “Gabe could start, he could be the sixth man, maybe the best we’ve had since (longtime NBA player) Morris (Peterson).”

The frontcourt is led by power forward Joey Hauser, who sat out last season after transferring from Marquette. He averaged 9.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists two seasons ago for the Golden Eagles.

Eastern Michigan is coming off a 16-16 season, including a 6-12 record in the Mid-American Conference. The Eagles were picked to finish eighth by the conference’s coaches. The MAC won’t be split into divisions this season.

They have seven returning letter winners, including last season’s top scorer, senior forward Ty Groce (11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds).

“I think experience is the best teacher,” coach Rob Murphy said. “We have a good core group that went through the battles of the MAC last year. They understand all the nuances and philosophies of our program.”

EMU shot just 28 percent on 3-point attempts last season but hung around in most games, thanks to a defense that limited opponents to 64.1 points on 41.1 percent shooting. The Eagles also forced an average of 16.8 turnovers.

“We want to be the top defensive team in the MAC, top 25 in the country,” Murphy said. “Our defense is the staple of our program. That’s where our foundation will be built.”

–Field Level Media

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