Michigan State basketball: Fewer players brings more minutes ... and zone defense?

EAST LANSING — Tom Izzo admits things could look different this season with Michigan State basketball’s smaller roster.

His players know it, too. And they are starting to embrace what the limited numbers might mean.

“I also feel like on the flip side, it'll help with rhythm a little bit,” senior forward Malik Hall said after practice Tuesday. “There's less people to throw in there. so it allows people to play through their mistakes a little bit more. It allows people to know when you go out there, you're gonna be out there for a little bit longer. You know that you're gonna get the feel and you're gonna kind of be able to sink into the game.

“I feel like there's two sides to it, and I felt like it could be a good thing for us this year.”

Michigan State huddles up during the first day of practice on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Michigan State huddles up during the first day of practice on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

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Hall returned to practice this week after missing approximately the first nine days with a toe injury. That means nine of the Spartans’ 10 scholarship players are working out with four walk-ons and getting to know what life is like with limited bodies. Izzo opted to bank three scholarships this season; he promises a Villanova-style approach with a smaller playing group, as opposed to 11 or 12 in the rotation in previous seasons.

Sophomore guard Jaden Akins remains sidelined after surgery Sept. 10 for a stress reaction in his left foot and isn’t expected back until just before Nov. 7's season opener against Northern Arizona. Izzo joked that with Akins and Hall both out for the early practices, MSU looked “a bit more Northern Michigan-ish,” pointing to his Division II alma mater. The lack of scholarship players has limited what the Spartans can do in quality scout team looks, Izzo said, but he believes having more first-team vs. second-team work could sharpen each group.

“We've been semi-blessed here, because we've always had a lot of depth,” Izzo said Tuesday. “That's been something people complain about, too, that we play too many people. ... We're not going to play as many people. But it does create a little bit of a problem for practice.”

It didn’t take Izzo long, either, to point to another potential change, one he has teased fans and media with for years: the potential of more zone defense.

Don’t laugh. That could help offset the physical toll of playing man-to-man for 40 minutes a game, particularly to help keep his inexperienced centers — junior Mady Sissoko and freshmen Jaxon Kohler and Carson Cooper — out of foul trouble.

Michigan State's Tyson Walker works on a drill during the first day of practice on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Tyson Walker works on a drill during the first day of practice on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

The Spartans even worked on it some in practice Tuesday, though that was mostly to get their offense work against a zone.

Or was it?

“We are gonna play zone. Yeah, I think we are. I think we are,” Izzo insisted. “We've worked out a little bit in the summer.”

Then someone pointed out that no one believes Izzo when he says the zone is coming, which drew a hearty chuckle.

“I don't blame them,” he guffawed. “The good thing is, just think what a surprise it'll be. Not to the fans, to the other teams. Nobody's gonna prepare (for it). So even though I'm announcing, it doesn't matter, right? I've announced it before and haven't done it, so it really doesn't matter. But I think you'll see some zone, and it'll be interesting.”

For what it’s worth, Hall confirmed what Izzo said, that MSU started working on the zone at times this summer, “making sure people just understood where to be at.”

“I wouldn't say we've worked on it a ton,” Hall hinted, “but it's definitely something that we've gone over and something that we've tried to work on.”

As for his point guard, junior A.J. Hoggard, he says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Spartans used some zone for a rest at times, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t.” Still, he firmly believes MSU will remain a man-to-man defense.

“But you can't go wrong with either,” he said. “We're gonna play Michigan State defense regardless of how it goes.”

'Midnight' madness

MSU will hold its previously annual Michigan State Madness tipoff event for fans at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Breslin Center. Admission is free.

It will be the first time for the event since 2019. The pandemic forced the Spartans to shelve the opportunity to meet and sign autographs for fans the past two years.

“I think for our fans and our community, I really hope everybody gets out,” Izzo said. “Because I think that's one of the things you gotta do. I think football has done a good job getting students back in the stands and the fans back in the stands. We gotta do the same thing.”

That also means the return of Izzo’s grand entrance and, in many years, a themed costume. He has dressed as Gene Simmons from Kiss and Tom Cruise from "Top Gun"; he has been shot out of a cannon and rappelled from the rafters (or at least a body double has); he has been "Iron Man," "The Hulk," a vampire, a hippy, a Spartan warrior, and so on.

So what’s coming Friday night?

“Ride an elephant in, jump out of a building, whatever they want me to do,” he joked. “But hopefully, it'll be a little more about the guys, what they do. I'm getting a little older now and long in the tooth.”

UT head coach Rick Barnes, left, and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo visit before the start of their game at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday December 21, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
UT head coach Rick Barnes, left, and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo visit before the start of their game at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday December 21, 2013. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Scrimmage coming

Izzo also plans to take the Spartans to Tennessee to face Rick Barnes’ Volunteers for a closed scrimmage Oct. 23. In past years, the Spartans have faced Gonzaga at neutral sites in a similar joint workout, but MSU faces the Bulldogs on Nov. 11 in the Armed Forces Classic aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego.

Facing Tennessee, a potential top-10 preseason team, “will be really good for us, one way or another,” Izzo said.

“The closed (scrimmage) is good, because you can play at a top-notch team,” he said. “Especially when you got an early schedule like we got.”

MSU hosts Division II Grand Valley State as its public exhibition at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 before welcoming Northern Arizona to tip off the season for real.

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

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball: Fewer players means more minutes to share