EAST LANSING — Michigan State basketball’s first month of the season spanned nine games and more than 10,000 miles in 31 days.
The Spartans have played just twice since. Friday’s return to action against Buffalo marks their final nonconference game and third action in the past 20 days, as well as a springboard back into Big Ten play after the calendar flips.
“The season’s coming back around,” junior guard AJ Hoggard said after practice Wednesday. “We know that Big Ten season is near. We’re not looking past Buffalo, but we know we got to prepare for it. And we know that once we get going again, starting with Buffalo, that it’s going to be a continuous thing every couple of days. So we’re just trying to get back into season mode and getting ready to play.”
MSU (8-4) has won three straight since suffering back-to-back losses, a Nov. 30 at Notre Dame blowout at Notre Dame in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and a Big Ten-opening defeat Dec. 4 at home to Northwestern. The Spartans recovered to win its only other conference game Dec. 7 at Penn State, then defeated Brown on Dec. 10 to begin a five-game homestand.
After an 11-day layoff, they beat Oakland, 67-54, on Dec. 21. Another nine days off followed going into Friday’s 6 pm tipoff at Breslin Center for MSU against the Bulls (6-6) on Big Ten Network.
Sophomore guard Jaden Akins said there were pros and cons to both playing so many games early and getting time off to work on things over the past month, but he feels that early grind was more difficult than enduring the long waits to play.
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“We’ve had more time to practice,” Akins said. “When we were in the earlier stages of the season, we had little time to practice because we were going from place to place all the time. So we just kind of got to hone in on more things during these practices, and I feel like it’s helped us.”
When last we saw the Spartans, they looked rusty coming out of their first extended break and fell behind early against Oakland. But MSU went on a 23-5 run and hit 10 of 22 3-point shots, then held on in the final 3½ minutes as the Golden Grizzles cut a 23-point lead to 11 at one point down the stretch.
Then another long break, with players getting four days off to go home for Christmas. They returned Monday for some intensive practices in which Tom Izzo focused on correcting some of the mistakes he saw on game film. The Hall of Fame coach had yet to watch all the footage during the opening salvo of 11 games in 33 days in November and early December.
“I think the break has been good for me. I mean, I spent a little time being Santa Claus, a little shopping. Still a lot of film-watching when everybody went to bed,” Izzo said. “I got to get caught up, because as much as it was hard on the players … it was hard on us (coaches), too, to get a real feel and really look at games.”
Before Nebraska visits Breslin on Jan. 3 to kick off the final 18 games of Big Ten play, MSU will face a Buffalo team that has five Division I transfers who help the Bulls average 79.8 points a game and shoot 47% overall.
Buffalo last played Dec. 21, a 129-62 blowout of Division III SUNY Canton. The Bulls own wins over George Mason and St. Bonaventure, which beat the same Notre Dame team that thumped MSU, and has played tough in road losses at Connecticut and West Virginia.
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“We’re approaching like we approach anything else,” Hoggard said. “Buffalo is a very talented, tough team. They’re very good as well. They’ve been a lot of dogfights with a lot of good teams, so we know they’re no slouch.
“We just gotta come out with our hard hats and take the coaches’ game plan and go out there play hard and execute to try to get a win.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan State is attacking final tune-up before Big Ten play