Michigan State coach Tom Izzo sees some signs of progress from his team. Considering the second-ranked Spartans have won 11 straight by double digits, that’s a terrorizing proposition for their remaining opponents.
The Spartans have not played since Dec. 21, when they pummeled Long Beach State 102-60. They have scored over 100 points in their last two games and lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense.
They’ll come back from the break refreshed and ready for the Big Ten season. But first, they finish up their nonconference schedule with games against Cleveland State on Friday and Savannah State on Sunday.
Their top two offensive threats, sophomore forwards Miles Bridges and Nick Ward, have settled into a groove. Bridges earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors by averaging 25.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists over the last two games. Ward has averaged 17.0 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks during the past four games.
“I’m seeing improvement,” Izzo said. “Miles has definitely been a lot better than he was two weeks ago. Nick is a lot, lot better than he was two weeks ago.”
All of Michigan State’s starters are averaging double figures. The team as a whole is shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 39.9 percent from long range. The Spartans (12-1) are limited opponents to 33.4 percent shooting, though they’ve allowed teams to shoot threes (34.9 percent) better than twos.
“We said a couple weeks ago that practice would get us more efficient offensively and I think we’re a lot more efficient in the last five games now,” Izzo said. “We’ve been going against maybe not the same kind of competition, but wide-open shots are wide-open shots and now we’re making them. Screening better, we’re coming off them better, moving the ball a little better.”
It’s not a good time for Cleveland State (3-9) to face a national championship contender. The Vikings have dropped three straight, including an 81-62 defeat to No. 21 Cincinnati and a 77-62 loss to Toledo.
“To play two teams that are Final-Four caliber teams within a week or so, that’s a big challenge that exhilarates everybody,” Vikings coach Dennis Felton said.
The Vikings have been outrebounded by an average of 7.6 per game, in part due to injuries to forwards Derek Sloan and Evan Clayborne. It’s uncertain whether either will return for Friday’s game.
“We’ve made a lot of strides in a lot of areas but not that one,” Felton said of the rebounding issues. “It’s really driving me crazy because typically that’s a hallmark of all my teams. Our teams have always been able to count on being fiercely tough and physical. We are far from that right now and that’s our greatest hurdle as a team.”
Cleveland State is averaging 67.6 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting but has struggled from long range (31.7 percent). Senior guard Kenny Carpenter (13.7 points per game) is its leading scorer.
“We’re not an explosive offensive team,” Felton said. “We’re going to experience droughts, without a doubt.”
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