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Michigan State looks to keep focus with Villanova matchup looming

EAST LANSING – Tom Izzo started watching film of Villanova on his team’s trip back from Indianapolis late Tuesday night. But he admits he may not have processed it as well as normal.

“I don’t see much, I’m a little tired,” Izzo said on Wednesday afternoon following his team’s practice.

Such is life when you play two top-five teams three time zones apart with three days off in between then turn around to play another recently ranked team at home three days later.

Michigan State is in the throats of its difficult and compacted November schedule, with back-to-back games against Gonzaga and Kentucky in the rear-view and a Friday home matchup against Villanova (8 pm, FS1) fast upon it.

But the good news is that if Izzo and his staff are a little worn down, Michigan State’s players don’t seem to be.

The Spartans took no days off following their upset win over No. 4 Kentucky on Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, Izzo led his players through an hour-and-15 minute practice session and was pleased to see no signs of fatigue or letdown after a big win.

“They went really good and hard and so that was encouraging,” Izzo said.

That practice helped alleviate concerns about a potential letdown after an emotional win over the Wildcats. Izzo said that’s important for this group not only because of the schedule it’s in the middle of but because of what this team is: one that’s not long on talent and that relies on its preparation.

“We have zero margin for error, I mean zero,” Izzo said. “We know it, you know it. Everybody will be trying to make this team something they’re not right now…I know where we are. We’re about as good as how hard we play and how hard we prepare. That’s how good we are. We aren’t one of the more talented teams that I’ve had.”

Friday will mark one of only two November home games for Michigan State. While Villanova hasn’t looked as strong as anticipated early in the season, Izzo knows it’s more than capable of Michigan State’s good feeling from Tuesday night.

The Wildcats come into Friday’s game at 1-2 overall. After beating La Salle to open the season, Villanova lost at Temple last Friday, then needed a second-half comeback on Monday to beat Delaware State, rated as one of the worst teams in Division 1.

Villanova is playing without two would-be starters: first-team All-Big East guard Justin Moore is out after tearing his Achilles in last year’s NCAA Tournament and five-star freshman Cam Whitmore has been out after having surgery on his thumb (Izzo said he thinks it’s possible Whitmore makes his debut on Friday; Villanova hasn’t given any recent indications of when he might return).

Those absences, plus the transition from Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright to new coach Kyle Neptune, has made for a rocky start for one of college basketball’s most consistent programs.

Yet Izzo pointed out the team’s experience, its versatility with several players able to play multiple positions, and its ability to back opponents down off of the dribble as all reasons the team is dangerous. Junior forward Eric Dixon leads the Wildcats with 18.3 points per game and has shot better than 50 percent from the field. Guard Caleb Daniels is the team’s second-leading scorer (16.7 points), leading rebounder and leading 3-point shooter.

“He’s got some veterans on that team, but he’s got some men on that team,” Izzo said of Neptune. “This will be, I think, the strongest, toughest team we’ve played, or will play all season long.”

Michigan State meanwhile, will look to cut down on its 18 turnovers against Kentucky and look to get more younger players like Jaden Akins and Pierre Brooks involved in its offense, Izzo said.

But if Michigan State can keep playing like it did against Gonzaga and Kentucky and not rest on its laurels, it’s in position on navigate this November schedule just fine.

“Those of you that think it’s going to get easier, it’s going to get harder from our standpoint,” Izzo said. “I’ve been there when teams got fat and sassy. That ain’t happening to my team this year.”

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