One game down. Barely.
Tom Izzo liked what he saw from No. 12 Michigan State in its season-opening win over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night. He also saw plenty of flaws that need fine-tuning and major fixing fast, particularly 18 turnovers.
But Izzo also remained realistic about the performance against an Eagles team that was missing six players and an assistant coach due to COVID-19 contact tracing. EMU used just seven players in the Spartans’ 83-67 victory.
“There were a lot more positives than negatives,” Izzo said on a video call Friday afternoon after practice.
MSU hosts Notre Dame at 8 p.m. Saturday at Breslin Center. Here is what to watch in just the third meeting since 1979 between the historic rivals.
Rocket Watts has a bone bruise near his kneecap and sat out practice five days before Wednesday’s opener, Izzo said. The sophomore guard came off the bench against EMU and had just two points on 1 of 6 shooting and finished with three assists, two rebounds and one turnover in 23 minutes.
“Rocket's got that bum knee, he was out a week. It's really nothing serious, meaning it's not a ligament or tendon, it's more of a bruised kneecap,” Izzo said. “But it's kept him out of five days of practice, and then he's back and forth lately. We need to get him going a little bit.”
MSU started Foster Loyer at point guard, and the junior captain finished with career highs of 20 points in 25 minutes Wednesday.
Passing and defense
With Loyer running the offense, the Spartans finished with 27 assists on 30 made baskets against the Eagles’ 2-3 zone defense, a high rate even more impressive when considering two of the team’s best passers from last season — Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman — are now in the NBA.
“I think it's phenomenal, to be honest,” Izzo said. “If you have 27 assists on 30 baskets, that's 90%. That is an incredible stat.”
Junior Aaron Henry and sophomore Malik Hall quietly put together strong performances.
Henry, starting on the wing, scored just six points on 2 of 3 shooting but had a game-best seven assists and four rebounds. Hall came off the bench and played multiple positions, finishing with six points, five assists and four rebounds.
Izzo also got strong interior passing from Marcus Bingham Jr., who came off the bench behind starter Thomas Kithier and finished with six points, three assists, two rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes. The junior big man is up to 226 pounds, Izzo said, which has helped his all-around game.
“He's got, I think, better post moves. He's starting to post up, he has a little bit of added strength, he's comfortable down there,” Izzo said. “The passing skills? We feel like as a staff, he's passing the ball much better, too, and that would make him a more complete player.”
The Spartans held EMU to just 19% shooting from 3-point range and 40.6% overall. Bingham had two of MSU’s five blocks, along with freshman Mady Sissoko’s two. Henry had both of the Spartans’ steals.
As he figures out a rotation and gets Watts and Joshua Langford healthy, Izzo believes this group could join some of his elite teams defensively as it plays more together.
“I think this could be one of our best defensive teams,” Izzo said. “If I ever have a lineup of Rocket, Aaron and Josh, that's about as good as three defenders on the perimeters I've had since maybe the Shannon Brown days. It is a very, very defensive team. ... We could be a great defensive team, I don't think there is a ceiling. But we've got some limitations, too. And we're gonna have to make some adjustments and figure out how much we're switching, how much we're doing different things according to the different lineups we have in there.”
Saturday’s game is the opener for Notre Dame. Junior guard Prentiss Hubb returns for coach Mike Brey after averaging 12.1 points and 5.1 assists as the Irish went 20-12 and 10-10 in the ACC last season. He'll be joined by Dane Goodwin (10.8 ppg) and Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan (8.7) in the backcourt. Forward Juwan Durham is a shot-blocking 6-foot-11 senior who added 7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds last season. Fellow forward Nate Laszewski averaged 7.4 and 4.6 boards last season.
This will be the first time MSU and Notre Dame have played an independently scheduled nonconference game since 1975. The two programs have played 97 times, but just twice since the 1979 NCAA tournament Elite Eight. Both of the recent meetings were part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge after the Irish joined the ACC in basketball and most other sports in 2013.
It also will be the first time since Dec. 1, 2001 that MSU hosted men’s basketball and football games on the same day. The Spartans beat Missouri in football that afternoon, a game postponed the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks, and Izzo’s team defeated Lamar that evening. Mel Tucker’s football team hosts Northwestern at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
MSU 78, Notre Dame 69: Even though the Spartans do not have much film to go on with changes for the Irish, their one game advantage helps them. Expect Henry, an Indiana native, to elevate his offensive performance while Joey Hauser looks much more comfortable and confident in his second game for MSU.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball vs. Notre Dame: Scouting report, prediction