Michigan State’s non-conference schedule has been defined by missed opportunities – first against Duke, then Kansas, then Notre Dame – and now, for the first time in years, it will enter Big Ten play with virtually zero quality wins of note. Only Texas Southern and the Citadel remain before the conference opener against Maryland beckons on December 30, the final two contests in an exceedingly soft five-game stretch that’s sure to leave the Spartans’ resume short on substance. And yet, as Wednesday night’s 20-point victory over Eastern Michigan showed, this light period might be the best possible scenario for Tom Izzo’s club. With two players returning from injury, Branden Dawson on the mend and the offense still finding its identity, December offers the crucial break Michigan State needs to round into form.
On the one hand, Wednesday night marked an important step forward for the Spartans. Freshman Javon Bess – an expected contributor who missed the first month-plus with a foot injury – made his debut, logging one point and five rebounds in nine minutes of action. Izzo was high on Bess in the preseason and seems confident that the 6’5’’ wing will add an important, unique dimension it’s been lacking. “We’re missing a tough guy, and he [Bess] brings that to the table,” the coach said afterward. Likewise, sophomore guard Alvin Ellis III contributed 14 minutes in just his second full game back in the rotation. But while both players should provide needed depth in the coming months (especially Bess, whom Izzo thinks is “going to be an Alan Anderson-type”), neither appears to be game-shape enough yet to significantly contribute. Bess looked very raw during his brief second-half stint – understandable, considering the layoff – and Ellis, though aggressive, appeared clumsy and lost on several possessions. Luckily, with the team’s soft slate and eight days off prior to Maryland, Izzo has the luxury of slowly working them back to form: “Now we have time for practice.”