It’s not the NCAA Tournament, or even the Big Ten tournament, but you can bet No. 3 Michigan State is headed to the Maui Invitational with one primary goal — win a championship.
The Spartans are looking forward to mixing in some fun in Hawaii — and to “feel the sand between my toes,” as sophomore Aaron Henry put it — but they also have a history of focusing and winning tournaments. They won the PK80 two years ago and the Las Vegas Invitational last year.
They don’t intend on changing things now.
“It kind of gives guys an idea of what it takes to win,” said junior big man Xavier Tillman, averaging 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
“I remember when we played in the PK80, as soon as the game was over, I think we relaxed for maybe like an hour or two and then we’re right into film work. Right away, we’re studying the next team that we’re going to play or watching the next game.
“So we’re definitely locked in at each and every game. It’s really going to give (the young players) a chance to see what it takes to really get a championship.”
The Spartans (3-1) will tip things off Monday in Hawaii against Virginia Tech (5-0), with either Georgia or Dayton next. If things work out, Michigan State could meet No. 4 Kansas in the championship game on Wednesday.
“It’s still one of the great tournaments of college basketball,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “With the exposure and in the way everybody looks at it. It seems like a long time ago, 25 years ago that I started in this tournament, but it’s another great field and it’ll be a difficult task.
“I think it’ll be a grind. My big worry is the trip is tough physically, but everybody goes through the same thing physically. That trip is tough mentally, because you have to learn how to prepare for one team then prepare for another team then prepare for another team. Win, lose or draw, you’re gonna play three of them back-to-back-to-back.”
It’s hardly an easy opener for Michigan State, which is led by point guard Cassius Winston, averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 assists per game.
Virginia Tech, under first-year coach Mike Young, is off to a quick start to the season, opening with an ACC win over Clemson and then draining 21 3-pointers in its last game against Delaware State.
Redshirt freshman wing Landers Nolley II is averaging a team-best 20.2 points per game while shooting 45.9 percent from beyond the arc (17 of 37).
The Hokies haven’t played the schedule Michigan State has — the Spartans have played two ranked teams in the first four games, including one on the road — but they’re confident as they head to Maui.
“We go out there with a good basketball team,” Young said.
“We’re going to improve. It’ll be a far different scout, a far different prep than what we’re accustomed to. They’re unlike anything that we’ve played to this point, but the time has come. The time has come to play somebody really, really good.
“It will test everything we have done with them through this point in the season, and I look forward to seeing them compete again.”
–Field Level Media