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Michigan State feeling good after Tom Izzo’s ‘most memorable week in my whole career’

EAST LANSING – Leg one of Michigan State’s November odyssey is complete and the Spartans are feeling good.

Michigan State on Friday finished an eight-day stretch that included three games against preseason ranked teams, two road trips, including one trip to the West Coast, and three games that came down to the wire.

It nearly finished that stretch with an epic collapse. But after pulling out a win against Villanova to go to 3-1 on the year, even Tom Izzo had little to complain about.

He went as far as to call the three-game stretch against No. 2 Gonzaga, No. 4 Kentucky and Villanova “the most memorable week in my whole career.”

“I told my team, not Magic Johnson, not Mateen Cleaves, not Steve Smith, not Denzel Valentine, nobody’s been through three games like that,” Izzo said. “West Coast, here. Three different kinds of teams of that caliber. I’m really proud.”

The last eight days changed the outlook for a team that entered the season with plenty of question marks after losing the top three scorers from a 23-13 squad last year.

The stretch started last Friday aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, when Michigan State defied odds by leading the Bulldogs by as many as 12 and for most of the second half. The Spartans were one final possession shot away from pulling off a massive upset.

Four days later, they proved the Gonzaga showing was no fluke when they repeatedly executed down the stretch to beat No. 4 Kentucky in double-overtime in Indianapolis.

Coming into Friday, Izzo was worried about his team coming out flat with a quick turnaround following a big win.

“I love my team, I said that in the summer, I said that in the fall, but I don’t like when everybody else loves them because they tell them how good they are,” Izzo said. “What does my buddy Saban call it? Rat poison? I guess it is. I was concerned about that.”

Those fears proved unfounded, as Michigan State relied on its shooting early to jump out to a lead that stretched to as many as 16 points. The Spartans’ defense, the backbone of its stronger-than-expected start, held Villanova to below 40 percent shooting for most of the game. The Wildcats nearly came back from 16 points down to win but missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds.

That miss means Michigan State will make its debut in the Associated Press poll on Monday after spending the last eight days defying expectations.

“It’s everything that we thought it would be,” Spartans point guard AJ Hoggard said of the last eight days. “This is what we signed up for, this is what we wanted. I play with a lot of competitors, I play with a lot of these guys that want to be in these situations and be in this schedule situation. It’s everything we asked for, and we’ve just got to come every night and show up.”

The eight days have crystallized what this team will look like. Tyson Walker, who had a team-high 22 points on Friday, has emerged as the team’s late-game shotmaker. Joey Hauser is at last fulfilling his potential as a shooter; he had seven 3-pointers in the Spartans’ last two games. Mady Sissoko was quiet on Friday but was the team’s breakout player of the first two games of the season, when he averaged 15 points and 8.5 rebounds against Gonzaga and Kentucky.

Izzo has described the bunch as not overly talented but veteran, smart and tough.

“It is a tougher team, it is a together team,” he said.

Michigan State now gets its longest break of November, five days, before traveling to Portland to play three games in four days at the Phil Knight Invitational. The first of those games is on Thanksgiving against No. 18 Alabama.

That will start a new memorable stretch: four games in seven days, as many as three against ranked teams and all away from home. Izzo expects his team to continue to grow.

“I still think this team has a long way to go, but I think this team is going to get better, too,” Izzo said. “There’s so many things we can get better at. That’s exciting, that’s really exciting.”

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