After winning three straight, Michigan State men’s basketball is set to take on Loyola Chicago in the first game of the Battle 4 Atlantis at Paradise Island, Bahamas.
The Battle 4 Atlantis, an early-season staple since it’s inception in 2011, boasts another loaded field this year: reigning national champion Baylor, Arizona State, Syracuse, Auburn, VCU, Loyola Chicago and Michigan State. Making his first appearance in Atlantis, Head Coach Tom Izzo lauded the strength of his competitors and said he’s excited for this opportunity with his team.
“Anytime you can travel together and spend time together and do some things together…it’s always a positive,” he said.
Now, after weathering what Izzo called a “brutal” start to the season, Michigan State is now in for their most demanding test so far. Izzo said the challenge of a condensed schedule with little turnaround time provides nearly invaluable preparation for further conference play and the NCAA Tournament.
“Three games in three days is very difficult on a coaching staff but it’s even more difficult for the players,” Izzo said on Tuesday. “What we can pick up for this…you won’t be able to measure it. It’s really going to help you later on, win, lose or draw.”
Michigan State tips off on Wednesday against Loyola Chicago (4-0), one of the established top mid-major programs in the country. There’s a noteworthy connection at hand here, too: the Ramblers are coached by first-year Head Coach Drew Valentine, a Lansing native and former Michigan State graduate manager who worked under Izzo from 2013 to 2015.
Izzo said he doesn’t like to play former assistants but is proud of Valentine for reaching this stage of his career as the youngest head coach in Division I college basketball. Regardless, he indicated that their relationship won’t detract from the competition at hand.
“I just pull for these guys to win every game except the one I’m playing in,” he said.
As for Valentine’s squad, Izzo called them the “oldest team in captivity” and cited experience as their greatest asset. Loyola returns four starters from a 2020-21 campaign that saw them post a 26-5 record and advance to the Sweet Sixteen, with graduate student guard Lucas Williamson (10.8 points per game) and graduate student forward Aher Uguak (13.5 points per game) leading the way in their final seasons in Rogers Park.
For as much as they return, Loyola added one crucial piece that’s played a big role thus far. Princeton transfer and senior forward Ryan Schweiger joined the Ramblers this offseason and leads the team in scoring (14.8 points per game) while only averaging 18 minutes per game.
Valentine has also instituted some changes among the Ramblers, namely a higher emphasis on shooting from the arc. Loyola has the fourth best three point shooting percentage (45.2%) in all of college basketball with Schweiger (50%) and Williamson (38.1%) leading the way (minimum ten attempts on the season).
For the most part, Michigan State’s defense has been strong this season but if they have one weakness, it’s giving up a disproportionate amount of threes. Izzo said it’s crucial they defend the shot better than they did in their most recent outing against Eastern Michigan to have success against a Ramblers team that packs a balanced punch.
On the rest of the field
Baylor (4-0) lost two key contributors in Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler to the NBA Draft but returned more than enough talent to still be true contenders in a strong Big 12. Senior guard Matthew Mayer and junior guard Adam Flagler are back as the stalwarts of a team that won it all with ferocious defense and a lightning rod offense that thrived on the perimeter but sophomore guard L.J. Cryer (18.5 points per game) and freshman guard Kendall Brown have more than come into their own in the early going. The Bears aren’t just leaning on a championship pedigree to be considered consummate favorites in the Battle 4 Atlantis; they’ve got the talent, coach and scheme to make a serious run at it.
Arizona State (2-2) is one of the more puzzling teams in this year’s field. Senior forward Kimani Lawrence (16 points per game, 10 rebounds per game) is thriving once again but narrow losses to San Diego State and UC Riverside are cause for some valid concerns in Tempe. Expect the Sun Devils to lean on their seasoned frontcourt of Lawrence and junior forward Jalen Graham this week as they continue to piece together a cohesive backcourt with only Ohio State transfer and redshirt junior guard Luther Muhammed firmly in the mix.
UConn (4-0) is one of the trendier picks to finish second to Villanova in a red-hot Big East and this tournament will provide them with their first taste of high major competition. However unproven they might be, it’s a near certainty that sophomore forward Adama Sanogo (15.8 points per game) will draw much of the opposition’s attention with his dangerous combination of size and strength after taking a big step forward this offseason. The Huskies also boast four other double digit scorers in graduate student guard R.J. Cole, senior guard Tyrese Martin, graduate student forward Tyler Polley and junior guard Jalen Gaffney all while playing tenacious defense and rebounding extremely well; if they can rectify their recent problems with slow starts, UConn could be in it for the long haul on Paradise Island.
After last year’s disappointing season, Auburn (3-0) wisely bolstered their frontcourt with freshman forward Jabari Smith and North Carolina transfer and sophomore center Walker Kessler. Kessler’s offensive output hasn’t been outstanding so far but Smith (13.3 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game) has shined as a key contributor early in his college career and is well on his way to earning further NBA buzz. Sophomore guards K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. also chip in a combined 26.3 points per game as just the tip of the iceberg on a Tigers team that will look to lean on their considerable depth this week.
Syracuse (2-1) recently suffered one of the worst losses of any team this season with a shocking 100-85 loss to Colgate, a team they haven’t lost to since 1962. Anomaly? The Orange will find out this week as they ride some veteran scoring talent with headlining senior guard Buddy Boeheim (20 points per game), junior guard Joseph Girard III, graduate student forward Jimmy Boeheim and senior forward Cole Swider. And while they’ve been markedly better on offense than defense to start the year, nobody knows not to count out their vaunted 2-3 zone better than Izzo.
“Anytime Syracuse is here with (Head Coach Jim Boeheim) with that zone, there’s going to be problems there,” Izzo said.
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On the surface, VCU (2-2) might be the clear-cut weakest team of the bunch after posting some putrid results, particularly a 48-37 win over Vanderbilt and 58-44 loss to Wagner. There’s not as much to like here when compared to the other teams in Atlantis but this defense is no joke and senior forward Vince Williams Jr. (12.3 points per game) looks to be more than up for the challenge provided on Paradise Island.
Michigan State tips off against Loyola Chicago at 12 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
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