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State expands rotation as Spartans prep for Wisconsin

CHICAGO — Cassius Winston came off the court after his third turnover, immediately getting a faceful of Tom Izzo. “Where are you?” Enter Foster Loyer. Nick Ward heard an earful after a flagrant foul. “I don't care what they do to you,” Izzo barked, “you don't bring your hands up!” Enter Thomas Kithier. It’s the give-and-take time of year for Michigan State basketball — Izzo dishes it out, his players absorb it. Their ability to respond, positively or negatively, often dictates which direction the Spartans go in March. “I’m gonna take the win and move on, but hopefully we can grow from this,” Izzo said. “We weren’t doing what we needed to be if we want to advance.” That’s the postseason nature of a 600-win, Hall of Fame coach with seven Final Fours, a national title and nine regular-season Big Ten titles. And with a shot at a sixth Big Ten tournament title, it’s getting amplified. “You better be tough mentally,” Izzo said, “and then we’ll make you tough physically. … Mental toughness right now is lacking.” In Friday’s 77-70 Big Ten quarterfinal win over Ohio State , No. 6 MSU discovered some depth, both out of necessity and performance, in the throes of potentially three games in three days. And the Spartans (26-6) hope they can carry over that extended rotation to meet Izzo’s demands during Saturday’s 1 p.m. semifinal against No. 19 Wisconsin, which defeated Nebraska, 66-62. “It was a rough one, just because I wasn’t playing pretty well. I was playing pretty bad,” said Winston, who finished with a game-high 18 points and recovered to commit just one turnover the rest of the game. “He knows what I mean to the team, he knows what I’m capable of. So he’s gotta hold me to that standard at all times.” Winston heard it early with his turnover struggles while playing on an injured big toe. That provided Loyer extended minutes, and he answered with a career-high 14 points and four 3-pointers in a season-high 17 minutes, 34 seconds of action. Ward, who returned after a five-game absence with a broken left shooting hand, made 3 of 4 attempts in his 14:24 off the bench. The junior forward helped offset rare off games in the paint from Xavier Tillman (seven points, six rebounds) and Kenny Goins (eight points, three rebounds), who combined to go 6 of 16 from the field as they feel out the new rotation with Ward back. With junior Kyle Ahrens gutting out 18:04 before his back tightened up and as McQuaid got two first-half fouls, Izzo was able to give Gabe Brown 9:45 on the wing, while fellow freshman Kithier went in for the final 5:32 of the first half after Ward’s second foul and played 8:16 overall. “I think with guys getting hurt this year, it’s definitely gonna help us when it comes down to (NCAA) tournament time,” Kithier said. “Guys have had playing time.” Izzo did not like how the Spartans opened the game, particularly Winston’s sloppiness with three turnovers in the first 5:41. Loyer entered and hit a 3-pointer in the left corner, then another from the right corner after replacing Winston again later in the period. His third, with 3:39 left in the opening half gave MSU a lead, and he hit a fourth early in the second half along with another jumper. “As soon as that first one went in, I knew my shot was feeling real good and it gave me some confidence,” Loyer said. “When the second one went in, I knew I was feeling it.” MSU went up by 21 points with 4:21 to play, which allowed Izzo to bring in more of his bench brigade. Kithier came back and joined Loyer, Brown, Aaron Henry and eventually fellow freshman Marcus Bingham Jr. Ohio State (19-14) ripped off 16 straight points to cut the Spartans’ lead to five after a Bingham traveling violation. Izzo called timeout with 8.8 seconds left after Winston hit a pair of free throws to finish with 18 points. The purpose? To point out to his players, especially the young ones, that a stretch of poor play like that at this time of year cannot happen. “Once you lose, you’re done,” Izzo said. “That is pressure, pressure on the kids. That’s why today was good for us, because they gotta learn how to handle that and deal with it. They kind of know why you’re pushing, pushing, pushing — because there’s no tomorrows (if you lose). I’m not sure freshmen understand that.” [Get ready for March Madness with our free Best of the Big Ten newsletter! Subscribe here. ] A 24-hour turnaround with a hobbling lineup against Wisconsin will test every facet of that toughness Izzo has been trying to instill in his players. “Physically, we were OK, we just weren’t mentally there,” Izzo said. “So my program, I think you just put the word you better be tough. Add mental, add physical, add emotional. You just better be tough. … “I think we got a good enough relationship with people that they understand I am trying to push them. I don’t want to be one-and-done, I don’t want to lose tomorrow, I don’t want to lose the next day. They know that.” Contact Chris Solari at csolari@freepress.com @chrissolari . 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