WASHINGTON — Coming into the season, Tom Izzo's quartet of highly touted freshmen seemed to be the reason to be excited about Michigan State's chances.
Now that the time of tournaments has finally arrived, the youth of this Spartans team might be the reason its March stay is unusually brief.
The Hall of Fame coach was upset following Michigan State's loss to Minnesota in Thursday's quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Spartans didn't play well, struggling mightily to shoot the ball. Izzo was so unhappy with his team's performance he said he was shocked that Michigan State was still in the game down to the very end of what ended up a mere five-point decision.
But it was how his team played that got the man whose name could be a solid replacement candidate for the third month on the calendar real, as he put it, disappointed.
"I was disappointed," Izzo said. "There haven't been many times that I've been disappointed in this team this year. Today was one of them."
Which brings us to the freshmen. Michigan State teams of the past have relied on veterans of the program to build upon the years of postseason success. But Izzo is short on those this time around. It's not that the statistics were exceptionally awful Thursday. It's that the young players didn't seem to understand how to play in March.
"Maybe it's my fault, because I talked to them about it last night. I guarded against this," Izzo said. "I know what happens. You win a game. You get back to the hotel. You got an hour, then you're going to a gym to practice on the next team. But that's what one-and-done time is all about. But they don't know that. AAU ball, if you lose this game, you probably play another one in a couple hours, right? ... I just think too much, winning is never valued. It's not like they on purpose said, 'We're not going to play hard.' They just don't understand the rise of the level that it takes.
"One thing we've been really good at over the years, why we've been a good turnaround team, is taking one game, by the next day being prepared for the next team. It is a little more difficult when you have so many young guys. So I'll learn a lesson, too. Maybe we got to change how we did it."
Michigan State isn't used to being out of this event so early. The Spartans played in the last three Big Ten Tournament title games and won two of them. You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find the last time Michigan State didn't reach the semifinals — coincidentally, that run also ended with a loss to Minnesota.
But as good as Izzo's been in the conference tournament, and there's been no one better, he's made his name in the Big Dance, which comes next week. Michigan State's first-round exit a season ago seemed the fluke of flukes. But what if, in what has been a relatively down year for this perennial power of a program, the Spartans' NCAA tournament stay reflects the challenges of this season? Exiting the conference tournament on Day 3 might be a rarity, but so too were the five non-conference losses and 14 losses on the season.
Again, the statistics weren't all bad from the four fab freshmen. Miles Bridges scored a lot of points, leading the team with 20, and Nick Ward had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. But that duo combined to go just 11-for-29 from the field. Bridges was 2-for-11 shooting the 3. Joshua Langford had six points. Cassius Winston was scoreless. And surely Izzo would have some critiques to make that involve stuff that didn't show up in the box score.
But the numbers were secondary to the effort. It takes a special kind of mentality to win as many games this time of year as Izzo's teams have. This team didn't have that mentality Thursday.
"It's a learning lesson. It seems like the whole damn year has been a learning lesson," Izzo said. "We learned again today, if you don't come at this level — it's not an AAU tournament, and play 40 minutes, you can play better the second half, you can play better in different parts. It's not going to be good enough. I think we'll learn from it, grow from it, hopefully do a better job if we get a chance to play again."
The good news is the Spartans will get another chance. Despite this down year they're considered a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament field, and maybe Izzo can work some March magic again.
But in this season that hasn't quite lived up to Michigan State's standards, maybe there's no way he can.