Not long ago, the Michigan State Spartans were the No. 1 team in the country.
But the Big Ten season has brought with it challenges for Tom Izzo's team, and it's currently on a three-game slide no one could've predicted just a few weeks ago.
Wednesday was the latest loss, a shocking 72-71 defeat at home at the hands of surging Nebraska. And it was defense, or lack thereof, that bit the Spartans, the Huskers shooting 50 percent from the field, the highest opponent field-goal percentage Michigan State has allowed all season. Nebraska had two runs of 13-0 in this one, including the one that won the game. It was a 56-51 Spartan lead with about 12 minutes to play, but 13 straight points by the Huskers gave them an eight-point edge with eight and a half minutes left. Eron Harris and Denzel Valentine hit last-minute 3-pointers to bring Michigan State within two and one, respectively, but Nebraska didn't trail after its mid-period surge.
Additionally, Nebraska turned 10 Michigan State turnovers into 10 points, and the Huskers had a 32-24 advantage in points in the paint.
Michigan State struggled with its shot, shooting 42.1 percent on the game. Bryn Forbes, the team's resident sharpshooter, took plenty of postgame heat for a 1-for-8 performance with just three points in 35 minutes.
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But the trend is worse than the single outcome for the Spartans. Wednesday's loss followed an unexpected defeat to middling Wisconsin, which was preceded by Michigan State's second loss to Iowa in as many meetings this season. Undefeated after 13 non-conference games, the Spartans are just 3-4 in conference play.
So what's the deal?
"Of course my team’s not feeling comfortable right now," Izzo said after Wednesday's game. "I don’t mean that as harsh as it sounds. Look, we’ve gone through a lot with this team, you know. ... We’re 16-4, I said that when we were 16-3 that we’re not throwing in the towel. The last two games, if you ask me — and please, the Nebraska people here, they did a hell of a job. Good coach, good team. But, we were up. And we didn’t play smart enough. And then we just didn’t play smart enough at Wisconsin. Calls went against us there, tough calls here. We didn’t play smart enough, and we lost.
"We did execute. We did do some positive things. We did some things that I think are going to benefit us. ... I haven’t lost the team. Haven’t lost the locker room. Nobody is upset about this and that, we just got to get more guys playing a little bit better and maybe a little bit smarter."
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There has been a significant amount of injury-induced upheaval of late. Valentine, who looked like a player of the year candidate during the non-conference season and had a great 24-point effort Wednesday, missed four games with a knee injury. But strangely, the Spartans went 3-1 without their best player and have gone 1-3 since his return.
Michigan State lost point guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr. prior to the loss against Wisconsin and was without him again Wednesday. While he doesn't score a lot of points, he runs the show and plays good defense, two things the Spartans could have used Wednesday. His timetable for return is unknown.
Big man Gavin Schilling missed the season's first 11 games, and he was recently swapped out of the starting lineup for Matt Costello, who's been playing terrifically since the beginning of league play. But Costello rolled his ankle and couldn't finish Wednesday's game.
So there's a reason Izzo's team is not comfortable. The lineup and the rotation seem to be changing on a game-by-game basis of late. And having to adjust on their feet might be what has the Spartans in a funk.
"It’s hard to keep changing the lineup, and don’t even ask me why I do it. I don’t have a choice right now," Izzo said. "It’s hard to do that and let everybody be comfortable."
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Michigan State is hardly alone. Top-ranked teams losing has been the theme of this college basketball season, and the Spartans are one of a whopping seven ranked teams that have lost just since the latest rankings came out on Monday afternoon. Duke is on a three-game losing streak, West Virginia has dropped back-to-back games and Kansas has lost two of its last three.
Certainly Michigan State has dropped games it wasn't expected to against Wisconsin and Nebraska (the two losses to Iowa look perfectly reasonable, as the Hawkeyes look like the Big Ten's best team). But recent history tells us the Spartans could be fine. Just last season, when Michigan State made the seventh Final Four appearance of the izzo Era, there were unexpected results. The Spartans lost games to Texas Southern, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota. Then they came a win away from playing for a national title.
It's Izzo's job now to get his team to bounce back, which is easier said than done with a great Maryland team coming to East Lansing this weekend. But he's confident his players will do just that.
"It’s a very good team, and there are really a lot of good guys. Everybody’s pressing a little bit. We’re just going to have a do a better job as a staff," he said. "I know how to get to this team and this team will bounce back, but it’s been shaken. There’s no question about it. It should be shaken. We’ve lost, in my mind, two games — Wisconsin, hands down we should have won. This one, they probably outplayed us more, but we still had that lead and a chance. The crowd was so good. ... We’re hopefully going to do a better job for them on game day."