What in the world is going on in East Lansing?
We haven’t hit the start of conference play, and Michigan State already has five losses.
That’s a shocking reality for the perennial powerhouse, which if it doesn’t contend in the Big Ten might find itself on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. The Spartans haven’t missed a Big Dance in two decades, the last March without an invite to the Madness coming in 1997, Tom Izzo’s second season as head coach.
The talk has reached that point thanks to Sunday night’s shocking home loss to Northeastern, coming by an 81-73 score.
Among other transgressions, Michigan State allowed Northeastern to splash home 11 3-pointers, missed 10 free throws and surrendered 10 second-chance points. The visiting Huskies dominated the final 11 minutes, breaking away from a six-point Spartans lead on a 28-10 run that saw them take a commanding double-digit advantage late in the game.
“There’s nothing more than they got loose balls and we didn’t, they made shots and we didn’t. Layups and dunks, those are inexcusable. Some of our best free throw shooters just missed some free throws,” Izzo said after the game. “When you’re up six, you’ve got a chance to really extend it and we just didn’t do that.
“I just wasn’t satisfied with the level of toughness that we didn’t display. That is never something that this program stands for. We need to go out and play harder I guess.”
If those comments didn’t drive it home, Izzo was obviously upset after Sunday’s loss, and as he continued he had a specific target for his frustrations.
After back-to-back seasons with big-time upperclassmen driving the bus for Michigan State — Branden Dawson, Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello — this year’s team, at least from the outside, is focused around a hyped group of freshmen. But Izzo still has upperclassmen, they just aren’t playing to his liking. Eron Harris is missing an awful lot of shots, and Tum Tum Nairn (admittedly not a scorer) and Kenny Goins are combining to average under eight points a game.
“Right now we’re struggling with a couple guys that I think have to play well for us to win, Eron and Kenny. We’re just not getting enough out of them, especially Kenny,” Izzo said Sunday night. “Some of our veterans need to play better if we’re going to be any good.
“I have not been satisfied with the play of a couple guys. I have not been satisfied with the upperclassmen. I have not been satisfied with the toughness that they play with. What I take out of it, we need to get much tougher. We need to play much harder.”
Of course, two or three guys not producing can’t shoulder the blame for a five-loss non-conference schedule. Injuries have a lot to do with it, as the Michigan State front court was decimated before the season even began, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter both knocked out and putting a lot of pressure on the younger guys. That includes star freshman Miles Bridges, who himself has been sidelined with an injury for the past four games.
The Spartans were an unusual .500 at one point this season, losers of four of their first eight games. And while those defeats were upsetting for the team and its fans, surely they could’ve been excused. After all, those four losses came against teams currently ranked in the top 19, three of them the Nos. 3, 5 and 6 teams in the country (Baylor, Duke and Kentucky; Arizona is ranked No. 19).
But that brutal schedule might prove Michigan State’s undoing. A pretty strong showing will be required during Big Ten play in order to amass the wins necessary to reach the NCAA tournament. And the way the Spartans have played, is anyone thinking they’ll challenge the Wisconsins, Purdues and Indianas of the world for a Big Ten title?
Wins have perhaps been just as troubling as the rapidly accumulating losses. The cupcakes haven’t exactly been cupcakes for the Spartans. Michigan State beat Florida Gulf Coast by one, Wichita State (not a cupcake but a team Michigan State should annually be expected to handle) by five, Oral Roberts by four and Tennessee Tech by eight.
There are reasons to be hopeful, though.
The typically menacing Big Ten schedule starts out favorably for the Spartans with their first five games coming against Minnesota, Northwestern, Rutgers, Penn State and Minnesota. Three of those games will be played in East Lansing and only one is a true road game.
And there is a template for non-conference struggles blossoming into Big Ten contender status. Just look back to last season’s Wisconsin team, which went 8-5 in its non-conference schedule and lost four of its first five conference games only to rattle off wins in its next seven games and 11 of its next 12. The Badgers reached the Sweet 16 and entered this season as the conference favorite.
Of course, that kind of story requires a midseason turnaround, something the Spartans seem to be in desperate need of right now. It can be done. This is Izzo, after all.
“This was a setback,” Izzo said, “but I’ve had setbacks before.”