Only a week ago, Michigan State had established itself as a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten. Now the Spartans are in the midst of an unexpected tailspin.
It was mildly alarming when the Spartans suffered a 16-point road loss at rapidly improving Ohio State last Sunday. It was a bit more disconcerting when they needed overtime to survive lowly Rutgers at home three nights later. Now it’s truly time to be concerned after they delivered a third straight poor performance.
Michigan added to Michigan State’s misery with an 82-72 upset victory on Saturday afternoon at the Breslin Center. Moe Wagner scored a game-high 27 points including a go-ahead 3-pointer with eight minutes to play, helping the Wolverines break open a back-and-forth game.
Michigan State’s loss leaves the Spartans (16-3, 4-2) in a third-place tie in the Big Ten, two games in the loss column behind Purdue and Ohio State. Improbably, it’s the Boilermakers who appear to be the league’s best team at the moment, while the Spartans are trying to avoid being overtaken by the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
One bad mid-January week may be long forgotten by March, but it’s nonetheless a surprise given the wealth of talent Michigan State possesses. This is a Spartans team that has been a fixture in the top five of the polls all season and features preseason All-American Miles Bridges, fellow projected lottery pick Jaren Jackson and a heralded supporting cast.
Michigan State’s biggest problem all season is that it doesn’t value possessions or take care of the basketball. The Spartans are turning the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions, 224th in the nation and second worst in the Big Ten.
Eighteen turnovers were a massive issue for Michigan State on Saturday as Michigan got 11 more possessions than the Spartans. It wasn’t just a point guard issue either as Bridges had four turnovers trying to create off the bounce and Nick Ward had three because of effective double teams by the Wolverines.
Ball-screen defense also remains troublesome for Michigan State in part because Izzo continues to insist on playing big instead of sliding Bridges to power forward and Jackson to center. The upside to that is Michigan State’s interior defense and rim protection is among the best in the country, but the downside is that the Spartans struggle to keep guards in front of them or to deal with mobile big men like Wagner.
Also concerning for Michigan State was that it didn’t respond to adversity with the poise or toughness you’d expect from a Tom Izzo team. The Spartans couldn’t string together stops, didn’t dominate the glass and sank only three shots from behind the arc as a team as supposed sharpshooters Matt McQuaid and Joshua Langford both struggled.
The good news for Michigan State is that this year’s mediocre Big Ten will offer plenty of opportunities for victories. The Spartans are done with Ohio State and Michigan State the rest of the regular season and they’ll face Purdue only once at home on Feb. 6.
But for the Spartans to achieve their lofty goals in March, they’ll have to get better.
One of the hallmark of Izzo’s best teams at Michigan State is that they always seem to respond to adversity and find a way to peak down the stretch. This year’s team has hit an unexpected rough patch, and now the Spartans have the chance to learn from it and overcome it.
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