EVANSTON, Ill.—In each of the previous three seasons, Michigan State didn’t lose its eighth game until March. It ended the previous two with nine defeats, total. But on Monday night, coach Tom Izzo stood before a team regrettably ahead of schedule. The Spartans had eight losses, a flawed member of the Big Ten’s middle class.
Armed with some numbers, Izzo endeavored to convince his club that it was something closer to what it has been, instead of what it is. He compared some of the Spartans’ overall statistics to those of nationally elite teams to highlight relatively small differences. He noted that even a fractional improvement in Michigan State’s woeful free throw shooting would have turned four losses into four wins.
Izzo is known for unrestrained honesty, with six Final Fours worth of credibility in his back pocket. It’s a little telling, at least, that Izzo felt compelled to run along the fine line of telling a team what it needed to hear versus what it wanted to hear. “It was the right thing to do,” Spartans senior guard Travis Trice said. “We were down in the dumps. A lot of us aren’t used to this. But to show us, ‘Hey, we’re right there,’ I think that helped us.”
Trice told the story after a 68-44 stomp-down of Northwestern on Tuesday night. It was a win that had the feel of a towel held tight against a wound, as opposed to a stitch job that stanches all the bleeding. Trice led the team with 16 points but came off the bench for only the second time this season, a move Izzo declared “needed to be done for his sake and ours.” And the Spartans ran, and ran some more, right into 13 3-pointers and a lead that reached 35 points at its peak.
“Unlike going to the moon, it’s only one small step for Michigan State,” Izzo said afterward.
So where are the Spartans are headed going into Saturday’s game against No. 23 Ohio State in East Lansing? As Izzo illustrated to his team earlier this week, the Spartans aren’t far away from their goals.
Michigan State’s field goal percentage defense (38.6% going into Tuesday) was not terribly far off from top-tier teams like Kentucky (33.5), Virginia (35.5) or Gonzaga (38.3). Going into this week, the Spartans scored just about as well as Wisconsin (72.7 points per game to the Badgers’ 74.0). And losing to Duke, Notre Dame (in overtime on the road), Kansas and even Maryland twice (once in double-overtime) isn’t overly problematic.
Losing to Texas Southern under any circumstances and falling at home to an Illinois team without several key players is. Extraordinary talent usually helps offset such lulls, and here is the root of Michigan State’s issues: Not enough players play extraordinarily. In six of their eight losses, the Spartans have held a lead or been within one possession in the final minute. Blame the free-throw woes if you will—the Spartans were at 62.1% on the year before hitting 9-of-13 on Tuesday—but that’s symptomatic of a lack of individual, winning plays.
Trice is shooting 38.2% from the floor and 37.1% from 3-point range—down from 42% and 43.4%, respectively, as a junior. Though his shift to coming off the bench only happened on Tuesday—and he did play 25 minutes anyway—Michigan State had considered such a switch for some time. It allowed freshman Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn to push the pace from the opening tip and allowed Izzo to bring shooting off the bench. It also wouldn’t happen if Trice was playing at an All-Big Ten level. Credit the Spartans staff for being unafraid to change drastically in February, but perceived problems pushed them to that point.
“I don’t really care at all about that,” Trice said of the bench role, which, it should be noted, Izzo didn’t commit to short- or long-term after the Northwestern game. “I approach every game like I’m going to play 40 minutes and do whatever I have to do to get the win. It really doesn’t matter to me.”
Nor should he shoulder all the blame. Junior Denzel Valentine (14.4 points per game, 43.6% shooting) has not reached consistently high levels of production. Senior Branden Dawson (11.8 points per game, 9.9 rebounds per game) has done what might have been expected of him, which is only fine if other important cogs are doing more. “We’re not as good if our key players aren’t playing well,” Izzo said.
To achieve the success to which it is accustomed, Michigan State needed players to make leaps they have not made, and believing that will occur over the final month and a half of the season is a leap of faith. It’s a good year to be ordinary in the Big Ten. The six teams trailing first-place Wisconsin, Michigan State included, are tied with four league losses. But ordinary is not acceptable at a school that last season nearly reached Izzo’s seventh Final Four.
To avoid more years of ordinary in the future, then, Michigan State must procure the talent capable of more. Between the last recruiting class and the next one, Izzo has signed three top-100 recruits: Nairn, forward Deyonta Davis (a top 30 player, actually) and guard Matt McQuaid. Collecting and developing prospects on that level has served the Spartans well in the past and will again; it certainly is less feast or famine than pursuits of top-shelf players like Jabari Parker or Tyus Jones, both of whom signed with Duke. The former left Michigan State without a top-100 player in the 2013 recruiting class. The latter essentially cost the program Tyler Ulis, who is now at Kentucky. Izzo has questioned the eggs-in-one-basket approach and would do well to abandon it entirely—piling up recruits just below the top tier should produce the consistency the Spartans seek. It’s a little much fret over the direction of the program at this stage. And a renewed urgency can perhaps mask some flaws and create some momentum for the stretch. “Michigan State played like their NCAA tournament hopes were on the line,” Northwestern freshman Vic Law said.
Michigan State isn’t that far off, but the Spartans have underachieved with good players performing unspectacularly. And until that changes, they will be nothing out of the ordinary.