- Smothered by Syracuse's zone defense and perhaps strangled by its own lofty expectations and stacked roster of talent, Michigan State once again came up short in the NCAA tournament.
DETROIT – Michigan State lost one game Sunday, but it felt like five. The Spartans lost a second-round game to Syracuse, but also the last game of beloved senior “Tum Tum” Nairn’s career. It was also the chance for Miles Bridges to put a happy bow on the sophomore season nobody expected him to have, and maybe the final game of freshman Jaren Jackson Jr.’s college career, and…well, there is no way to know, but maybe this was the last, best shot at Tom Izzo’s second national title.
There was enough sting to go around. In a hallway afterward, Izzo said if he had to rank his losses, this would be in “the top two or three.” In a corner of the locker room, Josh Langford sat, with tears in his eyes, and explained why: “We knew we had the team to do it.”
They did…sort of. It felt like there were two Michigan State teams this year: the very good one that won the Big Ten outright, and the great one lurking inside it. That great team vanished Sunday, before we ever really got to see it.
To understand why, consider three moments from Syracuse’s 55-53 win. None of them occurred with the ball in play.
Moment No. 1: With 2:17 left, down one, Michigan State calls timeout. When the Spartans come out of the huddle, the coaches have left their most talented player, freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., on the bench.
Moment No. 2: With 47 seconds left, down three, Michigan State calls timeout. Again, Jackson remains on the bench.
Moment No. 3: With seven seconds left, down one, Michigan State must guard Syracuse. Jackson is on the floor this time, guarding Paschal Chukwu. Well, he is supposed to be guarding Chukwu. But he stands between Chukwu and the in-bounder, leaving Chukwu an easy, enormous opening to run down court and catch a long-toss pass. It would be a massive mental mistake. Michigan State coaches scream at Jackson to move; he finally does, right before Syracuse inbounds.
All season, we talked about the talent on Michigan State, starting with two lottery picks: Bridges and Jackson. It was a bit misleading. Bridges played like an All-American at times. But Jackson, a likely top-five pick, often looked like a freshman, and that’s not a knock. He is a freshman. In five years, Jackson might be better than Duke’s freshman star Marvin Bagley III. Right now, Bagley is so much better that it’s not worth discussing.
This is the difference between Michigan State hype and Michigan State reality: Jackson won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for his shot-blocking numbers, but in a tight NCAA tournament game, his own coaches put him on the floor for just 15 minutes.
Yes, some of that was foul trouble, but that also speaks to Jackson’s youth—he committed silly over-the-back fouls all season. Mostly, Michigan State coaches preferred fifth-year grad transfer Ben Carter in the middle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, because they trusted Carter to find open shooters.
Again, this is not a knock on Jackson, who is extremely talented, a strong student and very well liked on the team. He deftly deflected questions about playing time and his NBA future, two signs of his unselfishness. Jackson is just really young, and it shows.
And Izzo is finding out what Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari have discovered: you may recruit a future NBA All-Star, but you still have to coach a freshman.
When you view Jackson in that way—as a freshman—Michigan State stops seeming like a superpower and starts seeming like a really good team with a small margin for error. Matt McQuaid played 21 minutes against Syracuse. Carter played 23. Xavier Tillman played 22. They’re not bad players—Tillman may yet be a really good one—but face it: when you filled out your bracket, you weren’t thinking about those guys. You thought about Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr., Cassius Winston and Izzo’s March magic.
The Spartans still could have won—this game, and even the national title. But there was always a better chance of them looking flummoxed by the wrong matchup, or missing assignments defensively. They ended up with Carter in the middle of that zone because Jackson was too young to trust there, and Bridges does not have the court vision to consistently find teammates from that spot.
Michigan State’s players and coaches said after this game that the Spartans just missed shots—and they did miss an incredible 49 of the 66 they took. But it sure didn’t feel like they were getting good shots in the flow of their offense. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who describes his own team’s play with unflinching honesty, knew his team had Michigan State tied up in knots. “We wanted to get to their shooters, and we did a great job of that,” Boeheim said. “They made two bank shots, threes, and we were still able to persevere.”
The irony of this result is that facing Syracuse seemed to be a lucky break for Michigan State. It all set up so well: The Spartans would beat the Orange, who were playing their third game in five days, before a home crowd in Little Caesars Arena, and in the process they would get valuable experience against the same 2-3 zone that they would face in the Sweet 16 against Duke.
That was the hope. What happened was the reality. And now, Bridges is almost certainly leaving—he surprised Izzo when he came back for his sophomore year, but returning for his junior year would be a much bigger upset.
Jackson faces a more interesting decision. The assumption is that he will go. Top-five picks usually do. But Jackson’s family is not pressed for money, he does well in school and it is as clear as ever that, for all his basketball gifts, he is still transitioning from kid to man. If Jackson wants to go, he should. He will make millions and eventually thrive in the NBA; you can see why general managers love him. But right now, he looks and acts more like a college student than an NBA star.
Izzo repeated Sunday what he has said before: this is the best group he has ever coached. When he said Sunday’s loss to Syracuse ranked as one of his two or three most painful losses, it was a conservative estimate. The only loss in Izzo’s tenure that compares is the 2016 first-round loss to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee, when the Spartans were a No. 2 seed. Syracuse is obviously not Middle Tennessee, but this Michigan State team was more talented than that one.
And so Syracuse moves on to play Duke. Somebody will surely pick off Boeheim’s team—he will be the first to tell you that Syracuse is offensively challenged. In the meantime, the Spartans go home, thinking about the great team they hoped to be, instead of the good team they actually were.