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March 1, 2014

'Complete meltdown' has Izzo searching for answers

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Tom Izzo screamed at his players, officials and people working the scorer's table.

After Illinois beat No. 18 Michigan State 53-46 on Saturday, the ranting-and-raving coach was reduced to a voice barely louder than a whisper.

"I thought our energy level was at an all-time worst," Izzo said softly. "It started with the first shot of the game. We gave up a 3."

Michigan State had twice as many turnovers (six) as it had baskets (three) seven minutes into the game as it trailed 14-7.

After being proud of his team's assist-to-turnover ratio for most of the season, Izzo was disgusted by it in this game.


AUDIO: Izzo Post-Game

"It was a joke," he said. "I'll throw myself under the bus. That's inexcusable. Ridiculous."

Illinois might've had a lot to do with that.

"They defended very well, which they've been doing," Izzo said. "They turned us over a lot and turned those turnovers into touchdowns."

The Fighting Illini (17-12, 6-10 Big Ten) have held four consecutive opponents to fewer than 50 points for the first time since the 1947-48 season, according to STATS LLC.

Illinois has three straight victories for the first time since winning four in a row from Dec. 21 to Jan. 4. That successful stretch included a win over then-No. 23 Missouri.

"As soon as you act like you've arrived, you're going to fall pretty quickly," coach John Groce said.
The Spartans (22-7, 11-5) are falling fast. They've lost two straight and six of their last 10 games.

Michigan State was at full strength for the first time in nearly two months, but simply wasn't good enough to beat a streaking team that seemed more inspired.
Branden Dawson returned from a broken hand and played for the first time since Jan. 21, when he helped the Spartans beat Indiana to improve to 18-1 overall and 7-0 in conference.

"I thought Dawson played phenomenally despite the 30-some-odd days he's missed," Izzo said.

Dawson came off the bench to log 25 minutes, and tied for the team-high in rebounds with seven.

Michigan State's Gary Harris had 19 points, was reenergized defensively after a bye week of rest, but didn't get much help from his teammates.

"B.J. (Dawson) played with some energy," Izzo said. "And Harris proved why he is one of the best players because he guarded and did some things. Other than that, we had a complete meltdown."

The Spartans scored a season-low 46 points - five fewer than they had two weeks ago in a nine-point loss to Nebraska. They made 39 percent of their shots and had only one player with more than seven points.

"I'm as concerned as I was last week and the week before," said Izzo, whose team hasn't won a weekend game since the Jan. 18 trip to Illinois."There's not going to be a magic wand wave today that everybody would be back to normal. I'm concerned but I'm not shocked. I'm disappointed in our effort, but not disappointed in our performance as far as skill-stuff."

Adreian Payne, who averages 16-plus points, had just four points to match a season low. Payne said he didn't expect to get double-teamed by the Illini as he did when he had the ball.

"It seemed like their No. 1 thing was trying to take me away," he said. "They did a good job of it."

Illinois, meanwhile, had a trio of double-digit scorers and made nearly 48 percent of its shots. Malcom Hill and Rayvonte Rice each had 10 points.

The Illini led by as much as 12 points in the first half before falling into a 28-all tie at halftime.

"We just wanted to go out there and set the tone early," said Tracy Abrams, who scored a team-high 12 points. "We wanted to start the game fighting, and that definitely had a big influence."

After giving up the first basket in the second half on a Gavin Schilling
lay-up, the Illini didn't trail again. That Schilling lay-up was an adjustment to the Payne double-team, but the Spartans would have precious few answers most of the rest of the game.

Midway through the second half, Illinois took advantage of a call that went its way that enraged Izzo - and appeared to rattle his players.

Harris had a steal and a layup waved off because the officials decided a shot-clock violation happened before the turnover.

Izzo shouted at the officials about the call and pounded his fist on the scorer's table as he had some more choice words to say loudly.

"Our own people screwed up our own clock," he said.

Instead of the basket pulling the Spartans within a point, their deficit stayed at three and quickly grew to six points. The Illini went on to win at Michigan State for the first time since March 3, 2006, and to beat a ranked Big Ten team for the first time since Feb. 10, 2013, when they knocked off No. 18 Minnesota.

"We were responsive all night," Groce said.

And, the Spartans were not.

"We've got to start over," Payne said. "We've got to focus on what we can control and use the past to motivate us."

"My team doesn't look like my team today," Izzo said. "We'll have to figure out why. I still think I know part of the reason. We're a little dysfunctional. We have guys in there that haven't played together.

"Do I think we still have enough in us to make a run? Sure I do. We have been through a lot worse than this, gang. A lot worse. Advantage to experience.

"We'll do what we can do and see what we can do and we'll go from there. We'll be back."

But first, some solutions need to be found. Point guard Keith Appling hasn't scored more than seven points since the win at Iowa on Jan. 28. He missed three weeks during that stretch while trying to nurse a wrist injury.

"Keith Appling is a major problem right now cause he just can't do what he could," Izzo said. "They are backing off of him, and then there is nowhere to go. And we couldn't get our break going."

Denzel Valentine, who has arguably been Michigan State's top player at times in the last three weeks, had perhaps his worst game of the season. He had five turnovers and was 1-of-6 from the field for 3 points.

"I should go back to treating him like I used to treat him," Izzo said of a tough-love approach which drew criticism earlier in the year. "That's worked a little better. Denzel hasn't thrown the ball around like that in (a long time)."

Illinois ranks 11th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (40 percent) and 3-point percentage (31 percent), but the Illini were far above their usual standard in this game. Illinois shot 47 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point range.

"We haven't guarded for a month," Izzo said. "I know some of the reasons why but some of the other reasons why - I just don't have an answer for right now. I'll find one."

Izzo has revived wayward teams for long NCAA Tournament runs in the past, including a trip to the Final Four in 2005 after a notorious smashing of a game tape in front of his team after a Big Ten Tournament loss. But Izzo believed strongly in that '05 team. After this game, Izzo's belief in this team may have taken a hit.

"There are just too many things these guys have had to go through," Izzo said. "Maybe a slap in the face was good. Maybe it reminds us of 2005. Maybe that will wake us up."

Something needs to. The is no snooze button in March.









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