EAST LANSING - Michigan State is no stranger to midseason strife, but this season wasn’t supposed to have any of that.
But here we are again with a Michigan State basketball team hitting some potholes in mid-January after a decisive 82-72 loss to Michigan on Saturday at Breslin Center.
The difference this year, compared to past mid-season staggers, is that Michigan State was the No. 1 team in America a week ago and a National Championship favorite. Now the Spartans have lost two of three, both losses by double-digits.
Another difference is that in past years when the Spartans were able to rally, they had the motivation of proving naysayers wrong. If those upstart Spartan teams made it to the Sweet 16, they were a success. Some made it to the Final Four and added chapters to the Tom Izzo folklore. Most of those teams survived and advanced without the pressure that this team is going to face.
This year, it’s different. This year, the Sweet 16 wouldn’t even be considered an accomplishment. It would be considered base camp. That’s how good Izzo is, in case you were wondering how to gauge him this morning. He’s made you feel like a Kentucky fan.
Here are three things Michigan State followers need to process:
1. Michigan is good right now.
Get over it. They weren’t supposed to be quite this good, but they are. And they play a style that Michigan State has trouble matching up with, and other teams are going to have trouble matching up with their style and talent too.
2. Mo Wagner is good.
He was Dirk Nowitzki Jr., on Saturday. He was mouthy and chippy last year when Michigan blew out Michigan State. Izzo played the revenge card this week. And Nowitzki, I mean Wagner, stuck it right back at the Spartans.
“Sure I’m disappointed to play this way against your rival and watch Wagner celebrate on the court, but at the same time he deserved to,” Izzo said. “He’s Scott Skiles; he talked it and walked it and he played it. I respect that.”
As for that fade-away, turn-around jumper from the baseline that he hit over Nick Ward with 3:47 left that gave Michigan a 67-61 lead, tip your Spartan head helmet. Big shot. Big answer to a Jaren Jackson 4-point run.
Ward defended that shot well. Some might think Jackson should have been guarding Wagner at that point in the game, and he might have blocked that shot. But I don't think so. Ward timed the shot well and extended out at him and Wagner still had plenty of room.
Wagner was masterful at creating space for himself on this day, whether it was with a spin dribble, a behind-the-back dribble, or by spacing out or a pick-and-pop. He was a problem. He was good. It happens in basketball.
Michigan State wasn’t the best team in the state on Saturday and isn’t the best team in the state this week. But the same could have been said about Alabama’s football team and its state during Thanksgiving weekend.
Get over your insecurities, act like a champion, and focus on whether your team can correct its problems.
3. Michigan and Michigan State played a Top 10 level basketball game on Saturday. The Spartans can play at that level right now, but there isn’t much recent evidence that they can win at that level.
Michigan State isn’t capable of playing all styles and beating all styles at this point. We might have recognized this sooner if the Spartans didn’t have a Grand Canyon-sized gap in their schedule from Nov. 30, the night they blew out Notre Dame, to Jan. 7, the day the Spartans woke up 16-points behind Ohio State.
Against Michigan, the Spartans didn’t have quick, tough defensive grit at the point guard position. That was the first of a handful of serious problems.
Some of the problems correctable. Some might be correctable. Some might not. That’s what the rest of the regular season schedule is for - to try to get Michigan State’s copious crap together while aiming to win a Big Ten title along the way.
Wait, what? The Big Ten title? Doesn't it seems like a distant dream now? Well, last week many of us thought it was a given, and we had trouble respecting its importance at that time.
Today, maybe it’s a good thing that we have learned there are enough quality teams on the Big Ten schedule to kick Michigan State in the pants and help the Spartans become aware of their flaws.
ABOUT THOSE FLAWS
Michigan State extended its defense to try to cover and discourage Michigan’s 3-point shooting. This exposed Michigan State to a serious shortcoming, its shaky on-ball defense on the perimeter.
Normally, Michigan State likes to play more of a pack-line mentality on defense: Cover the block/elbow area, shrink the gaps, prevent the drive, make the opponent shoot over the top, close out late on the shooter but don’t go for pump fakes, and then BOX OUT LIKE HELL!
Then REBOUND LIKE HELL!
Then FASTBREAK LIKE HELL!
Well, Michigan State changed some of that stuff for this game.
Rather than having a sagging, pack-line philosophy, Michigan State wanted to contest the 3-point windows. Michigan State respected Michigan’s perimeter game that much. Enough to take Michigan State out of its regular defensive game, which eventually took Michigan State out of its usual rebounding position, which had a hand in disrupting Michigan State’s usual flow in the rebound-and-go transition game.
Michigan State succeeded in limiting Michigan from 3-point range. Michigan averages 26 shot attempts from long range per game. The Wolverines attempted only 15 in this game.
It turns out that Michigan didn’t need to bomb from long range because they were able to get to the rim way too often, way too easily.
Those of you who are critical of MSU’s penchant for allowing an occasional opposing player to become hot from the perimeter, well, that’s written into the percentages. Sometimes a player gets hot when you play with a pack-line philosophy. But most of the time, the drive is contained, the opponent misses at least 55 percent of its shots, and Michigan State is able to clear the glass, get out and run.
But Michigan carries some kryptonite against the pack-line philosophy. The Wolverines are unique in that they often have five players on the court that can shoot the 3-pointer. They had it last year too and that’s why they almost made the Final Four.
If all five guys can shoot the three, and all five guys are good at sharing the ball, then it’s hard to sag, pack-line it, and give help to anyone.
If you come out and cover the 3-pointer, then Michigan will get the ball into the hands of the player that they think has an off-the-dribble match-up advantage. In this game, that was Zavier Simpson against Cassius Winston; and Wagner against whoever was trying to guard him.
In getting out further on defense against all five players than they normally do, the Spartans left players isolated with wide gaps behind them, no extra eyeballs of help.
Cleaves, Bell and Pete could handle that kind of assignment. Winston? Not so much. Not on this day, anyway. And there are real concerns as to whether he ever will be able to.
Simpson - a hungry, overlooked, chip-on-the-shoulder grinder - victimized Winston.
Where have you heard that fairy tale before? Straight Outta Skandalaris? Yeah, something like that.
Wait, there’s more.
Simpson wanted to be a Spartan. He is a long-time protegé of former Spartan captain and Final Four hero Travis Walton. Walton and his former high school program at Lima, Ohio paved the way for Simpson to play in front of Izzo and his assistants countless times when on the recruiting trail. Michigan State watched him and watched him and watched him. They liked him, but not quite enough to offer. Maybe there wasn’t scholarship room. In the meantime, Michigan State had been chasing Winston hard since he was in the ninth grade.
Winston is good. Everybody loves him, and the things he can do on offense.
Winston might not have always believed the old saying about defense winning championships, especially while he was winning a high school championship and a Mr. Basketball award. But today, after this lesson, he should be newly enlightened. And if he isn’t, then it’s time for his teammates to have an intervention.
He's good. But does he want to help the team become better than good? Does he want to put in extra time in the film room to give himself a half-step head start against opposing tendencies? If you're an average athlete and a smart guy with a lot of drive, that's what you need to do. That's what Shane Battier did. Winston has the brain. Does he have the drive?
“I’m not worried about (defending) quicker guards," Izzo said. "I’m worried about someone gritting their teeth and getting the job done.”
And Izzo saved some blame for himself.
“I don’t think I did a very good in subbing," Izzo said. "Cassius probably played too many minutes, got tired."
CUT THE QUOTES
That was a cute one-liner from Izzo after the Rutgers game on Thursday, the one about needing to teach Miles Bridges how to be a jerk.
We laughed and thought it made for a good soundbite.
Then after this loss to Michigan, Bridges said, “We’re not holding people accountable. When we start holding each other accountable, we’ll be able to out-tough teams again and win with the details.”
Bridges seems to believe that comment. But if you know Izzo, you know that those words didn’t pop into Bridges’ head organically. Bridges is repeating the things Izzo has told him. And told him. And told him.
For fans and media, those quotes about needing to be a jerk and holding people accountable are nice little buzz words and catch phrases. But they aren’t meant for a Hallmark card.
Izzo has coached good teams. But he swears that the very, very good ones - the champions, the Final Four teams, the true contenders - have a little extra edge to them, extra grit.
Those are more buzz words and catch phrases. And we hear about them every year.
It goes along with that stuff about player-coached teams being better than a coach-coached teams.
Well, add up that math into the Winston formula. He’s a very good offensive player. He’s been a questionable defensive player in the past. He improved at times this year, but the test was far different in this game. And Michigan State cannot become a legitimate Final Four contender if its point guard is giving up as many leaks as Winston did in this game.
He wasn’t the sole reason Michigan State lost. But he’s a primary hole that needs to be fixed.
Izzo has been working on Winston's defense and preaching its importance for a year-and-a-half. It’s gotten Winston and the Spartans to a level. Izzo will continue to harp on it. But Izzo has done this long enough to know that the job is done most effectively when the coach isn’t doing all of the tail-kicking.
That’s why this rodeo is up to Miles Bridges. Maybe not as a shooter, rebounder and dunker, but as a tail-kicker. A jerk.
Bridges is no jerk. He might be the nicest superstar athlete ever to walk the campus.
Bridges is good friends with Winston. He’s very, very tight, spiritual friends with Joshua Langford.
TumTum Nairn has the trust and personality to get on people and challenge them while maintaining their trust and admiration. But it’s hard to be the all-encompassing leader that this team needs when playing from the bench like Nairn. And he played only nine minutes in this game.
Izzo will swear to you that Michigan State wouldn’t have won the National Championship in 2000 if Mateen Cleaves didn’t have the bad-cop trust to choke slam Morris Peterson any time he wished. And Peterson had the disposition that made it work.
Now it’s on Bridges. He is saying the right things, repeating the Izzo mantra. But can he help get the best out of Winston? If he wants to make a serious run at championships, he will.
And Winston isn't the only target. Langford needs to become more consistent with the grit on defense, too. And so does Ward. Izzo was careful not to criticize Ward after the Michigan game, saying that most of the defensive problems were due to the play of guards. But Ward's 14 minutes of playing time suggests a different story, that he has more work to do, too.
Bridges has flaws, too. And that brings us to a Jud Heathcote saying. Jud believed that leaders can't truly lead until they become comfortable with their own game. Bridges isn't there right now. He lamented the fact that he couldn't hit from the perimeter in this game against Michigan. He has been challenged by Izzo to be more aggressive, and take over. But in doing that, he sometimes hits the gas pedal too hard and gets out of control.
So Bridges needs to get in the film room, too. And Izzo needs to find the best way to use Bridges as a three, which is still a new task for the sophomore and this coaching staff.
In the meantime, there's one last phrase that fits this team, and it's not a pretty one: For Michigan State and its players, the whole is not as great as the sum of the parts.
EBBS AND FLOWS
Michigan State’s defense was good in a lot of areas, Saturday.
Michigan shot only 42.1 percent from the floor and shot below 40 percent most of the day.
Izzo read those stats and took some solace that maybe the game plan wasn’t a bad one, that the Spartans were on track to hitting its defensive checkpoints and winning this game.
But then factor in MSU’s 18 turnovers, compared to just seven for Michigan. The Spartans have had a turnover problem all year. Michigan has ranked among the nation’s best in avoiding turnovers all year. That calculus bit Michigan State on this day.
One team has its crap together. The other team, Michigan State - regardless of the blowout victories over Savannah State and Houston Baptist - doesn’t.
Michigan played good, tight defense. Not great defense. Good defense. They made it a little bit difficult for Michigan State to maneuver at times. And Michigan State was slow and robotic to get into its sets at times.
Then, on several occasions, the Spartans seemed to panic, seemed to oversteer, over-drive and committed sloppy turnovers that teams can’t commit if they want to beat a Top 10-caliber team like Michigan (and that’s what Michigan is right now, regardless of the current rankings).
From mid-November’s loss to Duke, through the blowout of Maryland on Jan. 4, the Spartans had precious few occasions when they needed to run a meaningful halfcourt set. Their halfcourt offense had become a series of relaxed demonstrations. They could commit turnovers without paying for them. They formed bad habits.
Then things became tight against Ohio State and the Spartans cracked. They were tight again against Rutgers. Then against Michigan, the Spartans … just weren’t good enough. For now. And they won’t be good enough unless they ween themselves away from the belief that they can outscore their faults.
“On the perimeter at certain positions we have a long way to go,” Izzo said. “Let’s face it, our point guards struggled today. And when the head goes, the body goes.
“I think some guys have to do a better job of defending. You don’t get to just outscore people. You have to guard them. We made some adjustments and drove the ball more and got to the line as much as we did against them is a big thing, and we pounded it in a little bit more but boy we sure didn’t guard when we needed to guard.
“Listen, this is a very good team. There’s going to be some ebbs and flows in a season. We got exploited by two guys today. Not many people can do that in the league. We’re better defensively than a couple of guys played.
“This will hurt for a day or two because it is a big game to me and I’m going to address a couple of guys on the grit that you have to have to play in the Big Ten. And I don’t mean play like we were last year, I mean big games. Some guys have to grow up a little bit and they will."
Now it’s time to check your Tom Izzo calendar.
You might take some razzing from the Michigan fans at the water cooler on Monday, those that were pretending to be more interested in the New England Patriots than Michigan basketball two weeks ago because, you know, it’s January and the Outback Bowl has ended.
Just be like Izzo. Compliment them. Game recognizes game. You’re a Michigan State basketball fan. You know what a good team looks like. Compliment them on having a team that is pretty good at the moment.
As for your team, there are pieces and potential. But it can’t work without perimeter defense, and ball screen defense. It can’t work without quality defense at the point guard position. And it certainly can’t work if you mix 18 turnovers with those issues.
Izzo has been preaching these principles since April. Now maybe they’ll listen a little better. But Bridges needs to start doing a lot of the talking and embrace the duty of being a jerk if this team is going to have a chance to get all of its crap together by March, and win some trophies along the way. Based on Saturday's loss, the process is going to be more extensive than we knew.