Michigan State’s mid-season struggles went from bad to worse on Saturday with a maddening 82-72 loss to Michigan before a packed but quiet Breslin Center.
The Spartans couldn’t consistently take care of the ball, and couldn’t slow down Michigan center Mo Wagner, who scored a game-high 27 points.
Wagner, who had a spat with Spartan center Nick Ward last year during a Michigan blowout victory in Ann Arbor, prevented Michigan State from getting even with him. He stretched the chest crest of his Michigan jersey with pride at the final buzzer.
"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.”
The Spartans also had trouble covering quick-hitting Wolverine ball screen action and keeping Michigan drivers out of the lane, especially sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. Simpson finished with 16 points and five assists and had the edge on his matchup with Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston, whose defense away from the basket was leaky.
“Listen, this is a very good team," Izzo said. "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.”
“Simpson has been really key for us," said Michigan coach John Beilein. "He has been able to make plays. He did a great job on a terrific player, Cassius Winston.”
Michigan State (16-3 and 4-2 in the Big Ten) had 17 turnovers, compared to seven for Michigan (15-4, 4-2).
The Spartans, who were ranked No. 1 in the country a week ago, have now lost two of three, with the lone victory in that stretch an overtime win against Rutgers on Thursday night.
“Listen, this is a very good team," Izzo said. "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.
“We have to figure out how to play certain guys together on those ball screens, and that’s our job. I think some guys have to do a better job of defending, too. 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.”
Michigan is suddenly playing some of the best basketball in the Big Ten, having won eight of its last nine with the only loss being a 70-69 defeat against No. 5 Purdue on Tuesday.
“The first half was a highlight show and they were terrific in so many areas, at the same time we only turned the ball over eight times and only gave them eight offensive rebounds," Beilein said.
Jaren Jackson led Michigan State with 19 points, including 10-of-13 from the foul line.
Miles Bridges scored 19 points. His missed 3-pointer from the right wing with Michigan State down by 6 with about :90 seconds remaining marked MSU’s last gasp.
Bridges was 7-of-14 from the field with six rebounds, five assists and four turnovers. He was 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
“He has some tendencies that you have to sit on,” Beilein said of Bridges. “You have to make sure he makes plays for himself, had to make sure he was getting tough twos and wasn’t making plays for others. “
Wagner’s NBA-level, fall-away jumper over Nick Ward pushed Michigan’s lead to 67-61 with 3:48 left delivered a lethal blow. That shot answered a mini 4-point run from Jackson which had cut a Michigan lead from 65-62 to 65-61.
Ward left Wagner alone for a pair of pick-and-pop 3-pointers early in the game. That put Wagner into a rhythm, and Ward never battled out of his defensive funk, playing only 14 minutes while going 2-of-5 from the field for 4 points.
Michigan State barely edged Michigan on the boards, 32-31.
"The biggest thing is to get them off the boards," Beilein said. "In every loss we’ve had here, they probably had 14 or 15 (offensive) rebounds. That didn’t happen today.
"All year long we’ve had an incredible defensive rebounding percentage. That’s guys understanding that they have to check out and go get the ball."
The Spartans out-shot Michigan 45.7 percent to 42.1 percent, but the turnover problem - and Wagner's shot-making - were too much to overcome in the only regular-season meeting between the two rivals.
“When you have that one game, you want to get it,” Beilein said. “Things sort of lined up today. I don’t think one of my teams have ever beaten a Top 5 team on the road."
Michigan came into the game ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten in free throw percentage but 19 of their first 19 in this game. Simpson missed five int he final two minutes but the Wolverines finished 28 of 35 from the line.
“We went to the foul line and made foul shots, something we haven’t been doing," Beilein said. "There’s a lot of ways to win a game and we found (them).”