Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s team hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1997. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
Since Tom Izzo took over as Michigan State coach, his teams have been known to play a certain way.
They've always rebounded as well as anyone in the country, played tough, in-your-face defense and most importantly, never, ever shied away from a fight.
On Wednesday in Iowa City, the Spartans crumbled, showed no fight and, what was probably the most alarming thing ever seen from an Izzo-coached team, they simply had no heart.
It's been a shocking free fall for a team that had national championship aspirations entering the season. The Spartans had been to two consecutive Final Fours and returned the core of the team many thought was as talented as any in the country.
Against the Hawkeyes, that team was outrebounded, had 17 turnovers (for 30 points) and basically sat back and watched as the last-place team in the Big Ten ran up and down the court, doing whatever it felt like against the big, bad Spartans.
After Michigan State's loss to Michigan last week, Izzo mentioned there was blood in the water, and that teams now saw the Spartans as vulnerable.
Now they must be wondering whether the Spartans will even bother showing up.
Wednesday's loss was unlike any of the previous eight the Spartans suffered.
They had certainly played poorly before, but never had they simply given up.
"This was the first time in quite a few years that I thought there was just a total letdown, and I did not see it coming," Izzo said. "But sometimes you get what you deserve, and if we're not doing the things we need to do, then maybe we deserve it."
Izzo called out his seniors afterward, and while he didn't use names, the clear targets were Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas.
Summers was absent again. He scored six points, turned the ball over three times and looked as inspired as a man in need of a good night's sleep.
Lucas scored 17, but did not have an assist and shot 5 for 16.
"Sometimes we get fooled with scoring, but scoring isn't the only thing you do to win games," Izzo said. "If you score a lot of points but you're taking a lot of shots, that's not going to do it either. I just don't think we're running our team like we need to."
After the game, sophomore center Derrick Nix said he wasn't surprised with his team's performance and said the Spartans lacked leadership.
Maybe nobody should be surprised. Michigan State has been the picture of frustration all season, beginning with a loss to Connecticut in Maui, a listless loss to Syracuse and an ugly performance at home against Texas. Throw in a near-collapse at Northwestern, the loss at Penn State and defeats at the hands of Michigan and Iowa, and this team's collapse almost seems predictable.
Junior Delvon Roe went further after the loss at Iowa.
"It was embarrassing," he said. "If you really look at it, we should have one win in the Big Ten, if you take away the overtime victories and the comebacks. It's just confusing."
Confusing that the Spartans season has come to this point, but not in realizing many of the players have checked out.
The loss of Korie Lucious certainly hasn't helped with team morale, but that alone can't explain what has happened this season. Michigan State continues to shoot poorly and hasn't defended the perimeter well in weeks.
But this collapse comes down to heart, and this team, as a whole, is showing it no longer has what it takes.
Not every player has given up. Some scrapped the entire 40 minutes Wednesday, even if they weren't sure if their teammates felt the same way.
It has to be hard to watch for the players that came before this group, the ones who left it all on the court to help create the program that exists now. Mateen Cleaves, Antonio Smith, Charlie Bell, Morris Peterson, Shannon Brown, Jason Richardson and Drew Neitzel, just to name a few.
It's often said in sports you play as much for the name on the front of the jersey as you do for the name on the back.
Stunningly, Michigan State now is a team that seems more concerned with the name on the back.
What a difference
Here are some factors behind Michigan State's downfall:
|14-4||Big Ten record||5-5|
|+8.6||Avg. reb. dif.||+3.7|
|+8||Avg. point dif.||+3.8|