Back in late March, as the Big Ten convened at its annual tournament in Indianapolis, optimism around college
basketball in these parts was at a pretty high level.
Michigan was coming off an appearance in the national title game, had just won a Big Ten regular season championship and was about to face Michigan State in the conference tournament title game.
For Michigan State, it finally had a healthy team and was playing like one many expected would reach the Final Four.
The Spartans won that day, in convincing fashion, and both teams headed into the NCAA Tournament with the same goal of playing for a national championship.
It didn’t quite work out as Michigan and Michigan State both lost in the regional finals, one step short of the Final Four. But for a few weeks, the Spartans and Wolverines were the talk of the town. Facing off in the Big Ten tournament title game was great, but just imagine if they squared off on a national stage?
Fast forward a few months and any such notion the in-state rivals could end up in the same spot again this year has all but vanished. It’s not even Jan. 1 and neither team has played a conference game.
But Michigan has lost four straight, highlighted — or lowlighted would be more appropriate — by losses at home to New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan, and Michigan State just lost at home to Texas Southern. Yes, the same Texas Southern team that had won exactly one game before winning in overtime at Breslin Center on Saturday.
The frustration Saturday was evident for both coaches.
Tom Izzo blamed himself for his team playing with little emotion.
“My job is to get a team ready to play and I made a coaching mistake,” he said. “You get older, you start worrying about people liking you. And I did not work my team. I felt sorry for them, I did not work them like I normally do.”
John Beilein hoped there was a way to turn the four-game skid — the longest since 2011 after the loss to SMU — into a positive.
“Most of these kids played on really good high school teams; some of them might not lose four in a season, much less four in a row,” Beilein said. “There’s been times we didn’t lose the fourth game until the middle of February. It’s part of it and it’s a great opportunity for us to be great mentors for them and teach them through this as we continue to transition here.”
There were signs
There was one important word there that really sums up what Michigan State and Michigan are experiencing this year — transition.
No team or fan base likes to endure what each is right now. Izzo has built a winning program over 20 years as a head coach and Beilein has breathed life into the Wolverines in the last couple of years. So losing isn’t part of the deal. But, believe it or not, this was predictable.
Michigan lost two players — Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary — who went in the first round of the NBA draft and Glenn Robinson III went in the second round. Michigan State saw Gary Harris and Adreian Payne go in the first round while guard Keith Appling also graduated and is playing in the NBA D-League.
That’s a pretty good chunk of core players gone from two of the top 10 teams in the nation last season. And neither had a marquee recruiting class coming in, so the growing pains seemed pretty likely.
Neither team is unique. The Big Ten, arguably the best conference in college basketball, is in a collective state of transition. Outside of Wisconsin, most teams are in the same boat. All have questions.
Can Nebraska bounce back from early upset losses? Can Ohio State win against top competition? Can Maryland rise to the top in its first Big Ten season? What about Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa? Heck, is Penn State the real deal? After all, the Nittany Lions are 11-1.
It all will be decided once conference play begins in a little more than a week. Some of it might seem predictable — I gotta think Penn State comes back to earth — but a good bet is a lot of it won’t be.
And that is the positon Michigan State and Michigan are in now.
Not over yet
Will each team look back to the struggles of November and December and see it as a necessary step in a season that eventually was built into a success? Or will it be the beginning of what was a colossal disappointment?
Michigan State has been to 17 straight NCAA Tournaments and Michigan has been to five of the last six, coming agonizingly close to a championship in 2013.
Both expected similar results this season. Over the next three months we’ll find out if they’re making progress or tumbling in the wrong direction.
The Citadel at Michigan State
Tip-off: 6 p.m. Monday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: None/WJR 760
Records: Citadel 4-6, Michigan State 8-4
Notable: Michigan State is making the quick turnaround after suffering an overtime loss to Texas Southern on Saturday. … The Spartans entered the Texas Southern game as the top 3-point shooting team in the nation at 44.4 percent but made just 4 of 21. … The Citadel has lost two straight after falling to Virginia Tech on Saturday. … The teams last met in 2009 when Michigan State went on the road, picking up a 69-56 victory.
Coppin State at Michigan
Tip-off: 6 p.m., Crisler Arena, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WWJ 950
Records: Coppin State 1-9, Michigan 6-5
Notable: Michigan’s final game before the Big Ten schedule. ... The teams played last season in Ann Arbor, with Michigan winning 87-45. ... Coppin State is coached by Michael Grant, the older brother of former Michigan star Gary Grant. ... This is Michael Grant’s first year at Coppin State, but his 16th as a college head coach. He coached the last six seasons at Division II Stillman College. ... Coppin State is second in the country in three-point attempts, averaging 29.5 per game.