Two steps forward, one step back for MSU basketball

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

College Park, Md. — Tom Izzo had plenty of adjectives to describe the way his team played Saturday.

Inept. Pitiful. Awful.

They were all true in Michigan State's 75-59 loss at No. 14 Maryland. The Spartans' best players weren't very good while the offense struggled and the Terrapins rarely missed. It was the perfect combination for a blowout loss that made Michigan State look like a team nowhere near contending for the Big Ten title.

It was a far cry from the previous week when the Spartans won three straight, but it also highlighted what had been predicted before the season began — consistency would likely be an issue.

That will happen when you lose three guys to the NBA. Some nights, it looks like a team that could push the leaders in the conference. Other nights, not so much.

"It is very disappointing," Izzo said, "and every time I think we're taking two steps forward, we take one step back."

But in this season's Big Ten, that's not out of the ordinary. From one night to the next it's difficult to predict what is going to happen. Wisconsin might be the best team, but it has lost to Rutgers and is now without injured point guard Travon Jackson. Maryland has been the next best team and proved it Saturday.

After that, it's a bit of a crapshoot as nearly every team has played much like Michigan State — well on some nights but inexplicably bad on others.

The takeaway for the Spartans is that Saturday's loss at Maryland is not a predictor of doom and gloom. A bad game it surely was, but considering what lies ahead on the schedule, a road loss to a top-15 team isn't the worst thing in the world.

"What we talked about is we can't let this loss turn into two and don't let two turn into three," senior guard Travis Trice said. "Then we're really in trouble because we've got a game on Wednesday against Penn State and we've got to bounce back."

The schedule should help as Michigan State could be favored in its next six games. However, it's just as hard to predict considering the nature of the Big Ten, one Izzo described last week as "topsy-turvy."

But the opportunity is there for the Spartans. It begins Wednesday at home against a Penn State team that has yet to win a conference game while the week ends with a trip to Nebraska, which has wildly underachieved this season. A road game at Rutgers is followed by home games against Michigan and Illinois before a road trip to Northwestern.

They are all winnable games — even if they're far from sure things — and could have the Spartans in a remarkably better position heading into a Valentine's Day meeting with Ohio State than they are today.

"We've still got some work to do," junior center Matt Costello said. "The game is the best test. It's like a test in school and we had a long time to prepare and we didn't bring it (against Maryland). We have to come next time and we'll do better."

There are certainly issues with this team that need to be corrected for any such run to result in a significant stretch of victories. The half-court offense must improve, the free throws can go nowhere but up and the defense needs to avoid nights, like Saturday, where it checks out.

It was enough to have a freshman wondering what he just witnessed.

"Michigan State is tough and we played soft tonight," said Javon Bess, who started for the first time Saturday. "That's what I thought. When you think of Michigan State you think of toughness and defense, and that's not how we played tonight."

That feeling has been most evident in an area Michigan State has typically dominated — rebounding. The Spartans still lead the conference in rebounding margin, but it has had struggled, most notably in both games against Maryland.

In the first meeting, the Terrapins grabbed 52 rebounds to 36 for the Spartans. On Saturday, they each pulled down 34. But Izzo was far from enthralled.

"We rebounded a little better here," he said. "I'm supposed to pat our guys on the back because it was even on the boards, but that's not what we've stood for."

It leaves Michigan State ready to head into what is likely its most critical stretch and nothing less than an 18th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament might be at stake. Get on a roll against teams that can be beat and the Spartans could be in great shape heading into a final stretch of the season that includes four of the final six games on the road.

Come up short and they could be scrambling to avoid an unfamiliar March.

"We've got to find a way to get it done," Trice said. "We didn't get it done (Saturday) and I didn't get it done. The thing is we have to bounce back Wednesday. We can't make it two in a row."