Nebraska takes advantage of Michigan State turnovers and holds on in final minutes for 79-77 victory.
Lincoln, Neb. – Early in the season, Michigan State had trouble getting any sort of regular rotation, mostly because of assorted injuries and illnesses.
In recent weeks, with the roster near 100 percent, it's been foul trouble that has led to what coach Tom Izzo often refers to as "bizarre lineups."
That was the case again Saturday in the 79-77 loss at Nebraska. In the first half, four players sat significant time with two fouls, most notably Denzel Valentine. Only one player fouled out – guard Lourawls Nairn – but the 27 total fouls resulted in all sorts of lineups at various times.
"Yeah, the foul trouble is really getting in our way," said Valentine, who still managed to play 28 minutes. "But still I think we had good looks, played decent defense we just got to be more mentally tough."
Valentine finished with four fouls, as did Gavin Schilling and Travis Trice. Branden Dawson and Matt Costello had three apiece, with two coming in the first half.
"That really hurt us," Trice said. "You look and we've got Gavin in foul trouble and Matt in foul trouble and Zel in foul trouble. That is three potential starters that are out for you and it puts pressure on the young guys. We've just got to be smart and can't get some of the silly fouls we were getting early. That got us in trouble from the get-go and they capitalized on it."
Izzo usually sits players with two fouls in the first half and did so on Saturday. He did, however, ride Valentine and Trice late despite the foul trouble, choosing at times to substitute offense for defense in the final minutes, but also needed Valentine to help guard Nebraska's Terran Petteway, who scored 32 points.
"The way Petteway can drive, I just didn't have enough people that could guard him," Izzo said. "I mean, Valentine still played 28 minutes, so he would have been the only one. I had Dawson in there, I had Trice in there just about the whole way. So it really was only (Valentine), and I definitely couldn't do that with my bigs. Maybe I second-guess that, but it wasn't something that I really thought about, to be honest with you."
Easily the biggest struggle for Michigan State this season has been free-throw shooting.
The Spartans entered the game shooting a Big Ten-worst 63.2 percent. On Saturday, they were 15-for-25, including 5-for-13 in the first half.
"Missing free throws -- you can't do that on the road and win," Izzo said. "I mean, I don't know how we scored 77 points with all the bad turnovers and all the missed free throws."
The more frustrating part for Izzo was the misses came from places he didn't expect.
"Schilling missed one and Dawson didn't get one, and those are our worst free-throw shooters. So we had some good free-throw shooters missing free throws. ... That's hard to overcome when you're on the road."
Nebraska forward Walter Pitchford, who scored 18 points in the Cornhuskers' win at Michigan State last year, was ejected from the game in the first half for a flagrant-two foul.
Video review showed he swung his elbow at Matt Costello's head and the officials said that was enough to throw him out. Nebraska coach Tim Miles had no complaints.
"I thought Walt deserved to get kicked out," Miles said. "After seeing it, he made a mistake. I know he's sorry for that mistake, but you don't do that. That's uncalled for. Walt will learn from that."
Michigan State went with the same starting lineup for the third straight game. Freshman Javon Bess joined Trice and Valentine in the backcourt while Dawson and Schilling rounded out the starting five.
The Spartans split the last two games with that lineup, losing at Maryland before winning at home on Wednesday against Penn State.
… Nebraska was without senior forward David Rivers. He will miss the next week to two weeks with a knee strain suffered in practice on Thursday. Rivers is averaging 4.9 points and 4.9 rebounds a game while playing better than 28 minutes in each contest. He was replaced in the starting lineup by senior Leslee Smith.