Lincoln, Neb. — A week ago, after Michigan State had been beaten up at Maryland, coach Tom Izzo described the performance as inept.
It was just one of the words he used to portray the Spartans' 16-point defeat, one that came on the heels of three straight victories.
On Saturday evening at Pinnacle Bank Arena, he was more at a loss for words after Michigan State fell 79-77 against Nebraska, a furious rally coming up just short after the Spartans trailed by 17 early in the second half.
"I think what's really been frustrating is we practiced good," Izzo said. "I felt good about our preparation, I felt good about the mindset our guys were in."
But even with the best preparation, Michigan State turned in an uneven performance, one that has been plaguing it all season.
There have been moments this season when the Spartans have looked like they can play with anyone. They were down three with the ball midway through the second half against Duke, a string of missed shots did them in late against Kansas and some defensive lapses led to an overtime loss at Notre Dame.
And in the Big Ten opener against Maryland, there were stretches that Michigan State looked like the superior team, only to lose in double-overtime. Many of the victories, as well, have included the same type of inconsistent play. Only the 20-point victory over Indiana can come close to qualifying as a complete game.
Saturday was the latest example of the maddening inconsistency that is becoming this team's unwanted calling card. The Spartans were dominated into the first few minutes of the second half before finally coming to life.
And they were no closer to figuring it out after the game.
"Yeah, (it's frustrating), especially when the effort and energy we gave at the end we should have given it the whole game," senior guard Travis Trice said. "But it's hard to come back. You gotta give them credit when you're down 14 at halftime and they are rolling and this place is loud.
"There's a lot that goes into it. They hit some tough shots and got some of their guys going early. But I say if we play the way we did the last seven or eight minutes it wouldn't be a problem."
Some of what goes into it has been the play of Trice and fellow guard Denzel Valentine. As good as they were late against Nebraska — Trice scored a career-high 27 points on 9-of-24 shooting and Valentine had 21 — they again struggled to find their shots — and make them — early in the game.
And that has affected their confidence, something that perplexes Izzo even more.
"As soon as a couple things go wrong with a couple of these guys they look very unconfident," Izzo said. "And Denzel Valentine should never do that because he works as hard or harder than any player I've ever coached. So your confidence should never be rattled, and that happens, but if you have a scorer's mentality and you don't make shots, sometimes it affects other parts."
Valentine agreed it can't keep him from rebounding and defending.
"I put in the work and shot 50 percent early in the year," he said. "I just gotta be more mentally tough. We can find other ways to win the game and can't let our shots determine how we're gonna play."
However, it has on most nights, and it's one of the big reasons Michigan State is 13-7 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten. There are other issues, as well — foul trouble, turnovers, free throw shooting — and that's not all on Trice and Valentine.
'We can be a great team'
But with an 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance hanging in the balance over the next few weeks, the duo will need to see the final few minutes of Saturday's game become more the norm, beginning Tuesday at Rutgers.
"When you look at how we played in the first half compared to the second half it looked like two totally different teams," Trice said. "We have to go watch the last eight minutes and then watch the first half and compare and contrast — two totally different teams.
"It's hard to say (why we've been inconsistent). I don't know. We're still trying to figure it out at this point. Hopefully after the next game I'll be able to tell you what it was and have it corrected by then, but right now we're still trying to figure it out. The thing now is to learn from it and bounce back because we have a tough game coming up next."
Added Valentine, "It just shows that when we play hard and really get after it we can be a great team. It doesn't matter how much we're down or how we're playing if we just get after it."
There's no guarantee just getting after it will solve Michigan State's woes, but it's the only place to start. And the Spartans are hoping the final minutes against Nebraska signified that start.
"I think we did some things, we bounced back, started the second half, then we let it go," Izzo said. "We just didn't stay with the grind enough. We're going to have to get better at that. Long season."