FTs cost victories, overshadow MSU strengths
East Lansing — Tom Izzo admitted on Monday that he was as mad as he can remember after Michigan State's loss to Illinois on Saturday.
He had just watched his team hand away a potential victory by failing to make free throws, something the Spartans have struggled to do all season. In fact, this year's team is shooting just 62.1 percent from the line, the worst in the Big Ten and the worst of any Izzo-coached team over a 20-year stretch.
And that is hard enough to deal with. But when Izzo took the next day to examine the statistics and see how well Michigan State is playing in many other facets of the game, well that is what really frustrated him.
The Spartans (15-8, 6-4 Big Ten) are leading the conference in field-goal percentage defense, 3-point field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin. They also average more assists than any other team and have — for the most part — limited their turnovers.
But all of that has been trumped by not only poor free-throw shooting, but failures in crunch time. And that has Michigan State firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble heading into Tuesday night's game at Northwestern.
"I think it's ridiculous what we're going through because I do think we're doing enough other good things," Izzo said. "This is not a great team, it's right where we said. But you know, two or three losses that would have been wins, if you look at what we shot against Texas Southern, if you look at what we shot against Maryland here. There are chances to win. You look at (the Illinois) game with a chance to win. You look at Notre Dame with just one (free throw) makes a win. If you win three more games, you're 18 and whatever, 5, you're ranked in the top 15 in the country.
"We've played in other areas good enough to be at that record. In a lot of other areas, if you check the stats. And so we've got to find a way to do a better job in this area, because it is killing us."
If it ends up being the difference in Michigan State reaching its 18th straight NCAA Tournament remains to be seen, but there is no doubt it must get fixed if anything will change.
The problem is, there is no easy fix.
Some of the worst offenders have been players who have traditionally been reliable at the line. Travis Trice shot 81.8 percent last season and entered the season a 71.6 percent shooter for his career. He is shooting 67.6 percent this year and came up short against Illinois.
Denzel Valentine is shooting 83.3 percent this season but missed late against Michigan with a chance to put the game away, and when it came to crunch time against Illinois, he told Izzo to go with Bryn Forbes for a pair of technical free throws and chance to tie the game in the final minute. Forbes, an 80.6 percent shooter, split the pair and Michigan State lost.
Izzo said he planned to go with Valentine but decided he'd follow his team leader.
"Maybe it's bad picking," Izzo said. "Just the way it is. You make some decisions that don't work out, but as long as they're educated … you know Bryn is still one of the best free-throw shooters and 3-point shooters on our team."
So it's back to the drawing board for the Spartans, who have added more free-throw shooting into their practices and players like Branden Dawson have set times each day they practice nothing but.
However, none of that will substitute for the confidence of seeing the ball go through the basket at crunch time. And Izzo is confident it can happen.
"Yeah, you need a breakthrough game where you make some important free throws," he said. "It's going to happen, it's going to come. There's good enough free throw shooters to shoot well enough, there's good enough 3-point shooters to shoot well enough, and like everybody else you hope it doesn't come too late."
Foot likely sidelines Bess for season
What likely won't come this season is playing time for freshman Javon Bess.
Izzo said Monday the guard is likely going to miss the rest of the season with an injury to his right foot that has him wearing a boot.
"Javon might be done for the year," Izzo said. "It just doesn't look like it's healed and it doesn't seem right. He's got pain there and they're trying to do everything they can to find out … but I don't like where it's headed and he's definitely gonna be out for a couple of weeks and that is almost 100 percent for sure."
Bess had surgery to repair a broken bone in his right foot just before the season began and missed the first 10 games. And even when he was back on the floor, injuries to both ankles slowed him as Big Ten play began. But he said on Saturday that the pain in his right foot had become too much to play through and tests will continue this week.
"It's a big effect on us but it's hard to cry about injuries because a lot of teams have them," Izzo said. "There's a kid I told you from day one was starting and he was a kid that brought some toughness to a team that maybe doesn't have as much of that. And he knows how to play. The one game he was healthy for was at Nebraska and he gets nine points and he does some things. But he hasn't been able to practice or do anything."
Izzo didn't know former North Carolina coach Dean Smith very well, but they certainly crossed paths and had their share of matchups. Smith died on Sunday and Izzo recalled playing his North Carolina team in Izzo's second game as Michigan State's head coach at the Maui Invitational in 1995.
"The second game of my career against them when Dick Vitale got me off the floor in Hawaii," Izzo recalled. "The ticker said: 'Dean Smith 795 wins, Tom Izzo 1.' And (Vitale) said, 'I just wanted to tell you something, good luck today.' And he started laughing. And 20 minutes later, we were 20 down."
Michigan State lost that game by 22 points, but it didn't change the way Izzo felt about Smith.
"He is not just a great coach and a good person and a guy who did it the right way but he is also a guy that reached out beyond, and yet nobody knew about it because he had incredible humility," Izzo said. "We'll be saddened as a profession to lose an icon but appreciative of what he gave to the game and what he gave to his players and what he gave to society."
Michigan State at Northwestern
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Ill.
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 15-8, 6-4 Big Ten; Northwestern 10-13, 1-9
Notable: With MSU's next conference win, Tom Izzo will tie Purdue's Ward Lambert (228) for third place in Big Ten victories, trailing Bobby Knight (353) and Gene Keady (265). … Michigan State has lost just twice in its last 15 meetings with Northwestern, the last loss coming on the road in 2012.