Spartans ‘out-toughed on our home floor,’ embarrassed
East Lansing — Early in the first half Saturday, Michigan sophomore Charles Matthews had to go to the Wolverines’ bench to take care of a bloody nose.
It was a picture that embodied not only the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry, but more often than not, showed that Michigan State is a team that takes it to its opponents, priding itself on being the aggressor.
By the time everything was said and done, however, that quick shot for Matthews proved to be nothing as it was the Wolverines who proved to be the tougher team, knocking off No. 4 Michigan State, 82-72, at Breslin Center.
“We’re the ones that are supposed to be out-toughing people,” Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges said. “To be out-toughed on our home floor against our rival school is embarrassing.”
Embarrassing, sure, but also critical when it comes to competing for a Big Ten championship. The loss knocks Michigan State (16-3, 4-2) two full games out of first place and has them wondering a bit where the season is heading.
It’s been a tough week with a loss Sunday at Ohio State followed by an overtime victory at home over Rutgers leading into Saturday’s matchup that saw Michigan’s Moritz Wagner score a career-high 27 points.
“I think we really have to do a little soul searching with a couple of guys,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
That soul-searching will include plenty of work on playing ball-screen defense. It’s been an issue at times this season for the Spartans but was critical on Saturday. Michigan exploited it often with guards Zavier Simpson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews running it to perfection.
It often resulted in drives to the basket or passes back to Wagner, who was 3-for-4 from 3-point range.
Izzo put much of that blame on his guards and not Nick Ward, who played just 14 minutes.
“What we’ve got to do is get over the ball screens,” Izzo said. “I mean those are basic things, guys. I don’t have a good answer for you on why we didn’t. We’ve done a better job this year just one of those days we didn’t do a very good job, so I’m not worried about quicker guards, I’m worried about somebody just gritting their teeth and getting the job done.”
In other words, it was about being the tougher team.
“Yeah, they played harder than us,” senior guard Lourawls Nairn said. “When people play harder than you, you don’t win.”
It’s a simple formula, but one Michigan State will need to get figured out quickly.
Michigan coach John Beilein gave the Spartans a bit of a pass, pointing out they’re still relatively young. However, for a team that believes it’s good enough to win the Big Ten and take a shot at the national title, it is a convenient excuse.
The Spartans will have until Friday, when they host Indiana, to work on it.
“This will hurt for a day or two, because this is a big game to me,” Izzo said. “I’m going to address a couple of guys on the grit that you have to have to play in the Big Ten. ... I mean when you’re playing to win big games. Some guys have to grow up a little bit, and they will.”
Michigan State had been making some progress on its turnover issue, but Saturday’s loss was a step back, as 18 turnovers led to 26 Michigan points.
It overshadowed what wasn’t the worst defensive game for Michigan State as the Wolverines shot 42.1 percent from the field. However, they took 11 more shots than the Spartans.
“We were shooting 50 percent all game, we just didn’t get enough shots up because we kept turning the ball over,” Izzo said. “There were some turnovers they earned, there were some turnovers we deserved, so a little bit of both.”
Michigan State is averaging 13.9 turnovers a game but had started to limit them in recent games. On Saturday, point guard Cassius Winston had four turnovers and two assists.
“I think a big part of it was on me,” Winston said. “We have not been playing within our system. Doing the things to win us games and playing Spartan basketball.
“We were supposed to be tough, rebound and execute, and I don’t think we did those things tonight. We did not play with enough toughness tonight.”
Good day for Tillman
There were some bright spots for Michigan State, including the play of freshman Xavier Tillman, who played 12 minutes and provided solid defense while scoring five points and blocking two shots.
“I was able to contribute when my number was called,” Tillman said. “That’s what I’m was most happy about.”