East Lansing — Are two straight losses in the middle of the season a reason for Michigan State and its fans to panic, coming on the heels of a 13-game win streak?
Probably not. Just about any team that eventually reaches a championship level can look back and point to a moment in the season where things looked out of sync, the idea of rediscovering any sort of momentum feeling like a long shot.
Maybe that’s what Michigan State is in the midst of following Saturday’s overtime loss at home to Indiana, its second straight compounded by the fact it came against a team that had lost seven straight. Only time will tell as nearly half the Big Ten season remains.
The Spartans (18-4, 9-2 Big Ten) get their next chance to turn things around Tuesday when they head to Illinois. And while we can only predict how the recent slip-up will look by the end of the season, one thing that is crystal clear is Michigan State’s margin for error has shrunk dramatically.
It did the moment Joshua Langford went out of the lineup back in late December and it shriveled to near nothing when Kyle Ahrens missed three games with a bad back. Now that Langford has officially been lost for the season, it means there’s no help on the way.
The result? Michigan State can ill afford many off nights, and it had a doozie on Saturday, getting outrebounded for just the third time all season — Indiana also grabbed 20 offensive rebounds — and making just 8 of 22 free throws despite entering the game shooting better than 77 percent in conference games.
“We just didn't get it done on the defensive end with finishing possessions,” senior forward Kenny Goins said. “We gave up bucket after bucket in the second half and, if they didn't score it seemed like they were getting the offensive rebounds. We just couldn't string a couple stops together.”
That’s how it can start to feel when the things that normally work suddenly aren’t. One of the top rebounding teams in the nation getting beat on the glass or when the ball simply can’t find the bottom of the basket.
Sure, there are reasons why it happened the last two games, chief among them the fact Purdue and Indiana played well enough to win. But Michigan State coach Tom Izzo didn’t like his team’s preparation throughout the week, something nearly every player echoed on Saturday night.
None of it, however, is a reason to believe Michigan State’s season is in peril. The Spartans were 7-1 playing without Langford when they thought he’d be back, so it’s not like the news he would need season-ending surgery was some sort of difference against Indiana.
Instead, it was the definition of having a small margin for error.
“Sometimes when it rains, it pours,” Izzo said. “We make any free throws early or we don't give up 13 offensive rebounds in the first half and we're up maybe 10.”
Matt Charboneau and John Niyo break down Michigan State's loss to Indiana The Detroit News
It also doesn’t mean the blame can be heaped on Nick Ward’s 1-for-9 performance at the line — he entered the game shooting better than 68 percent this season — or the fact Cassius Winston played nearly the entire game. After all, Winston’s been doing it all season and Michigan State has already proven it can win when Ward struggles, beating a ranked Maryland team when Ward went scoreless.
The key will be where does the secondary production come from? With Langford out, that puts plenty of pressure on senior Matt McQuaid, Ahrens and freshman Aaron Henry. Ahrens and Henry have athleticism and Ahrens can make a shot, but he’s still working back from his injury while Henry is experiencing the usual ups and downs of a freshman.
That leaves McQuaid, who has picked up the defensive slack in Langford’s absence but has seen his offense suffer. He took just three shots against Indiana and has had double-digit attempts just three times since Langford went out.
“I would say it’s a product of us not doing a good enough job getting him the ball,” Izzo said. “A couple times I thought he was open, but didn't shoot the ball, and probably wearing down defensively, he puts so much into his defense. We talked two, three times in the huddle that he wasn't running his lane, wasn't getting shots that I think he can get. He got one wide-open three just by running, and we didn't do that very often.”
MSU coach Tom Izzo on the loss to Indiana The Detroit News
Again, any one of these aspects — rebounding, free-throw shooting, more offense from someone like McQuaid — goes the other direction Saturday and Michigan State wins. However, it also highlights that dwindling margin of error.
Michigan State still is a team that can win the Big Ten and is being projected as a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it came make a deep run. The last two losses don’t change that.
They did, however, show the Spartans need to avoid too many “bad” nights.
“We have to go back to work. Go back to working harder in practice, go back to putting in individual work as well,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “We have to go back to watching film with the coaches. Watching film over the last couple practices to see what you can improve on. You can only go up from here in my eyes. If you want to you have to be able to shake this off and go get better.”