East Lansing — With Michigan State in the midst of its first three-game losing streak in two years, there was no time for playing nice on Thursday.
The ninth-ranked Spartans find themselves a game out of first place in the Big Ten and spent the bulk of practice time two days after a loss at Illinois trying to reclaim their identity, one that has helped coach Tom Izzo build a program that is among the best in the nation on an annual basis.
“How do you think your team is?” Izzo said after practice concluded, asking himself the first question as reporters crowded around. “I thought we were awful. I didn’t think we played with any of the three categories that we looked up and we worked on it for two nights, the coaches did. We’re not defending like we were. Teams were shooting 22 percent against us five games ago from the 3 and they’re shooting 37 percent against us now. That’s an unbelievably ridiculous amount.
“No. 2, we were outrebounding teams, by 13 now we’re outrebounding them by one. That’s No. 2. And because we didn’t rebound we don’t run. So, there’s nothing about shooting, nothing about free-throw shooting, nothing about anything else. It’s about defend, rebound, run. The way that Michigan State’s done it, the way that championships teams do it and that’s what we got to get back to and that’s what we tried to get after today a little bit.”
There have been other contributing factors to the last three losses. At Purdue, it was the end of three games in six days on the road against the hottest team in the Big Ten. In the loss last weekend at home to Indiana, poor free-throw shooting crept in while at Illinois on Tuesday it was the 24 turnovers, including nine from Cassius Winston.
But the constant through it all has been the rebounding, the start of everything for the Spartans, who rank 13th in the conference in defensive rebounding have allowed 32 offensive rebounds in each of the last two games. Do that, and the fast break grinds to a halt while teams are getting extra possessions. Against Illinois, the Fighting Illini took 15 more shots as the Spartans attempted a season-low 43.
It led to Thursday’s practice, which Izzo described as “probably the best I’ve seen in a while.”
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said the Spartans spent at least a half hour just playing the war drill, something Izzo got away from at points this season because he was trying to avoid injuries and wearing players out. Tillman said it was an effort to get the energy back.
“It’s effort to want to cut your man out and actually cutting your man out,” Tillman said. “If you don’t cut your man out it’s all effort. We talked about it yesterday, our effort plays which are defending, rebounding and running and we can’t run if we don’t defend, which is letting up 3s, and we can’t run if don’t rebound, which is not boxing out.”
For senior Kenny Goins, who has seen his share of ups and downs in five seasons and is Michigan State’s best rebounder this season, turning things around is quite simple.
“You either (man) up or shut up,” Goins said. “What kind of (guts) have you got? It’s time for guys to step up. It all heart and (guts) now.”
The first chance for Michigan State (18-5, 9-3 Big Ten) to prove it can get things back on track comes at 2 p.m. Saturday when it hosts Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers (16-7, 6-6) enter the game on a two-game skid of their own, but for Michigan State to make it three, getting things rolling again begins with two players — Winston and Nick Ward.
Winston had a career-high nine turnovers in the loss to Illinois while Ward was pulled from the starting lineup because of poor rebounding and responded with just 1, matching his career low.
“I’ve got two great players,” Izzo said. “Nick Ward is a great player and so is Cassius Winston. Great players have to play great. I don’t care if you’re playing Tom Brady or Magic Johnson or Lebron James. You’re gonna go how your best players go, and that’s a lot pressure on them.”
It’s pressure they’ve proven they can handle. Michigan State won seven of eight games without Joshua Langford when it thought the junior would return. The Spartans have lost three since they found out Langford was lost for the season.
“Two of the players came in yesterday and said that was a real blow to them and the team and the locker room,” Izzo said. “I never think that way, but I think that tells you a little what they think of Josh and who Josh is. They’re not dumb. They play dumb once in a while, but they’re not and they know what he brings to the table.”
And they know they won’t be getting it back. So, after three losses, it looks like the wakeup call has arrived.
The question is, can Michigan State get back to the team that won 13 in a row before the latest slump?
“I have no doubt — no doubt — in my mind that this team can play better and will play better if we get back to the basics of who we are and what we’ve been,” Izzo said. “We’ll get back to that. We have the ability to do that and we’ll do it.”