MSU's Matt McQuaid, Xavier Tillman, Cassius Winston and Kenny Goins met the media after Saturday's loss to Indiana. The Detroit News
Bloomington, Ind. – For a few weeks now, Michigan State has been talking about the fact its margin for error was shrinking.
It was small back in January, when Joshua Langford was lost for the season to a foot injury and Kyle Ahrens was beginning to deal with a bad back. It virtually disappeared when Nick Ward broke his hand in a win over Ohio State two weeks ago.
Through it all, though, No. 6 Michigan State was continuing to win, shaking off a three-game slide in the middle of Big Ten play to remain atop the conference standings. The margin for error hadn’t changed, the Spartans were simply rarely delving into that margin.
Until Saturday at Indiana, that is, when all of it hit them right in the face. For a team that felt like it played well enough to win going away – “You’d think we had it in the bag,” Cassius Winston said – the missing pieces proved critical in a 63-62 loss to Indiana in a game the Spartans led virtually the entire way.
Whether it was the post presence and rebounding Ward could have provided or the critical bucket Langford might have gotten in the final 4:13 of scoreless action, the Spartans had few options. It was Winston on a ball screen and go from there.
“Guys fought hard. We fought hard,” Winston said. “Just when it came to winning time, you’ve got to make winning plays at winning time, that’s where we lost it.
“You’ve got to dig deep and make those winning plays. We’ve been really good at them and today we didn’t come through.”
Matt Charboneau breaks down Michigan State's loss at Indiana The Detroit News
It was the perfect example of how good Michigan State (23-6, 14-4 Big Ten) can be as it twice almost effortlessly built double-digit leads – once in the first half and again early in the second. And even after an early second-half surge from Indiana, the Spartans quickly got the lead back to 59-51.
Just as quickly, though, it turned the other way as Indiana dominated the glass in the final 20 minutes and hit the big shots Michigan State did not.
Tom Izzo says it’s because his players ran out of gas. The same players weren’t buying it.
“I’m really upset with myself,” said senior Kenny Goins, who scored 14 points but had only three rebounds and committed four turnovers. “I don’t think I played well. I didn’t rebound like I have and that was a huge emphasis on the game. I’m putting a lot of blame on myself for it. It kinda sucks to have your destiny in someone else’s hands. Today I didn’t take it. We didn’t take it as a whole.”
Those final minutes emphasized that margin for error that has been lingering all season. When things are clicking, the sky is the limit. When Goins is knocking down threes and grabbing rebounds, when Xavier Tillman is on the glass, when Matt McQuaid is playing both ends of the floor and Ahrens is healthy for 15-20 minutes, the Spartans can beat anyone.
Any of those aspects falter, and you get four-plus minutes without a point and spend the next hour or so trying to explain away a loss that likely knocked you out of a chance at winning a second straight Big Ten championship.
Opposing teams see it, too. Defenses are now selling out to stop Winston and the Spartans are trying to free up their most important player.
“They probably set as many screens for him as any player you're going to guard,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said, “so when you're guarding him, you're getting nailed.”
Being able to kick out to a guy like Langford would help Winston. Ahrens was on the bench late with the bad back and McQuaid, playing on a bad ankle, missed a late three that could have swung momentum. And with Ward out, that takes away a post presence, not to mention a handful of rebounds for Michigan State.
The bigger picture for Michigan State is it still sees itself as a team that can win the Big Ten tournament and reach the Final Four. That’s a reasonable goal but also one that won’t be simple.
Ahrens’ status will be up in the air the rest of the season and Ward might be back in a week, but it might linger into the off-season. And while some might scream for more minutes from Foster Loyer, Gabe Brown and, to an extent, Thomas Kithier, the playing time for those freshmen isn’t going to change significantly at this point in the season.
“(Maybe) we’ll come up with some magic tricks and bring Shawn Respert back,” Izzo said. "I don't know what the hell we'll do.”
Not exactly the position you want to be in with two games left in the regular season. But that’s where the Spartans are – a very good team with potential to be great and the same potential to drop a game no one saw coming.
“I know one thing -- we aren’t dead yet,” Izzo said. “We lost a game to a team that had been playing better. We lost a game that we played well enough to win by 10 points. Give them credit. They came back and won it but that was a shame to lose that game. I thought we deserved to win that game in most ways and didn’t win it.”