Spartans sloppy but take solace in still being 'right there' with nation's best

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

New York – There was no hiding the frustration for Michigan State late Tuesday night.

The Spartans had just lost to Kentucky, 69-62, in the Champions Classic, a marquee event highlighted by the top-ranked Spartans taking on the second-ranked Wildcats in the nightcap, following No. 4 Duke’s two-point victory over No. 3 Kansas.

Tom Izzo stood outside of the Michigan State locker room, tearing up his copy of the box score as he lamented the 16 turnovers, the poor shooting and the number of fouls that he called “ridiculous.”

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman falls to the court in front of Kentucky forward Nick Richards.

“It’s just disappointing because if you shoot a little bit better you have a real chance to win the game,” Izzo said.

Michigan State didn’t shoot well … at all. The Spartans made 39.3 percent of their shots (22-for-56) but were just 5-for-26 from 3-point range. Senior guard Cassius Winston was 1-for-7 on 3-pointers and joined the parade of those missing clean looks, a handful of critical misfires coming in the final minutes.

“We just couldn’t get over that hump,” Winston said. “It was that way the whole game.”

Add in the 23 fouls committed – 14 coming in the first half – that threw a wrench in the rotation just minutes into the game and led to 32 Kentucky free throws, and it was as sloppy as a season-opener could be. But even after the frustration, after the shredded pieces of the box score had been chucked, there was the realization that the loss was simply one game.

It was one game against another elite team, and even with the mistakes and misses, the Spartans were within a bucket with just more than a minute to play.

“The potential is there,” Winston said. “Everything is out there. If that is the best team in the country then we’re right there.”

Of course, Izzo was quick to point out that it was Michigan State that entered the game as the No. 1 team in the country. However, it hardly played the part for long stretches on Tuesday.

“We were the No. 1 team and didn’t play like one,” Izzo said. “They played more up to that level.”

The Wildcats were hardly a well-oiled machine. They were just 19-for-50 shooting and got bailed out by freshman Tyrese Maxey’s 26 points, highlighted by a dagger triple with a minute left in the game.

The performance from both teams highlighted the underlying theme to the night – as much as both teams want to win these sorts of games, they also understand it’s a long way to go until March when things really start to matter.

A season ago, Michigan State started slowly against No. 1 Kansas before making a late push and losing by five. By the time the Final Four rolled around some four-plus months later, it was Michigan State that was still standing while Kansas, Duke and Kentucky had all been eliminated.

The key for Michigan State will be doing what it usually does – learn from its early mistakes to hit its stride by the time conference play is in full effect leading into the postseason. It was exactly what the Spartans were trying to remind themselves by the time Tuesday night had turned into early Wednesday morning.

“No. 1 on my list is me and my staff have to do a much better job,” Izzo said. “There were a lot of plays that we screwed up and one guy screwed them up. That’s our fault. Before I say anything about the players, me and my staff had better improve a lot within the next week. There are going to be some long nights in that building, I’m telling you that.

 “We’re gonna get a lot better. Most years they say Kentucky will get a lot better because of their freshmen. Hell, I think we were younger than them most time out there. I bet you we get better than they do. That’s how much I think we’ve got to improve and can improve.”

Izzo believes the Spartans will make that jump because of their pieces. Winston will rarely go 1-for-7 from 3-point range, Xavier Tillman will continue to get more comfortable in the post and Aaron Henry will almost surely look more like he did in the second half than in the first when he picked up two fouls and played less than three minutes.

Freshman guard Rocket Watts played well defensively and showed he could play the point, but he might not go scoreless again the rest of the season. And the progress from the likes of Malik Hall to Thomas Kithier to Marcus Bingham added with the veteran steadiness of Kyle Ahrens will assuredly look better in January than it does now.

It happens all the time under Izzo. He’s upset his team couldn’t hold the No. 1 ranking, the first time it’s been in that position entering the season. However, this is part of the process, one that will be painful at times but usually pays off.

“The timing was off, the knowledge of what to do was off,” Izzo said. “You play in Madison Square Garden and that’s just the way it is. There were a lot of guys on their team that didn’t have very good nights either, but one guy had a superstar night and they had a million free throws and had some turnovers for touchdowns. We probably defended them pretty well.

“We did some things we can build on I’m just disappointed in myself and my staff.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau