East Lansing — It wasn’t when Cassius Winston turned the ball over on the first possession or when Xavier Tillman inexplicably fouled an erratic shooter on a 3-pointer seconds later.
Soon, however, Tillman started to understand what teams feel like when they enter the Breslin Center and Michigan State gets on a roll, shots falling, the crowd at a fever pitch. Just minutes into Sunday’s 29-point loss at Mackey Arena, the Spartans found themselves drowning under a similar wave.
A couple of jump hooks from Trevion Williams, a scoop and score for Sasha Stefanovich, back-to-back mid-range jumpers for Matt Haarms. On the other end, the misses and turnovers quickly piled up as the Spartans found themselves 15 points down before breaking a sweat.
“We had some bad mistakes but at the same time they were hot,” Tillman said. “I guess this is what other teams felt like when they come here and we get on our run like that. That's what it felt like. I was taking the ball out after guys are hitting tough shots like Haarms hitting those 15 footers back to back, (Evan) Boudreaux hit some of those hand-in-the-face threes or Sasha coming down the line with the right-hand scoop.
“I was like, these are some tough baskets. There was nothing I could do but tip my hat to them.”
It was, for argument's sake, the worst performance No. 15 Michigan State has had this season.
The Spartans were riding high, winners of eight straight and sitting atop the Big Ten with a perfect 5-0 mark. That ended quickly as they were “punched in the mouth,” as Winston put it after the game.
Of course, the key is how Michigan State (13-4, 5-1 Big Ten) responds. Is there a quick bounce-back or is there a three-game skid coming like the Spartans had last season? They’ll get their first chance to find out Friday when they host Wisconsin at 7 p.m.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo recaps the loss to Purdue on Sunday while looking ahead to Friday's game at home against Wisconsin. The Detroit News
“It will be good to see how we respond from a butt-kicking,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We haven't had many of those around here. Although a former manager who's now an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic, Steve Hetzel, texted when I got on the bus coach and said, ‘Remember in ’05 we got beat by 30 at home by Illinois and we went to a Final Four?’ And I said, ‘Damn, I don't remember that at all.’ So it goes to show that when you do get your butt kicked it's sort of short-term memory.”
Michigan State actually lost by 30 to Illinois in 2003 and lost by 13 at home to Illinois in 2005 when it ended up in the Final Four. But the point remains — the Spartans need to learn from what took place at Purdue but not let it linger.
To do that, they’ll be leaning heavily on Winston and Tillman, the two best players who Izzo said had their worst games with Winston scoring 10 points and turning the ball over nine times while Tillman had eight points and eight rebounds.
“Especially when we’ve got guys like me and X,” Winston said. “You know, guys who've been through it. I mean, last year we lost three in a row. So you don't want to let that linger on. You want to learn from it, and as long as you learn from it you can move forward and get better from it.”
As important as Winston and Tillman are, there’s no doubt the Spartans need more from others. In the loss to Purdue, the other three starters — Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham — combined score seven points on 3-for-13 shooting
Henry, of course, is the wild card. He entered the season with high expectations but hasn’t consistently met them. He’s the final piece in Michigan State’s big three that Izzo is counting on.
“If our best players play well then everybody can play their role underneath them,” Izzo said. “And as I said, Batman, Robin and the butler got to play well or Gotham City is in trouble.”
The loss of wing Kyle Ahrens doesn’t help as Michigan State tries to rebound quickly. Along with Joshua Langford missing the season, it has forced the Spartans to go with a far less experienced lineup, making trips to a place like Mackey Arena even more difficult.
Still, the Spartans are in first place in the conference and in good position with more than half of the Big Ten season still ahead.
“Our margin for error is less than it was and every time you lose a player, especially an experienced player, that margin goes down a little bit,” Izzo said. “But I haven't changed what I feel. I mean, I think the conference is still incredibly good and I think we have just as good a chance as anybody else.
“I still feel very good about where we can get to. I don't feel as good at where we're at right now, but why would you when you got beat by 100?”
When you get beat by 100, as Izzo put it, that means more work. The film sessions have already been lengthy and practice on Tuesday was intense.
There will be no taking it easy. Izzo doesn’t believe in that. Instead, he’ll be taking his players along on the only road he knows.
“If you're a freshman right now and you just got your bell rung, you should be a little nervous,” Izzo said. “What you do about it? Do you get angry and vow that that's not going to happen, or do you lay down and die?
“I just grind and that's what I'm going to do. I'm gonna grind till the day I leave this place and the more grinding you do, the better the outcome will be. I promise you, that’s my load management. My load management is gonna be turned up, OK. Maybe I should do it the other way, but it ain’t happening.”