Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was impressed with Wisconsin as the Badgers jumped on the Spartans early and hand MSU another road loss. The Detroit News
A little more than seven minutes into Michigan State’s game at Wisconsin on Saturday, the Spartans found themselves in a familiar yet uncomfortable position.
As shot after shot fell for the Badgers – the home team hit seven of their first 10 – and the Spartans continued to misfire over and over again, Michigan State quickly found itself in a double-digit hole and, in the process, ignited a fire in the Kohl Center crowd that had entered the arena with barely a flicker of energy.
The start was summed up succinctly by Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who suggested the Spartans had their backsides kicked by a team that simply played harder.
“A little bit embarrassed, to be honest with you,” Izzo said afterward.
Wisconsin used that start to hand Michigan State a third Big Ten road loss, outlasting the Spartans, 64-63.
What had Izzo and the Spartans so unsure of an explanation on Saturday was the fact this game was hardly the outlier. This particular day, Michigan State was down 18-6. Last week at Indiana, it was an 18-4 hole and a week before that at Purdue the deficit was 19-4.
In fact, when Michigan State won last Sunday at Minnesota, it benefited by the fact the Golden Gophers simply couldn’t make a shot, allowing the Spartans to settle in and eventually run away with their second Big Ten road win.
In the three losses, Michigan State was lucky to graze the rim while the opponents were lighting it up, and in the process, creating an environment that is nearly impossible in which to win a game. The Spartans got run out of the gym at Purdue, losing by 29. They battled back against Indiana and Wisconsin, but lost both.
The common theme was a miserable start to the game.
“It’s real frustrating,” freshman Rocket Watts said. “We gotta learn how to come out hard and not let teams get a good lead on us. I feel like we do that every time we’re playing an away game, so we've got to do a better job of coming out, playing hard and stop letting teams take the lead.”
Of course, that’s the simple answer. Just play better to begin the game.
But figuring out why No. 14 Michigan State (16-6, 8-3) can’t seem to find any early rhythm away from home is the tougher problem to solve.
Michigan State's Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston try to explain another slow start on the road as the Spartans lost at Wisconsin. The Detroit News
Defensively, the Spartans have struggled. Yes, there have been instances where the home teams were simply shooting the lights out, including players who haven’t typically done so. However, that’s letting the Spartans off the hook, something Izzo hasn’t done.
At Indiana, Izzo he was, “totally disgusted and disappointed with the start. I didn’t think we guarded anyone.”
He had a similar feeling at Wisconsin on Saturday, saying, “We guarded NOBODY.”
While the opponents other than Minnesota have taken advantage, it’s been compounded by the awful offensive starts for Michigan State. In Saturday’s loss to the Badgers, the Spartans opened the game 3-for-12 and were just 5-for-22 at halftime. It was a 2-for-11 start at Purdue and Michigan State made only one of its first nine shots at Indiana.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to get easy shots to start with,” Cassius Winston said. “I think we start with a lot of jump shots and things like that, and then we’re not checking at the beginning of game and teams are knocking down lot of shots on us. It’s just a bad mixture and we dig ourselves a big hole.”
For Izzo, it’s simple: He’s not seeing the effort on the defensive end.
“It was a complete energy problem,” Izzo said. “There is no excuse to give up the shots and to walk around like we did. … They’re hitting threes, they're hitting turnarounds, they made shots, and it was our lack of energy. But it was lack of energy that was decided. It was a choice. It wasn't that we were so worn down, it was we chose not to have any.”
The result is Michigan State headed home on Saturday evening a half-game behind Illinois for first place in the Big Ten and caught in a logjam of teams battling for the title, one the Spartans have won two years in a row. They won those championships by being dominant at home while going 15-4 on the road.
That hasn’t continued this season, and with road games left at Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland and Penn State, time is running out to fix the issues away from home.
“Home games are crucial just because we're not doing as well as we usually do on the road at the moment,” Winston said. “So you’ve got to figure out a way to get this next game and I try steal some games on the road.”