East Lansing — Tom Izzo held his finger and his thumb less than an inch apart.
“I still think we're that far and I don't think we've played that well,” Izzo said on Monday.
In other words, to Izzo, the three-game skid Michigan State is on — as well as a 3-5 mark over the last eight games — isn’t as bad as it might seem. If not for a missed layup here or a turnover there, the Spartans could be sitting atop the Big Ten standings instead of tied for fourth and two games behind Maryland.
“Remember, we’re a couple of layups away from where we'd be leading the Big Ten,” Izzo said. “Do I think we're playing well? No, I don't. Do I think I know the reasons? Some of them, but I’m not in control of all of them. But the ones I can, I want to make sure we control and do a better job.”
The reality for Michigan State — the Spartans dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time this season after being tabbed as the preseason No. 1 team in the country — is the shots haven’t fallen, the slow starts on the road haven’t been overcome and the Spartans now find themselves in a position they did not anticipate. That is, of course, chasing conference-leading Maryland with a daunting schedule still left to navigate.
The treacherous journey for Michigan State (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten) begins at 9 p.m. Tuesday when it travels to second-place Illinois, a team it beat by 20 at home earlier this season. However, the Fighting Illini responded with seven straight wins before dropping its last two, including a loss at home to Maryland on Friday.
“We've lost three in a row, and we know that,” Izzo said. “But we need to find a way to bounce back in an environment that will be big time at Illinois.
“They have lost their last two games but had won seven in a row before that. So, just like the rest of the conference, like I told you early, it's going to come down to who you play, when you play them, where you play them and how many road games you've got, how many home games you've got. I think all of the things that I said early have kind of happened. They are very tough at home, and yet they just got beat at home.”
In other words, there are no guarantees. That’s been evident nearly the entire season in the Big Ten and Michigan State has been at the center of it.
After starting the Big Ten season a perfect 5-0, things have started to fall apart to a certain extent. Much of that is because of the schedule. As Izzo pointed out, the Spartans played four of their first five conference games at home and the only road game was at Northwestern. Since then, the road has become much tougher.
It’s led a cluster of losses, but outside of the 29-point loss at Purdue, Michigan State has been in every game with a chance to win late in the second half. That was the case Saturday at Michigan when the Spartans pulled within one before falling short, following a similar path to losses at Indiana and Wisconsin as well as the home loss to Penn State last week.
The outlier was Purdue, which has Izzo believing that even though the Spartans haven’t played their best, they’re not far from turning things around and this week offers a huge opportunity.
“The beauty of my sport is if you keep getting better in the end, maybe some good things will happen to you and we got a lot of work to do,” Izzo said. “But it's not some of these teams that have beaten us recently are, I think Penn State's a hell of a team. I also think a couple of plays and it's a different game, you know, and we win the game. So a missed with five seconds left (at Indiana), I mean, those are things you do. It happens.
“But if there was a lot of the Purdue game, I'd be worried about losing my team and all the things that everybody would want to say. I don't even think about that. I just think about how can I help be different than I am?”
Drastic changes to the rotation aren’t likely at this point as Izzo suggested going small and using a lineup, for example, of Rocket Watts at shooting guard, Gabe Brown at small forward and Aaron Henry at power forward was a possibility but not likely.
“We were just 8-2 and we lost some tough games,” Izzo said. “Some of that could happen, but it’s not a time where I'm panicking and wanting to change everything.”
There’s no panicking from Izzo because he’s been down this road before. The Spartans are clearly in a tough position, but opportunity also exists this week with games against two teams directly ahead in the standings, beginning Tuesday at Illinois (16-7, 8-4).
And, as Izzo pointed out, things could always be worse.
“I mean, we’re 16-8,” he said. “We’re not 8-16. I'm not giving up on anything.”
Michigan State at No. 22 Illinois
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Tuesday, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Records: Michigan State 16-8, 8-5 Big Ten; Illinois 16-7, 8-4
Outlook: Each team enters the game struggling as Michigan State has lost three in a row and Illinois has dropped two straight. … Sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu leads Illinois at 15.8 points per game and 3.4 assists. Freshman center Kofi Cockburn, who has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week five times this season, is second on the team with 13.8 points per game and leads the team with nine rebounds per game. … MSU sophomore Thomas Kithier is expected to return after missing the last two games.