East Lansing — This wasn’t how things were supposed to go.
With just five games left in the regular season, Michigan State was supposed to be closing in on a third straight Big Ten championship on its way to securing a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That was the prevailing opinion around college basketball. It’s why the Spartans were voted the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. It’s why many expected them to get back to a second straight Final Four with a better than average chance at delivering a second national title for coach Tom Izzo.
Of course, things went sideways before games even started. Almost immediately after the preseason rankings were released, Michigan State found out it would be without senior guard Joshua Langford for the entire season. Soon after the news came that transfer Joey Hauser would not be granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA.
And, of course, just one game into the season, senior guard Cassius Winston suffered the loss of his brother, Zachary, to suicide. It’s understandably been weighing on the reigning Big Player of the Year as he’s navigated multiple levels of grief while still being counted on by the Spartans to be the best player on the floor.
It’s been a lot to overcome, but still, few expected Michigan State to be where it is now. After blowing a seven-point lead with three minutes to play on Saturday in a loss to Maryland, the Spartans now have lost four of their last five games, are three games back in loss column to the first-place Terrapins and the rest of the schedule is brutal.
Matt Charboneau and Bob Wojnowski of The News break down how Michigan State blew a seven-point lead with three minutes to play against Maryland. The Detroit News
There is no light at the end of the tunnel, it seems, and the frustration level is high. Michigan State is not a bad team. It’s been blown out once and has been in position to win every game besides the Purdue loss. And that is where the frustration lies. The Spartans are good enough to compete with any team but are proving they might not have what it takes to actually win the big games.
“We're finding ways to lose instead of finding ways to win,” Izzo said on Saturday night.
It’s hard to argue with that theory. The loss to Maryland was just latest, if not the most glaring example as the Terrapins scored the final 14 points of the game. But most of the losses have followed a similar pattern — get down early, come back and take the lead or get within a possession and then wilt in the final few minutes.
It happened at Indiana. It happened at Wisconsin. It happened at home to Penn State and it happened Saturday at home against Maryland with ESPN College GameDay at the Breslin Center along with members of the 2000 national championship team.
The players were at a loss afterward. They’ve been trying to explain it away all season but have simply been saying the same things without much changing.
Get off to a better start. Bring the energy the entire game. Make winning plays. Take some of the pressure off Winston and Xavier Tillman.
It all makes sense. It’s just that 15 games into the Big Ten season, nothing has changed.
“I think some of it's my fault,” Izzo said. “I'm playing Cassius and Xavier too many minutes. I think some of it is those two guys got a lot of stuff on their plate and maybe mentally we're struggling. But sometimes you need somebody else to step up.”
It’s happened only a few times this season. In the win over Illinois on Tuesday, it was freshman Rocket Watts. He started to come to life as Michigan State rallied on Saturday, but in crunch time he airballed a 3-pointer and missed a layup.
Aaron Henry had a good second half, but was absent in the first while Gabe Brown hasn’t played well in at least two weeks.
Fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens gave a bit of a spark, hitting a 3-pointer to tie the game against the Terps, but he’ll be forever limited in minutes because of the rash of injuries he’s suffered during his career.
“The only guy that's stepping up and he missed some shots bad, but I'll take Rocket's energy, how hard he plays,” Izzo said. “He can miss shots and I can live with that. At least he competed. I don't think some guys competed like they need to compete. The other guy I thought did compete — I don't know how many minutes he played, but I should have played him more — was Kyle Ahrens went in and got some big rebounds and did some things in traffic that he hasn't done since the Michigan game last year. That was a positive and hopefully we'll build on that.”
There are positives, to be sure. Winston and Tillman are still two of the best players in the Big Ten and the likes of Henry, Watts and Brown are brimming with potential for a team that is in every game it plays.
Still, Michigan State (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten) needs for it all to start clicking, or the high expectations — warranted or not — will never be met.
It won’t be easy over the final three weeks. After a trip to Nebraska on Thursday, Michigan State closes the season at home against Iowa followed by back-to-back road games with Maryland and Penn State before closing at home against Ohio State.
There’s youth in the rotation, but there’s experience, too. That experience will be critical over next few weeks.
“It’s part of what basketball is about, facing the adversity, the pressure, learning from your mistakes,” said Ahrens, a member of two Big Ten title teams. “I mean, it's real life. You gotta take these aspects to whatever you do later in your life. So it’s just learning them now and understanding them and how you just got to continue to move forward. We can't let the energy die down in practice, that's when teams start to tumble down. So we got to keep having each other's backs and keep bringing the energy.”
Will energy be enough? It’s a tough question to answer as time is running out on the Spartans.