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Michigan State, Tom Izzo frustrated by lack of effort in loss to Northwestern

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State began its Big Ten opener Sunday night with a handful of defensive gaffes and ended it with a bench full of starters staring blankly into the distance.

What had transpired in the 40 minutes of basketball between the sloppy start and the dumbfounded conclusion was difficult for most to describe as Northwestern cruised to a 79-65 victory, its first over a top-five team since 1979. That win happened to come against No. 4-ranked Michigan State, as well.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, right, points as he talks with forward Aaron Henry during the second half of Sunday night's loss at Northwestern.

Tom Izzo opened his postgame conference with the media saying he was “disappointed” and then admitting he was “confused” by what he’d just seen take place at a mostly empty Welsh-Ryan Arena. Later, he dropped a few more adjectives like “disgusting” and “inept.”

It’s hard to argue with the Michigan State coach on any of them.

The performance the Spartans (6-1, 0-1 Big Ten), now ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, turned in against the Wildcats was arguably one of the worst on both ends of the floor under Izzo. Michigan State did not defend, did not rebound, did not run and did not take good shots.

“We didn't look at all like a Michigan State basketball team,” Izzo lamented.

He’s right about that. The defense was miserable as Northwestern shot 52.9% (27-for-51), made 10 3-pointers and scored 1.215 points per possession. And it wasn’t like they were just hitting tough shots. No, as Izzo pointed out, the Wildcats were simply making open shots.

Boo Buie has proven to be a Michigan State killer, scoring a career-high 30 after going off for 26 a year ago. The Spartans rarely made things hard on the sophomore guard, who was 9-for-15 and 5-for-6 from 3-point range.

“That is frustrating,” Izzo said of the defense played on Buie, “because you'd want somebody to take the bull by the horns, which I've had before, but nobody rose up on that.”

It was clear from the first possession that the defense wasn’t engaged. Buie got to the lane — as he did often throughout the game — and while he turned the ball over, it was a sign of things to come. Moments later, with Michigan State up 4-0, Aaron Henry was pulled briefly to go over a defensive miscue, and by the time he could check back in at the next stoppage, Northwestern had scored 11 points in a row.

The defensive issues didn’t stop there, however, and the Wildcats never let up.

“I thought it was physical,” Izzo said. “I thought it was effort related. It just didn't seem like we were we were in sync at all. It just seemed like we were three steps behind.”

There was agreement from the players, as well.

“It gets really bad when you have effort-related mistakes and mental mistakes,” said Joshua Langford, who fouled out with just less than seven minutes to play.

The bigger question for Michigan State at this point is whether it can clean up its defensive problems. The Spartans began the season playing as well as any team on the defensive end, but in the last three games, it’s taken a step in the wrong direction.

They’ll also need to toughen up — MSU outrebounded Northwestern by one, 33-32 — and hope their best offensive players don’t have a bad shooting night all at the same time.

Of course, the shot selection has to be better from point guard Rocket Watts, who missed his first nine shots against Northwestern, and Henry needs to be able to finish around the basket. Joey Hauser also had an off night as he banged his left knee in the first half, leaving the offense with little firepower on a night it needed to outgun the opposition.

And with Wisconsin coming to the Breslin Center for a Christmas Day matchup, there’s plenty to fix for the Spartans. But it’s that effort that will get the most attention.

“It’s not really about making shots,” Langford said. “We will shoot better, but at the end of the day, it’s about us and how we bring our mindsets to the game and get locked in, come together, and do what we’re supposed to do. You can’t control if the ball goes in. But you can control your effort.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau