Michigan State needs to 'dig deep' to climb out of early hole in Big Ten race
Perhaps Tom Izzo was on to something last week when he was talking about life in the Big Ten.
“The league is so damn good that I just don't know how many upsets there's going to be,” Izzo said. “I really don't. I think there's a lot of good teams out there, and you're going to have to play good every night to win games.”
Izzo and Michigan State know that about as well as any team at this point. After going unbeaten in nonconference play and climbing to No. 4 in the AP poll, the Spartans opened Big Ten play with a 14-point loss at Northwestern. They followed up with a better effort on Christmas Day against No. 9 Wisconsin only to end up with the same result – a loss.
Entering Monday night’s matchup with Minnesota at Williams Arena, No. 12 Michigan State is 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2006-07 and is trying to avoid an 0-3 start for the first time since 2002-03.
It typifies how tough things will be this season. Navigating the Big Ten schedule is a heck of a tough journey in most seasons, but this one might be shaping up to be as difficult as they come. This past week, six teams were ranked in the top 25 in the country, and when the new rankings come out on Monday, Northwestern seems like a lock to join the club.
Wisconsin might be the best, the same as Iowa, which Minnesota beat in overtime on Christmas night. Izzo believes the Spartans will get things turned around, even after losing to the Badgers.
“That’s a special team and I don't want to act like we're nothing,” Izzo said of the Badgers. “I mean, it was a game. We were nine up, so that's what it's going to tell me, that we can get where we want to get. It's just going take a lot more work and a lot more discipline.”
That begins with the trip to Williams Arena, a building that will certainly feel different without any fans but also a place where the Spartans have won four in a row, the last loss coming on New Year’s Eve in 2012.
Of course, Michigan State will be facing a Minnesota team that is riding high after the win over Iowa. Guard Marcus Carr, who scored 30 against the Hawkeyes, is second in the Big Ten scoring 24.6 points a game and leads the conference by dishing out 6.2 assists per game. The Golden Gophers (8-1, 1-1 Big Ten) also had a huge game from Western Michigan transfer Brandon Johnson, who was 8-for-9 from 3-point range.
Michigan State has struggled defensively this season and is 11th in the Big Ten in defending the 3-pointer, allowing opponents to shoot 36% from long range.
The Spartans also aren’t hanging on to the ball. At 14.1 turnovers a game, they rank 178th in the nation and in the loss to the Badgers, the 14 turnovers became 24 Wisconsin points.
“We had a couple turnovers that just were some dumb mistakes,” junior Joey Hauser said. “Those are things we're going to clean up if we want to be better team. We can't turn over the ball.”
It all adds up to Michigan State (6-2, 0-2) entering a critical game in the second week of conference play with the hope of winning a fourth straight regular-season championship growing more distant by the day.
“We’ve got 18 games to win,” junior Aaron Henry said. “We can't get it all back at once. (It’s) one at a time. You never can get too high or too low. I'm certainly not gonna get too high or too low about it. I’ve been here before and I've won the league last year losing six games, or having a share of it at least.
“You can't lose this early. You’ve got to win these type games, especially at home. And I realize that but now we’ve got to dig deep. We put ourselves in the hole now and we’ve really got to dig. It is what it is. Those are the facts.”
No. 12 Michigan State at Minnesota
Tip-off: 8 p.m. Monday, Williams Arena, Minneapolis
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 6-2, 0-2 Big Ten; Minnesota 8-1, 1-1
Outlook: Michigan State will try to avoid going 0-3 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2002-03. … Minnesota junior G Marcus Carr has scored 30 or more points in each of his last two games and is second in the Big Ten at 24.6 points per game. He also leads the Big Ten in assists at 6.2 a game. … Carr scored 11 points in each of the Gophers’ games against MSU last year.