'Are we tough enough? No': Spiraling Spartans still finding their way

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Tom Izzo struck a pose that is becoming all too familiar these days.

As Michigan State was in the middle of another head-scratching performance in a 25-point loss at Minnesota on Monday night — a loss which left the Spartans at 0-3 in Big Ten play for the first time in 18 years — Izzo put his head in his hands, unable to comprehend what was happening on the raised court at Williams Arena.

It was an image that has been accompanied often over the last week-plus with blank stares and looks of confusion at what's been playing out in front of him. A team that early in the season looked like it was clicking, even after the loss of two integral pieces to the NBA, has quickly turned into something that is hard to recognize.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is still trying to find his best rotation, and on Monday, he had Aaron Henry coming off the bench.

From the 14-point loss at Northwestern to open conference play to the second-half collapse at home against Wisconsin to Monday’s debacle in Minneapolis, the Spartans are in a position they’ve rarely been during Izzo’s 26 seasons at the helm. This is only the second time they’ve lost the first three games of Big Ten action and they’ve never lost the first four, something that is on the table heading to Nebraska on Saturday night.

The numbers have been alarming the past three games, highlighted by a miserable shooting performance against Minnesota that saw Michigan State make just 25.7% of its shots (18-for-70), 6-of-38 in the first half, good for just 15.8%. That was the first time the Spartans had shot below 25% in a half since Jan. 27, 2019, at Purdue, when the team hit 22.6% of its shots (7-of-31) in the first half. And the 16 points were the fewest in a half since scoring 14 in the first half against Maryland on Dec. 30, 2014.

Afterward, Izzo said his team “hit rock bottom, and we did offensively tonight. I mean, we’ve never had a performance like this.”

They haven’t had one that bad, at least not this season, but they haven’t played well in what feels like a long time. Since the win at Duke on Dec. 1, things have been trending in the wrong direction. And while the biggest issue at Minnesota was the offense, it’s the defense that has been even more alarming.

In wins over Western Michigan, Detroit Mercy and Oakland, the Spartans were routinely giving up easy looks and heaps of points against mid-major competition. When that competition ramped up, things started to get ugly.

But now, adding in the offensive woes, things feel more out of control. After three games, Michigan State is 13th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency and last in defensive efficiency. It’s last in effective field-goal percentage offense and defense while ranking last in two-point field-goal percentage and two-point field-goal percentage defense.

In other words, the Spartans are a mess on both ends of the court.

The question is, how does Michigan State pull itself out of this spiral? Or, maybe the better question is, can it?

Izzo has been attempting to find the right rotation from the first game of the season to now, and Monday, the tinkering continued with Foster Loyer starting at point guard and Aaron Henry coming off the bench to try and get Rocket Watts going. He even turned to guard A.J. Hoggard and center Mady Sissoko, both freshmen, in the first half.

“I’m trying to figure out the right combinations,” Izzo said.

So far, the combinations haven’t worked. Watts, Henry and Joshua Langford are each shooting around 30% in conference play and the center position continues to be a revolving door with Thomas Kithier getting most of the consistent work because he has been the least prone to mistakes.

Michigan State's Malik Hall (25) is fouled by Minnesota's Sam Freeman (32) during the second half.

After a lethargic performance at Northwestern, Izzo insists he’s been happy with the effort against Wisconsin and at Minnesota. And while some were critical of what looked like a lack of effort in the loss to the Gophers, Izzo isn’t among them.

“I’m not worried about losing my players,” Izzo said. “I know I talked about the energy level at Northwestern, but there was no problem the last two games with the energy level.”

So, according to Izzo, the Spartans are playing hard enough, they’re just not playing well enough.

Will that mean Izzo continues to play 11 or 12 players a game or does he cut the rotation down? Does he keep pushing Watts at the point guard spot or do Loyer and Hoggard see more minutes? Does he play smaller more often with Joey Hauser at center and Malik Hall at the four and risk some rebounding issues or does he keep hoping for another center to step up and grab the spot?

There are no simple answers at this point. But for a team that a little more than a week ago was talking about a fourth straight Big Ten title, it feels like crunch time.

Yes, there are still 17 games to go and the last time Michigan State lost its first three conference games it went 10-3 the rest of the way. Of course, that season ended with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.

What direction this one goes is anyone’s guess.

“Are we tough enough? No. Are we leaders enough? No,” Izzo said. “But those are the things that were the same problems when we were 6-0 that I talked about and that we have to improve on. We're just gonna keep working on it.

"We'll get better for the next game, I promise.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau