Time is running out for Spartans to find right formula, pull off another turnaround

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The optimist will look at Michigan State, three games below .500 in the Big Ten and coming off one of its most lopsided losses in recent memory, and say the Spartans have been here before.

How many times over the past 26 seasons has Tom Izzo seen his team struggle at some point during the regular season only to figure things out, put it all together and, at the very least, make the NCAA Tournament? Heck, there’s even examples — 2005 and 2015 stand out — of years that saw the Spartans plod through the regular season only to come alive in March and reach the Final Four.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and his squad fell to 2-5 in Big Ten play after Thursday night's loss at Rutgers.

But after a 67-37 loss to Rutgers on Thursday night, it’s clear this season is different. As convenient as it would be to say the performance against the Scarlet Knights was because of the 20-day layoff from COVID-19, reality paints a very different picture.

The Spartans (8-5, 2-5 Big Ten) have lost five of their last seven games and have gotten run off the court in three of them. They currently rank last in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency, turnover percentage and 2-point field-goal percentage while their 3-point shooting (30.7%) is 12th in the conference.

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Only the most recent effort came after the three-week absence from game action. And yes, it was clear in the loss to Rutgers that the layoff hurt as Michigan State turned the ball over 21 times and got outrebounded and outworked for most of the night.

The problem is, Thursday night’s loss was hardly an outlier. As the results show, this has been happening for much of the season. Concern started to arise late in the non-conference season in wins over Oakland and Detroit Mercy and those worries really took off as Michigan State opened Big Ten play with three straight losses, including one-sided defeats at the hands of Northwestern and Minnesota.

And just before the COVID-induced break, the Spartans suffered their most demoralizing loss — a one-point defeat at the hands of Purdue after leading by 17 in the second half. In that game and every other this season, Michigan State’s weaknesses were obvious. The center position is a revolving door, they’re living with a freshman at point guard in A.J. Hoggard, and production from Rocket Watts and Joey Hauser has been sporadic, at best.

Throw in the fact the schedule offers almost no time to practice — Michigan State heads to No. 13 Ohio State on Sunday followed by a trip to No. 7 Iowa on Tuesday.

“You’re right, I've been here before,” Izzo said on Thursday night. “That's the nice thing about a long career, you've kind of gotten through a lot of different phases. But we’ve got to get some guys playing a little better.”

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Izzo’s right. There’s not much he hasn’t seen in his Hall of Fame career, and there’s been virtually no hole he hasn’t been able to get his team to dig itself out from.

Michigan State has been to the NCAA Tournament 22 straight seasons, the third-longest active streak in the nation. And you can bet there’s no solace in the fact No. 2 on that list — Duke at 24 consecutive appearances — is in a similar position this season, just as they are at places like Kentucky and North Carolina.

None of that matters for the Spartans as they do their best to find something — anything — to build off of in a bizarre year that is offering little chance to find what that might be.

“I’m trying to keep it all into perspective a little bit,” said Izzo, whose team sits at 2-5 in conference play for the first time in his 26 years leading the Spartans. “This was a wicked 20 days. Some people adjust to it, it just depends on who your personnel is.”

That’s what’s making it difficult for Michigan State to adjust. The personnel simply hasn’t measured up while Izzo and his staff have yet to find the right formula. The starting lineup that got blitzed in the first five minutes on Thursday returned in the second half after Michigan State got back in the game by halftime. Of course, that same lineup was blitzed again in the second half and the Spartans never recovered.

And with junior Gabe Brown out because of COVID and Joshua Langford just back off his own COVID shutdown, the guards struggled mightily. However, that’s been a problem all season.

It begs the question, can Hoggard eliminate some of the freshman mistakes? Can Watts find a shred of confidence? Can Hauser do the same? Can a center rise above the rest? Can Aaron Henry get some help?

Can Izzo pull this off, or is it a case of the Spartans are who they are?

“I told you guys I didn’t know what I would expect of the team (after the layoff),” Izzo said. “Now I know how we played and now my job is to correct that, and we'll get it corrected. It’ll happen.”

Playing in the toughest conference in the country provides a chance for plenty of quality wins, but it also means the road is tougher. The Spartans understand that. They also understand there’s no time to waste. The turnaround has to start now, or the bubble they currently find themselves on will burst.

“Nobody's gonna feel sorry for you,” Izzo said. “I don't expect anybody out there to. So we’ve just got to get back, watch the film and try to figure it out. Then we’ll get the game plan going for our next game. It’s going to be to play a lot harder, it’s going to be play a lot smarter and it’s going to be taking care of the ball. Those will be big keys.”

Michigan State at No. 13 Ohio State

Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 8-5, 2-5 Big Ten; Ohio State 13-4, 7-4

Outlook: Michigan State has won four in a row in the series. … Ohio State’s Justin Ahrens, brother of former Spartan Kyle Ahrens, is shooting 50.6% (37-for-73) from 3-point range this season. He’s taken just two shots from inside the 3-point arc. … The Buckeyes have won five of six, including three road victories over teams ranked in the top 15 in the nation.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau