'Keep fighting': Scuffling Spartans sing similar tune after another familiar defeat

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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Not long after Michigan State lost at Ohio State on Sunday — its third straight and second three-game skid of the Big Ten season — Joey Hauser declared the Spartans were going to figure things out.

Joshua Langford said it was important to have a short memory in order to move forward.

And coach Tom Izzo vowed his team would keep fighting.

It’s become a familiar scene for Michigan State this season — an ugly loss that left the team shaking its collective head afterward, trying to find some positives as the unrelenting Big Ten schedule left little time to lessen the sting of another defeat in a season that’s handing them out on a regular basis.

The Spartans are 8-6 overall and just 2-6 in conference play, a precarious spot for a program that has reached the NCAA Tournament 22 straight seasons. That’s in jeopardy now, and the loss at Ohio State — like the loss at Rutgers earlier in the week — only amplifies the spot Michigan State finds itself in.

Michigan State's Joshua Langford, left, said the Spartans have to have a sense of urgency after falling to 2-6 in Big Ten play.

There’s a chance to turn things around still, but that is based purely on the fact the Spartans still have time to string together some wins. But considering the way they’re playing, it’s starting to seem unlikely.

They’ve shot poorly in each of the last three games and their offense ranks as the worst in the Big Ten based on the efficiency numbers at Kenpom.com. It’s a position Michigan State isn’t typically in, and with No. 8 Iowa up next on Tuesday night, keeping pace with one of the top offenses in the nation seems like a big ask for a team desperate to dig itself out of its current hole.

“Of course there's a sense of urgency,” Langford said. “I think that's just the nature of our program. We just wanted to go out there and win, and at the end of the day, we’ve got to pull it together and try to find a way to pick up some wins; just keep our heads up and just stay focused on the task at hand.”

Again, that’s simple to say and, quite frankly, it’s what the Spartans said after they lost by 30 at Rutgers and it’s what they said when they coughed up a 17-point lead at home to Purdue back on Jan. 8.

Of course, there were 20 days off in between games in that stretch, too, as COVID-19 did a number on the Spartans. But the offensive issues that exist today existed before the mini-shutdown. Trying to get it sorted out now, as the games are coming more quickly — the Spartans are playing three games in seven days — is more difficult than it might be in a typical season.

“I think we do have to fight through it,” Izzo said. “But we're fighting through without practicing.”

Michigan State had only two standard team practices before getting back to game action on Thursday against Rutgers then a shorter practice on Saturday before heading to Columbus for Sunday’s game at Ohio State. The Spartans will practice to some extent on Monday in Iowa City before Tuesday night’s game, creating a compact schedule that doesn’t make it easy to figure out the offensive problems.

And there are multiple issues. The Spartans aren’t shooting the ball well but the offense lacks much cohesion at this point. The center position has been in flux all season and the point guard spot now is much the same as Izzo went back to sophomore Rocket Watts to start on Sunday, sending freshman A.J. Hoggard back to the bench with just five minutes of action against the Buckeyes. Junior Foster Loyer played 21 minutes, but none played well.

Watts was just 2-for-9 shooting and Loyer only took two shots. The three players combined for three assists and four turnovers.

Would Michigan State be in this spot if it hadn’t lost three weeks? Would it be better off if Gabe Brown was in the lineup instead of working back from his positive COVID test? Maybe, but those problems aren’t unique to the Spartans, and as Izzo pointed out last week, no one will feel sorry for them.

“Pretty much every team has done it,” Hauser said. “So, there really is no excuse. We’ve been practicing for around a week now I think, and obviously we're missing one guy right now with Gabe Brown, but there's no excuse. This is the Big Ten. Every game is going to be a battle and there’s teams that are going to be missing guys, there’s teams that are going to be coming off of breaks. There’s really no excuse.”

Iowa (12-4, 6-3) offers a stiff challenge for the Spartans. The Hawkeyes have lost two in a row but have one of the best big men in the country in Luka Garza, and the Spartans struggle guarding guys in the post.

But he’s hardly the only weapon for the Hawkeyes. They lead the Big Ten in scoring at 89.7 points a game and will no doubt be looking to take advantage of Michigan State’s struggles.

“Every night in the Big Ten is going to be a battle,” Hauser said. “It really doesn't matter who you're playing game in, game out. It’s going to be tough. Iowa is one of the teams at the top. So, we’ll move on and we’ll get ready for Iowa.”

Added Izzo: “We’re just going to have to keep fighting through it.”

Michigan State at No. 8 Iowa

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa

TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 8-6, 2-6 Big Ten; Iowa 12-4, 6-3

Outlook: Michigan State has won five straight and 14 of the last 16 meetings dating back to 2011. … Iowa has been ranked in the AP Top 10 each of the first 11 weeks. The last time the Hawkeyes have been ranked in the Top 10 for 11 consecutive weeks was the 1986-87 season. … Luka Garza is 18 points from career point No. 2,000 and two rebounds from career board No. 800.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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