Despite 5-0 start to conference play, MSU basketball concerned with 'slippage'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The numbers say Michigan State played well in its victory over Minnesota on Wednesday at the Breslin Center.

Tom Izzo saw something different, something a box score won’t reveal.

“Our stats were ridiculous,” the Michigan State coach said as he rattled off the Spartans’ shooting percentages from the field, from 3-point range and at the free-throw line. “Fifty-two, 43, 86, and we weren't very good. So we're just trying to bring everything into perspective.”

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo talks to his team during a time out in the second half.

Those are, indeed, solid offensive numbers. But they meant little when combined with a defensive performance that was far from what Michigan State has been producing most of this season. Those defensive issues led to problems on the glass, as Minnesota, which entered the game 349th out of 350 teams in offensive rebounding, grabbed 12 offensive boards.

All of that kept the Spartans from getting out on the break, further limiting their ability to stretch out a lead against the Golden Gophers. Of course, it led to Michigan State needing a last-second bucket from Joey Hauser on a dish from A.J. Hoggard to pull out a 71-69 win and remain unbeaten in Big Ten play.

It was a win, and that’s what ultimately matters. But the Spartans spent two-plus hours on Thursday dissecting the game film as Izzo and his staff tried to hammer home the point: offense is great, but if you’re not doing the little things — defending and rebounding — none of it will matter.

More: Hauser plays the hero against Minnesota and Michigan State couldn't be happier

“The motto here has been, ‘Defend, rebound and run,’” Izzo said. “That’s still probably was our strength early. Now we’ve become one of the better offensive teams in the league, and that can be poisonous because that's fool's gold.

“I just want to make sure that we don't let fool's gold get us. Let's not let those damn analytics get us because the analytics say we were superb, even defensively. … Analytics. I don't know. I'll argue with every pro team. (It’s the) eye test. I don't need that computer.”

Maybe not the computer, but as No. 10 Michigan State (14-2, 5-0 Big Ten) prepared to host Northwestern at noon Saturday, the film was what was truly critical. That film showed the poor ball-screen defense. It showed the sloppy ball screens. It showed what Izzo described as “slippage.”

In other words, none of it was awful, but if the Spartans expect to be a contender in the Big Ten, it won’t fly when the schedule gets tougher.

“When you watch it you get to see everything,” said Marcus Bingham Jr., who sat the final 10 minutes on Wednesday, a game in which he was not at his best on both ends of the floor. “When you’re in the game you don't see as much as you do on film. So just seeing some of the stuff on me, personally, I can work on and the team can work on. It was always good for us. We always want to get better.

“And I think we got a lot out of it. We were sitting there for like two-and-a-half hours and it wasn't nice. But I think we learned a lot and everyone's looking forward to the matchup on Saturday.”

Michigan State forward Marcus Bingham Jr. cheers on his teammates during the first half.

Izzo described the lengthy film session in various ways. At one point he called it a “coming to Jesus” moment for some on the team and later he called it simply a tune-up.

It was all done because Izzo knows how good this team can be while admitting the Spartans aren’t any more talented than most teams they’ll play, including the Wildcats (8-6, 1-4).

“I don't think we're better than a lot of teams, but I don't think we're worse than a lot of teams, either,” Izzo said. “So if somebody is gonna make a move, pretty soon there gets to be separation.

“And that’s why I keep telling you I think our ceiling is high. But there's a lot of high ceilings that never get reached.”

More: 'Culture is the difference': MSU's Mel Tucker draws unique perspective from CFP final

For Michigan State to reach the heights Izzo is shooting for, the Spartans will need to clean up some of the issues that plagued them in the Minnesota game. They’ll do so against a Northwestern team they played just two weeks ago. As was evident in the Minnesota game, beating a team twice in a season is never easy.

Izzo, though, is hoping to see a more focused effort with a tough stretch of four out of five on the road about to begin next week.

“I want to see the response but I do like Northwestern,” Izzo said. “They’ve lost some tough games but they've been in every game and have good players.

“I think they have a better understanding that this whole country right now, there's a lot of teams that are good enough to beat a lot of teams. We’re good enough to beat a lot of teams. Unfortunately, a lot of teams are good enough to beat us. That’s kind of the gist of what we talked about and we’ll try to figure out at the end of day, man, we got to get better.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Northwestern at No. 10 Michigan State

►Tip-off: Noon, Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

►TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

►Records: Northwestern 8-6, 1-4 Big Ten; Michigan State 14-2, 5-0

►Outlook: MSU has won 17 of the last 20 meetings. Its last home loss to Northwestern was in 2009. … Senior forward Pete Nance is one of four Wildcats scoring in double figures and ranks seventh in the Big Ten in scoring (17.1 ppg) and seventh in rebounding (7.7 rpg).