East Lansing — On Sunday afternoon, Michigan State got called for 28 fouls and was outscored at the free-throw line by 17 points in a 77-76 loss at Wisconsin.
By Monday afternoon, the Spartans practiced while clinging to a towel draped around their necks.
It was an odd sight, but for a team that feels like it played well enough to win against the Badgers, it was deemed necessary in a time in college basketball where games are being officiated closer than they used to be.
The Spartans used their hands far too much on Sunday and it proved costly with a second straight loss. So, they worked hard at practice on Monday to keep their hands off their opponent, hence, grabbing the towel to avoid grabbing a player.
“That was the first time,” senior Denzel Valentine said of the work with the towels. “But I think it was a pretty good idea. It teaches us not to use our hands, move our feet as much as we can. We just have to find a way to get it done. That’s what this program is about. We might not do it the best way or the prettiest way, but we’ve got to find a way to get it done.”
It’s been frustrating for the Spartans and coach Tom Izzo, especially since they’ve always emphasized playing physically. But it’s becoming more of an issue this season.
Following the Wisconsin game, No. 11 Michigan State’s opponents have attempted 31 more free throws this season, but some games have been more one-sided. Sunday’s game had the biggest disparity as Wisconsin attempted 20 more free throws than Michigan State while Kansas took 14 more early in the season and Penn State took 13 more a little more than a week ago.
“We’ve struggled with fouls all year,” senior Matt Costello said. “Teams are shooting a lot of free throws so we’ve got to keep trying to adjust. You saw the towels today. We’ll get better and we’ll figure this out.”
Early in the day on Monday, Izzo joked he would “tie the guys’ hands to their bodies and let them walk around like mummies and see if we can guard somebody that way.”
But he was hardly making a joke of the situation his team is in at this point. Just six games into the Big Ten season, the Spartans are 3-3 in conference play and while they still have an impressive overall resume and a 16-3 record, they’re in danger of playing themselves out of the conference race.
“I’ve got to coach it better, it really comes down to that,” Izzo said. “If we are putting our hands on guys 40 feet from the basket, and that’s what they call, I’ve got to do a better job. So I think it falls on me, not on the officials, not on the players
“It’s just been an adjustment. I think what’s happened is, certain teams -- and Wisconsin is one of them -- they were driving to get fouled rather than driving to score, because they don’t have a lot of shooters. We did not adjust to that, and that’s my fault as much anybody’s so I’m going to try to do a better job with that.”
Two seasons ago there was push for officials to call games closer in an effort to allow more freedom of movement for offensive players. But by the time conference play rolled around, most games were being called the same way they always had been. The same thing played out last season which led to a directive this off-season for officials to call the game as the rules stated.
Early in non-conference play, Michigan State didn’t have the foul issues it has had recently, something that has bothered Izzo, who has consistently not blamed the officials for doing their jobs.
On Monday, he hammered home the point that it’s on him and his staff to get the players to defend better.
“I can adjust to anything just about, but there’s got to be some consistency,” he said.
“(The emphasis on the rules has) been widely publicized, it’s been widely accepted, maybe I’m the only guy that’s not accepting it. So I’m going to have to do a better job. Don’t put any of that on the players, but that all on me.”
His players, however, aren’t allowing Izzo to take all of the blame.
“We’re the ones out there playing,” Valentine said. “It’s us fouling, not coach. As far as adjusting and improving we need to hold up our end of the bargain.”