East Lansing – On the surface, Michigan State is struggling, and that’s not a difficult conclusion to come to when a team has lost two straight after starting the season with school-record 13 victories.
But even as the Spartans (16-3, 3-3 Big Ten) look to end their two-game skid Wednesday night with Nebraska visiting the Breslin Center, there are plenty of reasons to believe the recent issues – namely three losses in the first six Big Ten games – could end up being nothing more than a hiccup in the season.
The Spartans still have seven victories against the top 100 teams in the country, including three against the top 25. They also rank in the top 10 in the nation in several key categories, including rebounding margin, assist-to-turnover ratio and field-goal percentage defense.
With Maryland coming to town on Saturday, No. 11 Michigan State faces a vital couple of games.
“It’s an important week for us, there’s no question about it,” coach Tom Izzo said. “(Our) backs are a little bit against the wall. But we are 16-3 and I’ve got to keep that in perspective with all we’ve been through. We’re gonna try to get on track (tonight).”
A look back at last year could offer a positive spin for some. The Spartans were 13-6 and few saw a path to the Final Four.
But that’s exactly how things played out as Michigan State bounced back from two straight losses late last season to win three straight, including two to reach the championship game of the Big Ten tournament. From there, it won the next four before falling to Duke in the national semifinals.
However, senior Matt Costello cautioned against putting too much on past performance.
“You can say that but I think about previous years and where we were at,” he said. “My sophomore year we were 18-1 at this point. I’ve done all of it and this is where we are at now. We need to get better and gel a little bit more and then everyone will be happier because we get a couple more wins.”
Getting a couple more wins can be easier said than done. Maryland is the No. 7 team in the nation and Nebraska has won three straight, including over the weekend at Illinois.
And Izzo said after the loss at Wisconsin on Sunday that his team hasn’t handled things well over the last few weeks. The Spartans were the No. 1 team in the nation but have had a hard time adjusting to the loss, then return, of guard Denzel Valentine. Now they’ll be without point guard Tum Tum Nairn, who is out for an undetermined amount of time with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
“Adversity might help us,” Izzo said. “Let's look at it from the bright spot. There is none. Let's look at it from the brightest spot I can come up with: Maybe the basketball gods are just bringing us back to Earth and getting us ready for this run now that we're very capable of having.
"What does a run mean? If we get a couple of wins under our belts. That's why this week is an important week."
Costello echoed his coach’s thoughts.
“We have the opportunity to make this work for us,” Costello said, “and I’m just hoping the other guys see this and we change for the better.”
Izzo was pleased, for the most part, with the way the Spartans played at Wisconsin. It was a better effort that possessed the toughness that lacked in the loss to Iowa.
It also helps that Costello continues to play well – he scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds at Wisconsin – while Valentine is starting to look like the player that might have been the best in the nation early in the season. He scored 23 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had five assists at Wisconsin while taking the game over late in the second half.
Getting Nairn back sooner than later will be important, but Bryn Forbes looked like he was breaking out of a short shooting slump in the second half Sunday, Eron Harris continues to score and freshman Deyonta Davis is starting to become a difference-maker up front.
It’s all enough to have the Spartans feeling like their best basketball is yet to come.
“Every year is different and you can’t say you’re bound to lose two in a row,” Valentine said. “But at the same time, things happy. Maybe it was a wake-up call, for whatever reason. It’s early, it’s not like the world is over.
“We got challenged this week and we’ve got to keep fighting through adversity. That’s what championship teams do -- they find ways to win and fight through.”
Nebraska at No. 11 Michigan State
Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV / radio: Big Ten Network / WJR 760
Records: Nebraska 11-8, 3-3 Big Ten; Michigan State 16-3, 3-3
Notable: The Cornhuskers opened Big Ten play with three straight losses but have bounced back with three consecutive victories, ending a nine-game skid at Illinois on Saturday. … Michigan State has lost two straight to Nebraska, including at home in 2014, after beating the Huskers in their first four Big Ten meetings. … The Huskers have two players in the top 10 in scoring in the Big Ten. Junior Andrew White III is fifth (17.5) and senior Shavon Shields is 10th (15.4).