Young Spartans struggle to find their road footing

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It’s fair to say most college basketball teams play with a little more confidence at home than they do on the road.

And when you’re relying on plenty of inexperience, as Michigan State is this season, hitting the road in the Big Ten is no easy task. Despite pulling out an overtime victory at Minnesota in the conference opener, the Spartans have had their struggles away from home this season, turning in two fairly uneven performances in losses to Penn State at the Palestra in Philadelphia and last weekend at Ohio State.

Michigan State will get another shot to prove it can play well away from home when it travels to Assembly Hall at 4 p.m. Saturday to take on Indiana. The Spartans (12-7, 4-2 Big Ten) will need to do so to keep pace in the Big Ten with back-to-back home games coming next week.

“Our team is still in process right now. We are still forming who we are and what we are and trying to figure that out,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We are getting a better idea, but when we go on the road we have not been as sharp on the road. The other team in our league that is probably playing more than a few freshmen is Iowa and they beat Purdue at home and then lost by 40 at Northwestern. Those are the things we are trying to minimize and deal with.”

While playing four freshmen extensive minutes is new territory for Izzo, it’s the reality of this season for Michigan State. The upperclassmen have yet to provide a steady hand, meaning the youngsters are counted on heavily.

All four freshmen have started together once and could again against the Hoosiers, but getting them all on the same page will be the key. It’s just tougher to do on the road when you haven’t done it often.

“It’s been tough at times,” freshman guard Cassius Winston said. “But we’ve got a lot of good players and seniors. The older guys that have been through it are helping us through it, guiding us through those moments because every road game is gonna be a tough game no matter who you’re playing. The arena will be packed, a lot of people will be there wanting us to lose. It’s them against us so it’s always gonna be tough no matter the team, no matter their record.

Reins appear to be off MSU's Miles Bridges

“We’ve still got to get better and we’re a whole different team on the road and we’ve got to fix that.”

Doing so against Indiana will be a difficult task. The Hoosiers have battled their inconsistencies this season, as well, but they’ve also got as much talent as any team in the Big Ten. They have nonconference wins over the likes of Kansas and North Carolina but have also lost to Fort Wayne and opened conference play 1-3.

But they’re coming off a buzzer-beating victory at Nebraska on Wednesday night and look to build momentum in one of the best home environments in college basketball.

“I still think they are one of the most talented teams in the league,” Izzo said. “I think they have had a couple of tough losses, but they may have had two of the biggest wins in the country, beating North Carolina and Kansas. So you can look at it like the glass is half full or half empty, but I did think this a dangerous, great-shooting team.”

Miles Bridges is close to his old self after scoring 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting and Nick Ward has been one of the Spartans’ steadiest players all season. On top of that, Joshua Langford has looked better and better over the last couple of weeks.

The freshman Michigan State needs more out of now is Winston. He excelled during a stretch when Bridges was out, scoring 21 against Northeastern and 15 in a win over Northwestern. He also had an eight-game stretch where he averaged nearly eight assists a game.

He says his play is all part of the process for a young player and he’s excited by the fact Izzo wants him to look to be more of a scoring threat.

“I’ve still got to figure out where I fit with my shots,” Winston said. “What shots I can take, what shots I can’t take and things like that. I’m gonna look to be more aggressive out there, look to get my shot a little bit more and help this team out.”

If he can, it will go a long way to Michigan State fixing its road woes. Until then, the Spartans have one mindset.

“Focus and consistency,” junior guard Lourawls Nairn said. “Those are two big words for us, two big things. We got to lock in and just focus and that gives us a better chance of winning.”

Michigan State at Indiana

Tip-off: 4 p.m. Saturday, Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 12-7, 4-2 Big Ten; Indiana 13-6, 3-3

Outlook: The Hoosiers have won two straight, including Wednesday at Penn State when James Blackmon Jr. hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. … Michigan State has won five straight in the series, including a 74-72 victory in March 2015, its last trip to Assembly Hall. … Indiana sophomore forward OG Anunoby (knee) is out for the season.