Frustrated Spartans aiming for complete effort, focus

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Bloomington, Ind. — Nearly halfway through the Big Ten season, Michigan State is at a crossroad.

After its second straight loss on Saturday — this time at Indiana after a second-half comeback couldn’t overcome a dismal first half — the Spartans face a difficult week upcoming that includes games against Purdue and Michigan, the one benefit being both are at home.

However, there’s hardly a lot of confidence floating around the team these days. The loss to Indiana was a familiar one, a game in which the effort and intensity was missing for large chunks and was too much to overcome.

It led to a familiar phrase echoing the Spartans’ locker room at Assembly Hall.

“We keep saying the same thing over and over again,” freshman Miles Bridges said.

Another slow start followed by a comeback that came up just short. That’s been Michigan State for the last couple of games, and as the players will tell you, the focus is not there early in games.

In late January, that’s troubling, even for a young team.

Following the loss, the Spartans players took a little extra time in the locker room, trying to hash things out. Afterward, the frustration was clear.

“It’s bad,” junior Tum Tum Nairn said. “We lost three games now we should have won we just didn’t do the things we needed to do to win. It’s a tough deal.

“We’ve just got to play with focus and for 40 minutes.”

Erratic Michigan State falls short at Indiana

Offense hasn’t been the issue early in games for the Spartans, however, their defensive performance in the loss to Indiana and last weekend at Ohio State have been far below what was expected of this team.

Early in conference play, Michigan State was one of the best in terms of field goal percentage defense. In the last couple of weeks — save the win at home over Minnesota — that has not been the case. The Hoosiers took advantage on Saturday, going 6-for-10 from the field early in the game while guard James Blackmon Jr. made six of his first seven shots and was 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the first 10 minutes.

He finished with a career-high 33. Michigan State couldn’t contain him as he was able to get in the lane with ease.

“He made shots, he made drives,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Him and (Robert) Johnson hit shots like that … and the dribble penetration hurt us.”

Things won’t get any easier as the Big Ten season moves along. Purdue will be just as much of a challenge on Tuesday night with guards that can penetrate and shoot with the best big man in the conference — Caleb Swanigan — in the middle.

But without improvement on defense, things could unravel quickly for the Spartans.

“You gotta get stops in this league,” Izzo said. “I just don’t see many championships won on offense. We have two different teams right now and the young guys are struggling a little bit defensively. But I don’t think we should struggle as much as we are at this time of year.”

MSU's Bridges gets more minutes, fewer points

That’s the reality for Michigan State. It will go as far as its young players will take them. While it would be beneficial to have consistent play from the upperclassmen as well, that’s not happening. Eron Harris played well at Indiana, but those nights have been few and far between.

So that puts most of the pressure on Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford.

And how quickly those players attain that consistency could spell whether or not Michigan State stays in the Big Ten hunt or starts wondering about where it stands on a precarious NCAA Tournament bubble.

And how quickly those players attain that consistency could spell whether or not Michigan State stays in the Big Ten hunt or starts wondering about where it stands on a precarious NCAA Tournament bubble.

It would be a devastating blow to not make the tournament, something Izzo has done for 19 straight seasons, but without finding that focus – the “playing for 40 minutes” that every player talks about but hasn’t done so with any regularity – it could become a possibility.

They get their next shot on Tuesday against Purdue and then it’s Michigan. If it’s going to come together for the Spartans, now is the time.

“It’s definitely a little frustrating,” Winston said. “At the same time I’ve got a lot of faith in these guys. I’ve got a lot of faith in this program and I wouldn’t trade this team for any in the world. I have full belief that we’re going to fix it. We’ll get back and we’re gonna get it done. We’ll make it happen. We’re gonna get it together and play a full 40 minutes. It’s now or never. Our backs are against the wall and we’re gonna fight our way out.” @mattcharboneau