East Lansing — Believe it or not, Tom Izzo has been in this position before.
In the wake of Tuesday night’s loss to Purdue, the frustration is mounting around the Michigan State basketball team. The Spartans have now lost three straight, including four of the last five and now find themselves firmly in the bubble conversation for the NCAA Tournament while also falling farther from contention in the Big Ten.
CBSsports.com now projects Michigan State (12-9, 4-4 Big Ten) as one of the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament while Kenpom.com projects a final regular-season record of 17-14 and 9-9 in the Big Ten.
If Michigan State failed to reach the tournament, it would end a 19-year streak. It’s something Izzo cherishes, however, it does not drive how he’s approaching the last half of the conference season.
“Been here before, and got to the tournament,” Izzo said on Tuesday night. “Do I sit here and everyday think ‘Boy, this is going to cost us getting to the tournament?’ I don’t do that. I really don’t. I’ve had to win three games in the Big Ten tournament to get there and done it.
“Do I like where we are? I don’t like where we are. Do I understand where we are? I do understand where we are. Am I going to worry about what somebody says that has no clue what this team has gone through and what we’re doing? I’m not going to worry about that. I feel their disappointment.”
The disappointment was probably at its highest on Tuesday when Michigan State hosted No. 20 Purdue and opened an eight-point lead late in the first half.
But some late defensive mistakes allowed that lead to evaporate, and despite a record-setting night from freshman Miles Bridges, the Spartans came up short.
“We gave great effort and that’s what makes this loss so disappointing,” senior guard Eron Harris said. “It’s like, ‘Why can’t we get over the hump?’ So we’ve got to go back to the drawing board. Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow. What are we going to do? We go back to the drawing board.”
That drawing board begins on Sunday when Michigan visits the Breslin Center. Aside from being a rivalry game, it has become crucial between two teams in the middle of the Big Ten pack that are also on the NCAA bubble.
It is the beginning of a five-game stretch for the Spartans that could be critical to their postseason chances as they’ll likely be favored in all five. After Sunday’s game, Michigan State heads to Nebraska and Michigan followed by home games with Iowa and Ohio State.
From there, it’s a rematch at Purdue, and back-to-back home games with Nebraska and Wisconsin followed by trips to Illinois and Maryland to close out the season.
Getting more from someone other than Bridges will be vital down the stretch. Bridges was the only player to reach double-figures against Purdue as the supporting cast offered little help. Harris was effective early but had defensive lapses while Nick Ward was hampered by foul trouble. Cassius Winston got going late, but by then the Boilermakers were in control.
Whether the Spartans can get any help for Bridges remains to be seen. Ward is the most likely but there are opportunities for others. What Michigan State takes solace in is the fact it played harder than it had in its previous two losses to Ohio State and Indiana.
“We have a tough team,” Bridges said. “If we can fight through adversity, that’s what championship teams do. We have a lot of goals in our mind and the season isn’t over yet. We just need to fight through this. March is the time that Michigan State starts rolling, but we need to get it earlier because we have a lot more losses. One of our main priorities is staying focused for 40 minutes and playing hard for 40 minutes.”
However it plays out, Izzo isn’t spending any time paying attention to the critics. He used to it.
“I’m not worried about anything but the next game,” he said. “It’s not coach speak, it’s not anything else. If people want to complain, I don’t care. I really don’t. I know what I’m doing, I know what this team is doing, I know what they’re going through.”