Staggered Spartans know they must get tougher
East Lansing — In one week’s time, Michigan State has gone from a dominant team to one full of questions.
Coach Tom Izzo called it the “ebbs and flows” of the college basketball season, and there’s plenty of truth to that. Rarely does a team play its best for an entire season.
But in the past seven days, Michigan State, which had won 14 straight games before it took the court last Sunday at Ohio State, has been trounced on the road by the Buckeyes, survived in overtime at home against Rutgers and lost at home to rival Michigan.
Along the way, the turnovers have continued to plague the Spartans while teams are starting to devise ways to take Nick Ward out of the game. The offensive flow has become stagnant and on Saturday afternoon, the Spartans were questioning their own toughness.
“We just have to be a tougher team,” senior Gavin Schilling said. “Our program is traditionally built on toughness and that is something that we are lacking right now. We have to dig deep and come up with this toughness that is going to win us some games.”
It all added up to two losses in three games, and no one was beating their chest over the one win.
The result is that No. 4 Michigan State (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) is now two full games out of first in the conference with both Ohio State and Michigan holding tie-breakers over the Spartans.
Obviously, how Michigan State responds from here will say a lot about what direction this season ultimately takes.
“It determines what type of team we have," sophomore forward Miles Bridges said. “Are we going to go down or are we going to go up? It's really on us.”
Expectations have been high for Michigan State long before it ever played a game. Winning the Big Ten seemed like a given to many and the thoughts of winning a national championship hardly seemed far-fetched.
And through the first two months of the season, nothing happened to change that as the only loss was to Duke in the Champions Classic when the teams were ranked Nos. 1 and 2.
But since the calendar turned to 2018, things haven’t been as smooth. The Spartans cruised past Maryland before heading to Columbus. They got run out of the gym then struggled to beat Rutgers a few days later. Next was Sunday’s 82-72 loss to UM.
Some individuals haven’t been as productive. Ward has had a hard time finding his offense, but it’s hardly fallen all on him. Point guard Cassius Winston had twice as many turnovers as assists on Saturday while Joshua Langford scored just eight points. Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. has been plagued by foul trouble in plenty of games while the Spartans are still pushing Bridges to be more selfish and take over games.
“I could look at it the other way when everything was going kind of smooth,” Izzo said. “But I’ve got to be my best, they have to be their best during the little period when there’s ebbs and flows in the season. Sure, I’m disappointed to play this way against our rival.”
The season, however, doesn’t end after a bad week. Michigan State is still the same team that was in a battle with Duke then rolled over the likes of North Carolina and Notre Dame when both were top-10 teams. So, to believe the Spartans can pull out of this slide seems likely.
They’ll get a few days off and after that, the schedule is favorable. They host Indiana on Friday then next week play at Illinois, host Wisconsin then head to Maryland. The next potentially perception-changing game is Feb. 10 at Purdue.
Until then, the Spartans will be working to get back to where they were just a week ago.
“I don’t feel any different about my team,” Izzo said. “It’s a marathon. We ran into two teams that are pretty good and one team that plays hard. … You can bet this. I won’t be reading or listening this week, to anybody.
“So, we’re going to get ready for Indiana. This will hurt for a day or two, because this is a big game to me. I’m going to address a couple of guys on the grit that you have to have to play in the Big Ten. I don’t mean play like last year when we you’re playing to win some games. I mean when you’re playing to win big games. Some guys have to grow up a little bit, and they will.”