Spartans seek energy boost to shake slow starts

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Cassius Winston said while it's fun to come back and beat teams, it's not the situation Michigan State wants to continuously be in.

East Lansing  The comeback can be exciting.

It gets the home crowd rocking and can silent a similar group on the road.

Michigan State has been following that pattern the last couple of games, overcoming double-digit deficits on the road to beat Maryland on Sunday and again at home on Wednesday against Penn State.

The results have been exactly what the fifth-ranked Spartans have wanted as they continue to chase Purdue in the Big Ten, but they also understand how it has the potential to come back and bite them.

“We've got to figure out a way to bring that in the first half,” sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said. “It’s fun to come back and win and all, but that’s just not the situation that we want to be in.”

The Spartans (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) will do their best to avoid that situation on Saturday night when they head to Indiana for an 8:15 p.m. tip-off. It’s the first of two straight road games  they play at Iowa on Tuesday  before hosting Purdue next Saturday.

Trying to find out why the slow starts have been a problem is difficult. In both the Maryland and Penn State games, the energy has been lacking in the first half. That has been in contrast to what coach Tom Izzo has seen from this team during practice.

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“I don’t know why we got off to such a poor start,” Izzo said. “We’ve done that a couple of games now. I think that falls on me. A coach’s job is to get his team ready to play. What we’re confused about is the players actually have practiced harder than they play in the opening 10 minutes, which doesn’t make any sense.”

That lack of energy has resulted in more turnovers  a problem all season for Michigan State  some poor shooting and has allowed the opponents to build some confidence.

In the first half Wednesday, the Spartans were just 9-for-24 shooting and turned the ball over nine times in the first half. At Maryland, they were 9-for-33 shooting.

“It's hard to put our finger on it, but it usually just comes with our energy and our intensity,” Winston said on Wednesday. “That's the only thing I can put to it. We were out there playing flat, making a lot of bad plays, bad shots. It sucks our momentum out.”

Added sophomore Miles Bridges: “I really don’t know. That’s just something that we have to deal with before the game. Maybe we need to have a new routine before the game. It’s really up to us to have the energy.”

The flip side, of course, has been the way the Spartans have stormed back.

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“The way we kind of battled back about three different times I think shows some character in our guys and I was impressed with a lot of different guys,” Izzo said after the Penn State win.

Against Maryland, it was a 20-4 run to open the second half that turned things around for the Spartans. In the Penn State game, it came a bit later, but after the Nittany Lions hit a 3-pointer to take a 12-point lead with just more than 15 minutes left in the game, the Spartans responded by outscoring Penn State 41-14 to take control of the game.

“I think they’ve responded pretty well,” Izzo said. “We come back, and we’re 15 up in the second half. We had a couple of miscues down the stretch. No. 1, we threw the ball away and No. 2, they did a pretty good job and hit a couple of bombs.

“But you know what? This team’s resilient. This team’s done a hell of a job staying focused. I mean, we’re 21-3. I don’t know what the best start in Michigan State history is, but we got to be closing in on it if we’re not and I give them a lot of credit.”’

A win Saturday would match Michigan State’s best start through 25 games. It went 22-3 in 2000-01 and avoiding a slow start at Indiana would be the first step in reaching the same mark. Another lull in the first 20 minutes, and the Spartans understand the risk.

“We’ve got to come out better, period, and take care of the ball,” sophomore Joshua Langford said. “Those are things that if we don’t fix it, it’ll hurt us in the long run. If we fix those things, everything else will take care of itself.”

No. 5 Michigan State at Indiana

Tip-off: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 21-3, 9-2 Big Ten; Indiana 12-11, 5-6

Outlook: In its five Big Ten victories, Indiana has a plus-26 turnover margin while Michigan State is 13th in the conference, averaging 14.3 turnovers a game. … Indiana is third in turnover margin (plus-2.8) in Big Ten games and is second in steals at 6.6 per game. … A win would match Michigan State’s best 25-game start in school history, equaling the 22-3 record reached in 2000-01.