Matt Charboneau and Bob Wojnowski of The News talk about Michigan State's loss at Michigan, its third straight. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — One game doesn’t change everything, not in this dizzying college basketball season. So while it’s dangerous to draw grand conclusions from the latest Michigan-Michigan State clash, we can reassess both teams’ directions and say this: Their riddles are easily identified, tough to solve.
All we know for sure about the Wolverines is, they’re much better when their best all-around player, Isaiah Livers, is on the court. (Shocker, I know). He brought the energy, swagger and defense upon his return Saturday in Michigan’s 77-68 victory over the Spartans. The Wolverines (14-9, 5-7 Big Ten) still have plenty to do, but they look whole again after the biggest victory in Juwan Howard’s first season.
All we know for sure about the Spartans is, they’re a much lesser team when their best all-around player, Cassius Winston, is hounded into exhaustion and spends the game hunting for help. The Spartans (16-8, 8-5) are still in the Big Ten race but have lost three straight and looked lost in the process.
Michigan’s victory was solid and much-needed, ending a four-game losing streak against its rival. The defense was impressive. The hustle and rebounding were outstanding. The truth is, the Wolverines can get on a roll only if they keep cranking up that defense, because outside of Livers’ impact, they don’t have anything else to lean on every game. Zavier Simpson’s floor leadership (second in the nation in assists) has swung between great and erratic, but there’s no way they can count on him hitting four of seven 3-pointers. And of course, they do need to count on him staying out of trouble after his one-game suspension.
With a month left in the Big Ten season, the Wolverines may have found something, as long as Livers stays healthy. Their strength of schedule — top four in the country — certainly keeps them in the NCAA Tournament picture.
Gasping for air
The Spartans are still looking for something, or someone. After starting the season No. 1, Tom Izzo has walked a delicate line, trying to fill a hole while wrestling with a dilemma. Because others haven’t stepped into the void, the Spartans need even more out of Winston, at a time when the senior point guard is being taxed beyond belief, mentally and physically.
After Winston scored 32 in the first meeting, an 87-69 Michigan State victory in East Lansing, Howard and his staff changed up their defense, hedging on ball screens and running two guys at Winston. He either had to give up the ball or take a contested shot. With excellent individual defense by Eli Brooks, Winston finished with 20 points on 5-for-18 shooting.
“I don’t think I got an easy shot all night,” Winston said. “(Defenses) definitely make it hard for me, that’s just how it is, usually having two guys on me. I signed up for it, I knew what I was getting into. … We’re moving the ball well, it’s just a matter of guys stepping up to the moment. Nobody needs to be Superman or a hero, just gotta play the role and help out this team a little bit more.”
Ever since Michigan State learned it would be without Joshua Langford all season, it’s been a tedious search. Xavier Tillman is the only other reliable scorer and he’s missed a startling number of layups lately. Beyond that, the turnstile still spins for the number three scoring option.
Sophomore Aaron Henry always looks like he’s about to be that guy, and he had 11 points and nine rebounds Saturday. Gabe Brown is the Spartans’ fourth-leading scorer but was blanked by the Wolverines. The younger players — Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble, Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier — have been wildly inconsistent.
There isn’t much mystery about what ails the Spartans. Without the emergence of someone else, Izzo has to ride Winston and Tillman, which wears them out, which leads to more turnovers, which slows Michigan State’s cherished fastbreak to a semi-crawl.
So, can a fix be found?
Rest on it
“Oh we’ll get out of it, we really will,” Izzo said. “But it’s been a year like no other. I’ve been through a lot of things in my 25 years, but there have been some new things I’m figuring out how to deal with. Nobody’s quit, we kept coming back (against Michigan). I just gotta get my two guys some more rest, maybe sleepovers at my house or something.”
That might not be a bad idea. Winston and Tillman are dealing with well-documented issues away from the court. Winston lost a brother to suicide in November, and naturally still grapples with his emotions. Tillman’s wife is eight months pregnant with their second child.
“(Winston) is not the same yet,” Izzo said. “We expect a lot out of him because he’s got a lot to give. He’s also been through a lot, and we’re trying to understand some of the decision-making and help him through it. Fatigue becomes a factor, and part of fatigue is sleeping, resting, and things that have been more difficult for him to do.”
It shows, more and more. The pessimist (realist?) suggests Winston will be too worn down by tournament time to lead a run. The optimist suggests the Spartans went through a stretch like this last season — three straight losses in early-February — and followed with 14 victories in 15 games before falling in the Final Four.
Winston’s numbers are about the same, with a slight downtick in assists and shooting percentage (46 to 42.2). He’s still a threat to dominate at any time. And he’s still as team-oriented and savvy as ever.
“I gotta do a better job of getting our guys going from the beginning,” Winston said. “I gotta get them playing with that swagger, not standing out there maybe looking for me to do something. Everybody needs to be in attack mode. That’s what Michigan State basketball is, locking in on defense and getting out in transition. We gotta get back to playing Michigan State basketball.”
They can, and I suspect they will. But there’s no assurance that’ll be enough in the tightest Big Ten ever, with as many as 12 teams capable of making the NCAA Tournament.
Nobody knows who’s really good in college basketball, not when the top four ranked teams are Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas and San Diego State. In the Big Ten, almost everybody is good, but by barely distinguishable margins.
The Spartans are seeing their margins shrink, just as the Wolverines saw their margins shrink. Without Livers, their leading scorer and best 3-point shooter, they were 4-5. With his return, they again could be capable of beating anyone.
“Isaiah’s a talent, it’s that simple, and we missed him a lot,” Howard said. “With his presence, it was truly inspiring to see how his teammates rallied behind him.”
Inspiration is what all teams seek this time of year. The Wolverines got a shot of it from a familiar face. The Spartans need their own infusion, from someone other than their weary star.