Niyo: Skid leaves MSU grasping for answers

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — You could see it in the slump-shouldered posture of Bryn Forbes in the locker room.

You could hear it in the subdued voice of Tom Izzo at his postgame press conference.

And after Denzel Valentine watched another shot — another would-be winner — fall off the rim as the final buzzer sounded Wednesday night, everyone at the Breslin Center could feel it.

Something’s missing with this Michigan State team, all right. Something’s amiss.

“I don’t know,” Valentine said after the Spartans’ 72-71 loss to Nebraska extended his team’s unexpected — almost inexplicable — midseason skid. “It’s tough. … It’s tough right now to figure out where our identity is at.”

It’s easy to see that, at this point, with Izzo juggling lineups and his players jangling possessions. One game the Spartans are getting whistled for being too handsy defensively, the next they’re getting yelled at for handing their opponent a clear path to the basket. One night the team is watching cut-ups from that early-season win over Kansas, the next they’re getting shredded on their home court by a Nebraska team that lost to Samford a month ago.

“It’s hard to explain,” said Forbes, the senior sharpshooter who kept firing blanks Wednesday, missing his first four open looks and finishing 1-for-8 in the loss.

Slip 'n slide

In the span of three weeks, the Spartans have gone from No. 1 in the country to No. 8 in the Big Ten standings, a tumble that Izzo openly admits has his team “reeling” a bit. And while everyone can reflexively point to the calendar and Izzo’s remarkable track record as finisher, keep this in mind: He has made seven Final Four runs, but only once — last season — has he done it with a team that didn’t finish first or second in the league.

MSU's Valentine: 'We didn't deserve to win'

Sure, the Spartans are still 16-4 on the season, and the final 10-game stretch isn’t exactly brutal. But as Izzo noted Wednesday, “There’s blood in the water. And the sharks are coming.”

And with seventh-ranked Maryland coming to town Saturday, along with ESPN’s College GameDay fanfare, “We need to stop the bleeding soon,” said guard Eron Harris, one of the more puzzling pieces in the Spartans’ ever-changing rotation.

For the Spartans, this is their first three-game losing streak since a difficult Big Ten stretch late in the 2012-13 season. It’s the first time they’ve lost two in a row at home since February 2010. And for Izzo, it’s now three consecutive losses to Nebraska’s Tim Miles, who laughed when asked after the game to share his secret.

“Lucky,” Miles replied. “Just lucky.”

But it’s more than that, obviously. This Nebraska team is on a roll now, winners of four straight — three of them on the road — after an 0-3 start in conference play.

Izzo was quick to credit Miles for getting the better of him again, too. A pair of 13-0 runs — one in each half — were ultimately too much for the Spartans to overcome. And Izzo scolded himself for not calling another timeout or two, well aware his team — lacking a true stopper with Tum Tum Nairn sidelined by a foot injury — is having trouble hitting the brakes on its own.

“We just can’t guard the things we need to guard,” Izzo said, reiterating a point he has been making for some time now.

Nebraska’s leading scorer, Andrew White, the junior transfer from Kansas, was limited by foul trouble Wednesday. But his tag-team partner, Shavon Shields, wasn’t slowed by either the Spartans or an ankle injury that sent him hobbling to the locker room late in the first half. A late switch to put Valentine on him didn’t work. Nothing did, as Shields finished with 28 points in 30 minutes and the Cornhuskers shot 50 percent from the field.

No harm, no foul

Saturday, the problem was all the hand-checking turning the game into a whistle-stop parade to the free-throw line for Wisconsin, as the Spartans committed 28 personal fouls and the Badgers made 29 free throws.

Wednesday, not so much.

“We didn’t foul a lot today,” said Izzo, whose team picked up just 15 fouls. “We didn’t foul a lot because we just said, ‘Ole.’ We just let them drive right to the basket.”

And though Michigan State’s coach bit hard as he talked about his team’s unforced turnovers late (Valentine’s behind-the-back gaffe among the more notable ones) and all the missed free throws (the Spartans’ shot 61 percent from three and 57 percent from the line), he pointed the finger at himself afterward.

“Don’t blame the players,” Izzo said. “Blame me. I’m the one that’s got to get them to play.

“I know how to get to this team, and this team will bounce back. But it has been shaken, there’s no question about it. It should be shaken.”

And stirred? Time will tell — Izzo certainly will, too — but as Forbes said Wednesday in a quietly-confused locker room, “We’re gonna learn a lot more about ourselves these next few games.”