East Lansing — The stage was set. The stars were out.
But a month into the regular season, it appears Michigan State’s basketball team is still holding dress rehearsals.
And Tuesday night, with a cast of celebrities on hand for Draymond Green’s jersey retirement ceremony and a revved-up crowd ready for a long-awaited cameo from Duke, that was more apparent than ever.
“We had a big stage, a big opportunity,” senior point guard Cassius Winston said after his team’s 87-75 loss to the Blue Devils. “And we kind of blew it, in a way. Just because we didn’t have enough effort. You don’t want to lose a game like that.”
But they did, quite clearly. Beaten from the start and bowed by the finish, the 11th-ranked Spartans (5-3) were no match for Mike Krzyzewski's 10th-ranked Blue Devils (8-1) in a rematch of last spring’s dramatic Elite Eight thriller.
They’re also a group that bears little resemblance to that steely-eyed squad at the moment, which partly explains why Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he felt “embarrassed” by the show his team put on Tuesday night in an 87-75 loss that wasn’t nearly as close as that final margin.
Izzo began his postgame press conference by saying his team was “outcoached, outplayed, outworked.” He went on to explain all the various ways they were, from the unforced turnovers to the passive play in the paint to the deer-in-the-headlights reactions from some of his younger players.
“I just thought we looked like the moment was too big,” Izzo said.
And that started almost from the moment the game did Tuesday, as Michigan State seemed unprepared for Duke's length and its aggressive, physical play, led by freshman star Vernon Carey, the coveted five-star recruit Izzo nearly landed a year ago this week.
The Spartans committed six turnovers on their first dozen possessions, sending Duke off to the races with easy transition baskets. Some awkwardly so, like the turnover for a touchdown that ended with Foster Loyer — in the game briefly while Izzo scolded Winston for a careless outlet pass — somehow getting whistled for a foul while getting stepped on by Duke’s Tre Jones. (It was one of several calls -- from a blatant goaltending to some of Carey's lowered shoulders -- that left Izzo beside himself with Tuesday’s officiating crew.)
Others were a bit more galling to the Spartans' bench, like the sequence that saw Jones miss a layup only to have Javin DeLaurier come flying in untouched for the putback dunk over Aaron Henry.
Off his game
Henry, of course, is one of the players the coaching staff was -- and is -- counting on to step into the spotlight this season. The two consummate role players from last year’s Final Four team — Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins — both graduated. Winston’s other veteran wingman, Joshua Langford, remains sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury. But Henry’s the NBA-caliber athlete who seemed to find a spark at tournament time last season as a freshman. And he’s the kind of do-it-all talent this team desperately needs right now, someone to rebound and defend and attack the basket at both ends of the court.
Yet he was benched for a stretch in the win over UCLA at the end of the Maui Invitational last week. And he was again Tuesday night, taking a seat in favor of Gabe Brown to start the second half. Henry didn’t record a single shot and missed his lone free-throw attempt in 12 first-half minutes. And after missing a 3-pointer in the second half, his only other shot was an uncontested dunk with 46 seconds remaining.
Asked after the game what the issue might be, Izzo shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Aaron, I don’t know. I really don’t. Next question.”
Henry, who seemed to find a rhythm playing on the ball in the loss to Virginia Tech last week, didn’t speak to reporters after the game, but Winston did. And when asked what he’d say to a Henry to try to get him going — the slump-shouldered sophomore finished with just two rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes — Winston sounded like the calm, self-assured leader he is.
“You’ve got to tell him this game doesn’t define him,” said Winston, who was hounded off ball screens all night and finished with 12 points (on 4-of-14 shooting) and seven assists. “You gotta figure out a way. And tell him he’s in a position now where consistency is the key. You can’t be up and down, because he’s one of our reliable pieces.”
Well, not yet, he isn't. And that’s just one more issue on the court right now, as Izzo and the Spartans try to sort through a nightmarish start to the season emotionally, beginning with Langford’s injury setback and then the tragic death of Winston’s brother, Zach. There is no manual for dealing with something like this, and as Izzo tried one more time on Monday to put into words what they’ve all been dealing with the last month, it's obvious he's still grappling with how best to handle a fragile team.
“We’re still going through a lot, we just are,” Izzo said. “It’s the way it is. We’re trying to find our way and pull together.”
The kids come up short
After three losses in eight games for the nation's preseason No. 1-ranked team, it’s probably time for more pushing now, though. We’re already seeing that with Henry, obviously. We're also seeing it in the coaches’ interactions with freshman Rocket Watts, whose frenetic play and shooting woes (1-for-7 on Tuesday) -- on a team that's lacking a consistent three-point threat right now -- continue starting alongside Winston in the backcourt.
And while Xavier Tillman bounced back with a strong second-half effort Tuesday — he was key in a mini-run to cut the lead to eight right after the break — the Spartans are going to need even more from him. Unless and until one of the youngsters — freshman Malik Hall or sophomores Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier — can establish themselves at the four, Tillman's play is going to be even more pivotal for this team.
He’ll be the first to admit that, and the junior did again after this game, though he finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, criticizing his own leadership “by just not keeping that fight" as Duke beat back the Spartans' brief surge.
Foul trouble played a role in this one for the Spartans, but midway through the first half, Winston was on the floor with two freshmen in Watts and Hall and two sophomores in Kithier and Brown. It went about as well as you’d expect.
“We started putting too many young guys in,” Izzo said, “and we got away from what we were trying to run.”
Then the game got away from them, and against Duke — led by the impressive inside-out duo of Carey (26 points, 11 rebounds) and Jones (20 points, 12 assists) — there was no getting it back.
The 45 points Duke scored in the first 20 minutes were the most Michigan State had allowed in a first half at home since January 2016. Tuesday’s loss might’ve been the most thorough Breslin Center beating Izzo has endured since that same night, when Iowa raced out to a 22-point halftime lead and coasted to an easy victory over then-No. 4 Michigan State.
Judging by his postgame comments, Izzo felt every body blow the Blue Devils delivered in this one. And that is not, as everyone knows, a feeling he enjoys.
“There’s no reason that you don’t play hard,” Izzo said. “That falls on me.”
It's also still fall, technically. The first week of December, to be exact. And as Winston notes with a knowing smile -- something that's understandably been hard to come by in recent weeks -- "it’s a long season ahead."
But Izzo knows this, too: The sooner they pick it up, the better they'll all start to feel about where they're headed.