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Sliding Michigan State in search of making winning plays in crunch time

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Tom Izzo didn’t sleep much Sunday night.

Perhaps it was the fact he got the news sometime after 4 a.m. that junior Xavier Tillman and his wife, Tamia, welcomed their baby boy into the world.

Michigan State has lost four of its last five games.

Perhaps it was simply the fact Izzo’s mind rarely stops. Having lost four of the last five games, including blowing a seven-point lead in the final three minutes Saturday against Maryland, will get the mind working overtime.

Izzo’s was for a variety of reasons, so since he was up, he started poring over game film, dissecting the numbers trying to unlock the key to what has ailed Michigan State this season.

With five games left, the Spartans (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten) are all but out of the chase for a regular-season championship, something that isn’t easy for Izzo to admit, but is certainly more of a reality as Maryland is now three games ahead in the loss column.

“There's no secret,” Izzo said Monday. “We need more than a miracle to win the Big Ten right now. But with five games left it’s still possible in this league, the way it goes.”

Izzo’s point is fair. The conference has been so competitive all season, it’s hard to rule anything out. Still, the odds remain long the Spartans can climb back into the hunt, even with games left against Maryland, second-place Penn State and Iowa, which is tied for third with Michigan State and Rutgers.

So instead of focusing too much on the race, Izzo is trying to dial in on why Michigan State is in the position it’s in. That led his overnight breakdown of his team’s performance in its nine losses.

Izzo is throwing out the Purdue and Duke losses. As he said, “We got our butts kicked.”

The other seven losses, though, the Spartans have been in a position to win. Whether it was Saturday against Maryland or the multiple road games that Michigan State couldn’t close the deal after digging out of big holes, it’s not making the little plays that could have significantly changed the trajectory of the season to this point.

Izzo said as he watched the film and started to put the numbers down on paper, even he was shocked at how one or two small plays changed the outcome. So, he called his team together before 8 a.m. to show them the same thing.

“I had a slideshow that I made this morning that of the nine games, there were five of them that were more than winnable,” Izzo said. “I think our average margin of being down was minus 1.1 in the last two minutes of all the losses. So what I'm trying to sell is not to you, because fans don't believe it, but to my players is, we're a basket away, we're a layup away. We're one stop away from being very, very, very good and winning three, four more games easy.

“It's been as confusing of a year as I've had, and I still think we're 17-9 and looking at my board today, if those three or four games that I think even we should have won — not could have, should have — where would we be right now? We'd be sitting there at 20-5 and we'd be talking about being a top-15 team.”

Changing the direction of the season is still important, though. Simply pointing out the problems isn’t a solution. It won’t make the lob from Cassius Winston to Tillman at the end of the Indiana game go in. It won’t change the fact the missed layups piled up in crunch time at Wisconsin. And it won’t change the defensive breakdowns late against Maryland.

The key for Michigan State is to make winning plays and stop “finding ways to lose games,” as Izzo pointed out again on Monday.

“Doug Herner has a great line,” Izzo said of his confidant and assistant video coordinator. “Did you lose the game or did they win the game?’ Probably of those seven, I mean those seven that I consider real losses — not the two that we got our butts kicked, we got killed. But in those other seven, I think we lost at least five of them. That’s what we can hopefully control.”

Michigan State’s quest to turn things around begins Thursday at Nebraska, the only game this week. After that, things get ramped up with Iowa coming to the Breslin Center followed by back-to-back road games with Penn State and Maryland. Ohio State comes to East Lansing to close out the regular season.

By then, the Spartans will have a good idea if they’ve figured things out. The turnovers have actually started to dwindle and the layup-missing epidemic seems to be solved.

Will it lead to making the winning plays late in games and doing the little things?

“I don't know,” Izzo said. “I still feel like we're right there. I just feel like we found ways to lose instead of find ways to win a couple of these games. We’re 17-9, and we’ve got a chance to right the ship.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau