EAST LANSING, Mich. — Jordan Poole cupped his hands behind his ears, maybe trying to hear the Michigan fans in the nosebleeds of the Breslin Center but most likely taunting the silent Michigan State fans sitting in disappointment.
His teammate, Moe Wagner, put his thumbs inside the arm holes of his jersey and thrust out the “Michigan” on the front, à la Dee Brown of Illinois. As if Spartans fans didn’t know the team he played for after he scored 27 points to lead the Wolverines to an 82-72 road victory with 27 points on Saturday.
In the Michigan State locker room, players contemplated the midseason blues. After a 15-1 start to the regular season elevated them to No. 1 in the country, two losses in three games dropped the Spartans (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) to their lowest spot of the season, No. 9.
“We just have to be a tougher team,” senior big man Gavin Schilling said. “Our program is traditionally built on toughness, and that is something that we are lacking right now. We have to dig deep and come up with the toughness that is going to win us some games.”
It’s one of the few things Michigan State is lacking, but it’s a glaring omission showing itself just past the halfway point of the season. The Spartans’ first 19 games showed an exciting, yet unconvincing team. Their mental toughness has been tested, and they have struggled to respond to the pressure of playing in close games and at opposing venues. That can’t happen any longer if they want to win the Big Ten Conference or challenge for the NCAA title.
When things are going well, Michigan State has ridden the wave. The Spartans won half of their first 16 games by at least 25 points, and their closest margin of victory came in an 81-63 win over then-No. 5 Notre Dame. They proved to be the best interior defense in the nation by a wide margin, with Jaren Jackson Jr., Nick Ward and Miles Bridges averaging at least a block per game as Michigan State held nearly every opponent below 40 percent from 2-point range.
But in its only close game of that stretch, Michigan State fell short. The Spartans let a chance against No. 1 Duke slip away in the final minutes through poor offensive execution and turnovers, issues that reappeared during this most recent stretch. In the last three games, Michigan State has averaged 14.3 turnovers to 8.3 from its opponents.
“We’re leading the country in [field goal percentage] defense,” coach Tom Izzo said. “We’re one of the top in offense [No. 3 in field goal percentage]. We’re very high up in rebounding. We’re turning the ball over a lot, and that leads to a lot of things.
“That’s why I love these football playoffs. I wanted Pittsburgh to win. Le’Veon Bell, I love their coach, I wanted Pittsburgh to win. But with the pick and the fumble and the return, it just meant I could come back and tell my team, ‘See? Turnovers matter.’ It’s easier to see in football. It’s more accepted in basketball. And it’s probably most accepted in hockey. But good teams don’t just turn it over.”
Izzo continues to emphasize not just winning games, but winning big games. It’s not like Michigan State hasn’t done that. It beat then-No. 9 North Carolina to win the PK80 Invitational, then turned around and took down Notre Dame at home four days later.
But the Spartans fell to the top-ranked Blue Devils. They fell in their first road game against an undefeated conference opponent, Ohio State. And they fell in their only battle with their in-state rival. These teams had Michigan State figured out early and exploited weaknesses throughout each game by pounding the offensive boards, smothering Ward and testing the Spartans’ ball-screen defense.
“We have to understand who we are and what kind of bullseye we’ve got on our back, because I think the bullseye’s a little bigger this year,” Izzo said. “I just don’t think we’re playing with the same sense of urgency, and I don’t think it’s anything that we think we’re better than we are. I think it’s something that just comes with having a lot of success and then not realizing the opponent is going to play at a different level, too.”
Well, that’s every game of the NCAA Tournament, so Michigan State had better get it figured out. There aren’t too many games left on the Big Ten schedule that would be classified as “big.” They play 7-0 Purdue, but only at home. They don’t face Michigan or Ohio State, the other two teams ahead in the standings, again this season. Classifying road trips to Indiana or Minnesota as big games seems like a stretch, but no true road games have been easy so far.
So Michigan State can’t rely on the opponent to dictate its performance. Every game is an opportunity to prepare itself for the postseason. And if a Big Ten regular season title matters — the Spartans haven’t won it outright since 2008-09 — there’s little more room for error. Forget youth. Those called upon to be leaders must do so, regardless of age or grade.
“It begins with me and Tum [senior point guard Tum Tum Nairn],” sophomore wing Miles Bridges said. “When I say holding guys accountable that aren’t playing hard, not doing the little stuff, we have to be on the same page.”
The last three games reminded Michigan State of some of the things that made the start of the year successful. Without much offensive production from Nick Ward against Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans couldn’t suck in the defense to create room for shooters, and they struggled to hit 3-pointers. They stopped rebounding and running, scoring only 20 fast-break points against Ohio State, Rutgers and Michigan combined.
At the same time, it’s not just about what they stopped doing. Now the Spartans know that what worked before didn’t make them unbeatable. They have to adapt, evolve and, quite frankly, grow up.
“Insanity is the fact of doing the same thing and expecting to get a different result,” Langford said. “We have to look at film differently. We have to do things differently, because apparently what we were doing before these three games, it wasn’t really as successful as we thought it was, and so we have to get better. We have to try to do more. We’re going to get everybody’s best game, so we have to bring our best as well.”