EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo spent most of Saturday afternoon pink with anger or with his arms crossed in silence.
After the No. 4 Spartans’ 82-72 home loss to Michigan, Izzo spoke about four goals he set for his team, starting with two his team “failed miserably” trying to achieve: guarding ball screens and protecting the ball. Michigan State turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 26 Michigan points.
And after 13 minutes criticizing his own performance and that of his players, Izzo turned to the media. He had been asked about the prospect of going undefeated in Big Ten play, which had been floated by several pundits and talking heads both locally and nationally.
“We’ve lost a couple of games,” he said. “Big deal. You guys were talking about running the table. I addressed it before. There’s a couple guys that never come to this that talked about running the table. They’ve never been in the building this year. All I ask of you is to make sure you know what you’re talking about before you talk about it.”
Fair enough. No team has gone undefeated in the Big Ten since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, who finished their 32-0 season as national champions. Very seldom does a team even finish with just a single blemish on its record. You can feel pretty confident betting it won’t happen this year either.
But in a Big Ten with two ranked teams at the moment and opportunities for marquee wins as rare as open looks for Michigan State on Saturday, the Spartans must figure things out to catch up in the conference race. They now have 2 losses in a week, separated by a shaky 76-72 overtime win over Rutgers. A stagnant offense coupled with inconsistent ball-screen and 1-on-1 defense has led to a complete 180-degree flip from 50-point blowouts of bottom-feeders in nonconference play.
“I think we forgot just how to win,” said Miles Bridges, who scored 19 points but had 4 turnovers. “We started taking teams a little lightly, and we stopped doing the little stuff. … When we were beating North Carolina and Notre Dame, we were doing all the little things to win and not turning the ball over. We’ve just got to do that come conference play because it’s gonna be tougher for us.”
Those words echoed what Bridges said before the return to league play earlier this month, but talking about it wasn’t sufficient preparation. These games have proved to be different from a neutral site PK80 Invitational championship game or the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
Regardless of rankings, the Spartans game against Michigan could have qualified as the biggest game for both teams so far. The rivalry brought out extra effort on defense from the Wolverines, and Michigan State didn’t match it. It laid an egg in a big game that may have gotten out of hand if not for constant whistles removing any semblance of flow.
“This will hurt for a day or two, because this is a big game to me,” Izzo said. “I’m going to address a couple of guys on the grit that you have to have to play in the Big Ten. I don’t mean play like last year when you’re playing to win some games. I mean when you’re playing to win big games. Some guys have to grow up a little bit, and they will.”
There were times when it looked like a big game to Michigan State, but very few of those moments came in the second half. Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson curled around ball screens and drove right to the rim, left uncontested because the Wolverines drew the Spartans big men out to the perimeter. Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston tried to orchestrate movement from the offense, but the shot clock kept falling below 10 seconds before any real progress was made.
With all the telling statistics and tactical analysis available from a game like this, Michigan State still whittled it down to a pretty simple explanation.
“They played harder than us,” Nairn said. “And when people play harder than you, you don’t win.”
Maybe that’s a byproduct of winning games so easily. But if the Spartans want to call themselves champions, it needs to be fixed soon.