Sparty Hits The Skids

This is a year of great expectation for the Michigan State basketball team, even by the standards of a program that has become accustomed, under Tom Izzo, for having high expectations. But after three straight shaky games—two decisive losses and one narrow escape, it’s fair to ask why Sparty is struggling and if it’s a long-term problem.

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Michigan State rolled through non-conference play, the only loss being a competitive 88-81 game at Duke. During the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, an event that was otherwise a disaster for the Big Ten, the Spartans stood out. They hammered Notre Dame. This is a win that was more impressive at the time than it will appear as the season wears on, because the Irish had Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell both available in November.

That win was preceded by a pounding of North Carolina. The victories over the Tar Heels and Irish were each by 18-point margins. With the rest of the Big Ten seemingly ready to collapse around them, I took to Twitter to say that if Big Ten basketball were a political campaign, every network could call it for Michigan State. It looks like this may have been just the latest premature calling of a campaign.

Sparty was still cruising in Big Ten play, but then went to Ohio State and lost 80-64. That was followed by an overtime escape at home against Rutgers. At this point, you can still overlook it. Okay, they had their bad game on the road and that didn’t bounce back very well. But this past Saturday, Michigan came into East Lansing and they put a double-digit beatdown on Michigan State. The 82-72 loss wasn’t a blowout, but watching the game, it seemed like the Wolverines were mostly in control through the second half.

What gives? This Spartan team has all the pieces. They have two outstanding forwards in Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. Collectively, the two average 31 points/14 rebounds per game and Bridges is an MVP candidate in the conference. Cassius Winston is a fine playmaker at the point, averaging seven assists. And he’s also the team’s best outside shooter, a surreal 52% from behind the arc.

In a college basketball world that often lacks true centers, Michigan State has one in 6’11” freshman Jaren Jackson and his 11/6 per-game average. Lourawls Nairn provides support to Winston in the backcourt as a senior playmaker. With Tom Izzo orchestrating all this, the Big Ten season looked like a cakewalk.

The reason it hasn’t been, is that the inside play has been lacking. In the losses, they were eaten up by frontcourt players. Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop ate them up and usurped Bridges’ status as frontrunner for Big Ten MVP. Michigan’s Moritz Wagner went for 27. Most alarming are the rebounding numbers. Michigan State had only marginal rebounding edges over Ohio State and Michigan and was actually beaten on the glass by Rutgers. Izzo’s best teams don’t have “marginal” edges on the glass, they dominate. This current team is falling short of that right now.

It’s a good news/bad news scenario for Michigan State right now. The bad news is that they’re two games back in the conference race, trailing both Ohio State and Purdue and packed amidst Michigan and Indiana, whom they play on Friday night. In the world of Big Ten basketball, the regular season title is still a big deal. My grandiose prediction of Sparty clearing the field by three games is long gone now.

The good news is that I see these problems as fixable over the rest of the regular season. I tend to adhere to Bob Knight’s wisdom, which said that rebounding is primarily a function of effort—particularly when you have the obvious size advantages that Michigan State has. If effort is lacking right now, I have zero doubt that Tom Izzo will get it there. This team is still projected as a 3-seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi for the NCAA Tournament, even after the recent slide.

What it all adds up to is that now is the time to pay attention to Michigan State. Their conference hopes are hanging by a thread. And in terms of their long-term prospects, if it truly is just a question of an effort gap for a week in January, then now should be when Sparty re-establishes its mojo