COLUMN: MSU men's basketball still mentally soft, approaching season cliff
After dropping another game on the road, it is apparent this year’s MSU men’s basketball team doesn’t belong with the major players of the country, potentially the Big Ten.
While MSU fans oiled their gears in anticipation with a mixture of a poor football season and the hype of this freshman class, this season has been a let down so far to East Lansing.
After a hot start to the Big Ten season, MSU has failed to perform on the road, away from the energy of the Izzone. Disappointing as a team after Penn State, Ohio State and Indiana, it is clear this team has unquestionable physical talent, however their mental game is slim to none.
The disconnect between upperclassmen's lesser talent and underclassmen's lesser eager and aggression has this team in a tail spin. While clearly each individual cares about their performance, many times the team is caught like a deer in headlights because each of these freshmen have yet to experience the grind of a Big Ten season.
Scanning the locker room after the loss against Indiana, fifth-year senior guard Eron Harris looked irate over the team’s inability to overcome the slow start. Of everyone on the team, Harris knows about slow starts.
Harris has been the human barometer for this Spartan team. Averaging just shy of 15 points per game in wins, MSU is 9-3 as a team when Harris scores in double figures. In losses this season, Harris averages nine points per game.
When talking to freshman guard Cassius Winston, he mentioned the team has their backs against the wall and the time to perform is running out. I couldn’t agree more.
Playing against a top-25 team in Purdue on Tuesday, the Spartans are outsized and out-skilled by who I consider the best Big Ten team this season. After this game, the Spartans will have their last chance to gain momentum going into the final stretch of the season. Because after Purdue, they play University of Michigan twice, Nebraska, Iowa and round two against Ohio State. After that, it is Purdue and Nebraska again, Wisconsin, Illinois and Maryland.
If they can’t pull off the upset at home against the Boilermakers, then they will need to win at least four of their next five to show they have any capability of competing for a top-four finish in the Big Ten Tournament come early March.
And head coach Tom Izzo is considered a wizard come tournament time, this team needs to secure a major win down the stretch to ensure they are in the big dance. With 12 games remaining and a 12-8 record, MSU men’s basketball will have to finish about 7-4 in the remainder of the season, and will need to avoid bad losses as well.
Those numbers can slide back and forth if MSU beats Purdue one time in their two chances, Wisconsin or Maryland. Wins over U-M will help because the Wolverines will sit on the bubble this year. However, the team will need to avoid losses to Iowa, Illinois or being swept by Nebraska, which would really hurt this team’s gasping credibility.
The best way for a turnaround for MSU would be with a little arrogance. As seen with any great team, there is a definite leader on the court and a shot maker as the game clock winds down. Although guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. can fulfill the leadership role during practice and in pregame, as soon as the ball is tipped, he struggles with his own game.
Someone will have to fill the on-court leader role, aka freshman forward Miles Bridges, however, he will need a sidekick to relieve pressure. That option should fall in the hands of Harris, Winston as the dark horse. Freshman forward Nick Ward will provide good minutes for MSU, but down the stretch they will need shot creators, not black holes.
As the freshman class has done all season, they need to continue to be the dominant driving force behind this team’s productivity. But in times of trouble, they should think about taking over the leadership at a young age, because Nairn will not be the one to go to when the team needs a basket. Although he has stepped up in certain games, his track record shooting the ball gives every MSU fan the chills.