'AAU' mentality returns, MSU shoots season-low in loss to Minnesota
WASHINGTON, D.C. — At the end of the first half of MSU's 63-58 loss to No. 4-seeded Minnesota Friday afternoon, head coach Tom Izzo kept asking his bench the same question.
Going into halftime the Spartans trailed 28-26, and the team would have held the lead if it weren't for a deep three from the left side by Akeem Springs to end the half. Despite shooting 27.6 percent from the field in the half, MSU out-rebounded Minnesota by 11 at the half but had no business being in such a close game.
"We did a decent (job) in the first half of staying on the boards," Izzo said. "That was the only way we stayed in the game. We kept saying on the bench, 'How are we in this game?'"
After the game, Izzo said it was the same "AAU" mentality that held the Spartans from taking advantage of Minnesota's mistakes. Lackluster shots, missed play executions and softness are problems the team has faced away from the Breslin Center all season long.
While four of Minnesota's players finished in double-figure scoring, freshmen forwards Miles Bridges and Nick Ward were the only Spartans to reach double-digits — Bridges had a game-high 20 on 7-of-20 shooting, and Ward scored 15 to accompany 11 rebounds for a double-double.
At the end of regulation, Minnesota held the Spartans to 32.8 percent from the floor, tying a season-low for MSU by matching MSU's 69-48 loss to Kentucky on Nov. 15. The Golden Gophers shut MSU down from the perimeter. The Spartans finished Friday shooting 6-of-30 from 3-point range.
"Either the coaches did a bad job, or we just didn't play with the same spunk we played with," Izzo said. "It's a learning lesson. It seems like the whole damn year has been a learning lesson. We learned again today, if you don't come at this level, it's not an AAU tournament, and play 40 minutes, you can play better the second half, you can play better in different parts. It's not going to be good enough."
MSU remained within striking distance for nearly the entire match. With 3:37 left in the second half the Spartans trailed by three points, and again made it a one-possession play with six seconds remaining, after junior guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. found the net on a 3-pointer.
"They just played harder," Bridges said. "They rebounded better. They just wanted to win worse than us. ... we just didn't come ready to play. Myself, I didn't rebound well. We've just got to bring it every 40 minutes."
Both sides agreed the game came down to determination.
"Toughness wins for us," Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino said. "We didn't have a problem with trying to beat them at their game. I thought it was a little bit better to grind it out than to play fast with them because they're so good on the break. But we just found a way to win. We continue to do that."
As Selection Sunday and the NCAA Tournament approach, MSU's players agreed their biggest issue as a team is pulling together a complete game of well-played basketball. It's something Nairn, a clubhouse leader for the Spartans, has taken personally.
"I put that on myself, not bringing everybody ready to play," Nairn said. "Got to do a better job as a leader of the team to make sure guys are locked in and ready to play."
Even with the loss, Izzo said he knows his team had the passion for winning on Friday, and even more important games down the stretch. Dropping the close games, however, is just a sign of a young team experiencing growing pains.
"It wasn't like we didn't care," Izzo said. "I just don't think they understand yet that it gets racheted up. That's what these games are all about."
The Spartans will find out where, if at all, they will be seeded in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Through the official end of conference play, Izzo is reluctant to emphasize to the team his 19-year NCAA Tournament streak is in jeopardy of reaching one more year.
It's about what the team has the ability to do in the future.
"I've got the greatest kids," Izzo said. "I'm going to have to live with it. It's part of the process. I hate the process, but it is part of the process."