COLUMN: National championship hopes depend on road grittiness
All Tom Izzo could do was fold his arms as he watched the Spartans give up a 12-0 run to Ohio State University in the last 1:15 of the first half in Sunday’s 80-64 loss to Ohio State.
Statement-making dunks and uncontested 3-pointers during that run put most of the 17,599 fans in a frenzy at the Schottenstein Center at deafening volumes. All of MSU’s attempts to come back were squashed, every missed opportunity met with thunderous applause.
Even as Ohio State’s lead neared 20 points, Izzo’s arms stayed crossed. Rather than calling timeout, he let them play through the blaring cheers.
He knew as bad as his team wanted it, the crowd wanted it more. That momentum fed the Buckeyes. The end resulted in a hostile crowd in Columbus helping embarrass the top-ranked team in the country.
“The crowd, the environment, we didn’t handle it,” sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said Monday. “So they punched us in the mouth and we didn’t respond. We were kind of humble with it, and that’s what that was. We didn’t come to a visiting game with a lack of focus. We knew they were a good team and we just didn’t handle that run, that push they had well.”
It was the first time all season they had been overrun by adversity, and until the Spartans toughen up in road games, their wishes of winning a National Championship will stay just that. Wishes.
The run to end the first half isn’t what did MSU in— after all, MSU is the best scoring team in the Big Ten, averaging 86.5 points, and the best field-goal percentage defense, 34.2 percent, in the country.
It was the fact that Ohio State was fueled by the vigor of the crowd and MSU had nothing to respond with.
“When they continued to get excited off it, that’s just hard,” freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. said. “We weren’t tripping off the run. We were pretty level-headed. What set the tone of the second half was the second half itself and that they also kept continuing their run.”
As a top-ranked team, opponents are always trying to knock MSU off its pedestal. Big runs away from the Breslin Center are destined to happen.
“I feel like as a team we have to learn how to deal with those runs,” sophomore shooting guard Joshua Langford said. “Like I said before, we’re always going to get the other team’s best plays and everyone is going to go out there and just play out of their minds. We have to learn to expect it from the beginning of the game."
Struggling on the road has been a theme with this team since I started covering them last year. MSU struggled to put Rutgers away until late in its 62-52 win in Piscataway, N.J., on Dec. 5. Last season, as Izzo mixed and matched a freshmen-filled and injury-riddled starting lineup, they went 2-7 on the road. Six of those losses came in conference games.
When Izzo said his team didn’t play ahead of itself on Sunday, he was spot on. They don’t play like they’re better than their opposition. He teaches this team not to play the name on the opposing jersey, but to play until Izzo is happy.
Which is why he used those moments of pandemonium as a teaching experience.
“That just shows the trust he has in us that we’re going to respond, and we let him down,” sophomore wing Miles Bridges said. “So that’s our fault. But we’ve given the coach a good reason to trust us, so we’re going to continue to learn to not let it happen again.”