It’s been 17 games, and the men’s basketball team still can’t make its mind up.
At times this season, the Spartans have looked like one of the better teams in the country.
They certainly did last week against Indiana, using their rebounding prowess and superior athleticism to bully the Hoosiers at Breslin Center, 70-50.
But other times this season, the Spartans have struggled to the point to where critics have questioned if the team will even qualify for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Close losses against some of the premier programs in college basketball — Kansas, Notre Dame, Duke — and a loss against a then 2-8 Southwestern Athletic Conference team — Texas Southern — will do that.
Head coach Tom Izzo recognized this team as a team in transition prior to the start of the season. The departure of Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, former All-Big Ten honorees and first round picks in the 2014 NBA draft, left this year’s team without a bonafide star. Senior forward Branden Dawson, who has had a fantastic season, comes closest to filling that role.
At 12-5 overall, the Spartans have shown the ability to score, defend and rebound adequately enough to be seen as a Big Ten contender. But executing these tasks night in and night out has been the biggest issue.
And this, according to Izzo, is what separates MSU from the premier teams in the nation.
“It’s not a Michigan State thing, it’s not a Northwestern thing, it’s not a Kentucky thing, it’s a winners thing,” Izzo said. “Winners have to play and compete. We have times we don’t compete the same way and we’ve gotta change some of that.”
A team of role players
Senior guard Travis Trice, junior guard Denzel Valentine and Dawson, a trio of role players last season, suddenly find themselves the leaders of this year’s team, after the departure of Harris and Payne.
Trice and Valentine give the Spartans shooting and playmaking the rest of the roster mostly lacks. The guard duo leads the team in points per game — 14.3 and 14.2, respectively — and are responsible for 56.2 percent of MSU’s assist production.
What Trice and Valentine give MSU offensively, Dawson gives them defensively. The heart and soul of the Spartans, Dawson is averaging 11.3 points per game and leads the team with 9.5 rebounds per game.
“Branden makes our jobs a lot easier,” Trice said. “He’s one of those special guys where his play makes it easier for everybody else on the court, whether it’s rebounding, blocking shots, getting the rebounding and hitting the outlet quick and then beating everybody else down the court.”
The Spartans have struggled to stay healthy. Freshman guard Javon Bess missed 10 games with a foot injury, Dawson missed three games because of illness and a fractured wrist and sophomore guard Alvin Ellis III missed six games with a sprained ankle. Valentine, junior forward Matt Costello and Trice have also played games less than 100 percent due to illness.
As a result, Izzo is still tinkering with his rotation.
“For us to be great, Trice, Valentine and Dawson have to play pretty damn good every game, but I don’t think that’s any different than last year,”Izzo said. “The difference was, as I told my team, the role players last year were the Trices and Valentines. Right now, we don’t have as good of role players only because of the injury stuff we have gone through with them.”
Searching for consistency
The Spartans have been competitive in nearly every game this season. Yet, the losses have piled up.
MSU has faltered down the stretch in key games throughout the season, most recently against then-No. 12 Maryland in double overtime Dec. 30.
A trend in each loss is an inability to execute plays late in the game, allowing the other team to steal the win.
“I think it’s really just mental for us right now,” Dawson said after the 68-66 loss to Maryland. “We had the lead toward the end. We have to play smarter, that’s what coach Izzo talks about. Just playing smarter. Knowing how many fouls a guy has and just playing smart.”
Part of the issue can be chalked up to inexperience, as three freshmen and a transfer adjust to the Big Ten grind. The development of the freshmen trio of Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., Marvin Clark Jr. and Javon Bess could make or break the season.
When MSU is firing on all cylinders, the end result can be exhilarating. Three-pointers are launched with impunity, and the Spartans use their defense to create fast break opportunities. The half court offense has been a work in progress, but MSU’s ability to run has been very effective thus far.
“In basketball, big defensive plays can lead to an instant turnover,” Izzo said. “A missed shot, if you defend it well, is like a turnover, and you get your running game going out of it. Our guys just can’t figure out that that’s good. They don’t have to run plays. They don’t have to take any time. We can get a shot off in five seconds. I’d be the happiest guy in America if we did that all year long. But, we do have some issues with our substitution patterns.”
MSU struggled to put away Northwestern on Sunday, but finally managed to do so after a couple of fast break opportunities led to easy points in overtime. The 84-77 win was MSU’s first overtime win of the season in four tries.
“With every bad, you learn something, and hopefully you get good at it,” Izzo said. “I think we’ll improve from this but I’d like to see a steady (improvement) — it doesn’t have to be monumental.”
Not panicking yet
MSU would like to be better than its current 12-5 record, but Izzo believes there’s still a chance the Spartans have a better season than he initially expected.
There are several more opportunities for a signature win this season, starting with No. 14 Maryland this weekend at College Park. MSU’s performance against Northwestern left a sour taste in the mouths of both players and coaches.
“We need to work our way back up,” Izzo said Sunday. “I can’t think of a better game to try to do that in than the Maryland game. Somebody told me they’re naming the court after Gary Williams, or they’re doing something there, so it should be a fun time.”
A three-game winning streak has solidified MSU’s place in the Big Ten standings, and a tournament berth now looks closer to a certainty. But the need to defeat a top-25 team remains pressing.
In order for MSU to take the next step, they will have to define their identity. It starts with consistent defense and rebounding.
“We’re gonna have to realize that our identity at Michigan State – or better yet, the identity of 95 percent of successful programs, Wisconsin, Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, just to name a few — you’ve got to defend, you’ve got to rebound,” Izzo said. “And then hopefully if you run, you score easier points.”