After a 78-69 loss in Durham, N.C. to the Duke Blue Devils, the MSU basketball team fell to 4-4 on the season. This marks the first time since 2002 that the Spartans do not have a winning record at the end of November.
Although this is not exactly the record the team and fans expected to have heading into the holiday season, an extremely tough schedule, injuries and the youth of the team have all contributed and led to the start. The loss of two quality big men in Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter hurt the Spartans more than anyone thought, forcing them to play a smaller lineup, which has impacted their ability to score in the post and be dominant on the glass, all the hallmarks of a Tom Izzo team. The loss of depth has also forced the younger players to step up, and while they are extremely talented, the freshmen mistakes have reared their ugly heads in each game.
Yet, even with the youth of the team, the Spartans have shown signs that they are growing and getting better with each game.
One thing to notice is they are beginning to play more as a cohesive unit rather than a bunch of individuals. This team is filled with talented players, and at times it looked like they are trying to create something that is not there on their own, rather than running within the team’s system.
In the past few games, the team has looked more and more like a unit that is coming together. You can see the melding of everyone’s talents and skills, working together and playing within the system to find better shots for themselves.
Thus, the team is growing in confidence and knowledge of the game, and players, specifically the freshmen, are seeing what happens when they play within the system. This was evident in the game against Duke, as the Spartans led or remained close for most of the game. While they still made freshmen mistakes, such as lacking on defense or making an unnecessary and dangerous pass, the team play is overcoming that.
The Spartans are also starting to get solid performances out of key players. Guards Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid were asked to fill a larger role on this team as veterans, but in the first two games they didn’t get the job done, shooting a combined 8-for-21 from the field and 4-for-18 from beyond the arc. Since then, the two have have stepped it up, and in the last two games against Wichita State and Duke, the duo shot 16-for-29 from the field and 7-for-14 from the 3-point line.
Freshmen Nick Ward and Cassius Winston have both played well in the minutes they have received. Winston has done well and shown that with a little more time and experience he could be ready to take the reins from Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. In the game against Duke, he chipped in with nine assists and flashed a little of his ability to get to the bucket.
In Ward, Izzo might have found his next great big man. In limited minutes, Ward has shown great skill and footwork on the low block and provided a much-needed energy boost for the team. Averaging a little more than 15 minutes per game, the freshmen center averages 10.5 points per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds. He was in for 22 minutes against Wichita State and finished with 13 points and six boards while shooting about 55 percent from the field. Against an elite Duke team that features players like Amile Jefferson, Ward registered 11 points and shot 71 percent from the field in only 14 minutes played.
Yes, a lot of mistakes have been made and at times it looks like the team doesn’t have a single clue what to do on the offensive end, but this team is young and with every game they only get better.
The Spartans have been defeated by most of the elite teams they have played, but up until the later minutes of the second half, each has been a close game. Once the mistakes are ironed out and this team finds itself, those blowups won’t happen. Izzo, like always, will have this team ready, it's only just a matter of time.