DURHAM, N.C. — An upset win over No. 5 Duke on Tuesday would have been a chance to dispel the Spartans’ toughest critics. It would have ended a 13,600 mile “gauntlet” with games against four AP top 25 opponents in the span of a month that could have propelled MSU (4-4 overall) into the rest of non-conference play.
But they couldn’t thread the needle. Not in Honolulu, Hawaii, for the Armed Forces Classic to kick the season off against then-No. 10 Arizona. Not at Madison Square Garden in New York City to upset then-No. 2 Kentucky for the Champions Classic. Certainly not in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas against then-No. 20 Baylor, and not at Cameron Indoor Arena, home of the Blue Devils.
“(Duke) was the most important game we’ve played, because we had to win this game to get back in the talk for one of the best teams in the country and we didn’t pull it out,” freshman forward Miles Bridges said following the 78-69 loss against Duke on Tuesday.
Two of those losses have been decided by 10 points or fewer. The other two, MSU was blown out — out-rebounded, outscored and outcompeted, head coach Tom Izzo said. After their 69-48 loss to Kentucky on Nov. 15, Izzo said his team wasn’t playing to their highest capability, playing AAU basketball instead of his patented style of gritty Big Ten basketball.
Izzo’s frustrations grew when MSU’s halftime lead against the Bears dwindled in the second half, and resulted in a 73-58 loss. Izzo said he blamed himself for scheduling tough opponents with the departure of forward Deyonta Davis in addition to not getting his players ready for the long schedule, along with injuries leaving a lack of depth at center.
“I didn’t think the second half of Baylor we competed and I don’t say that very often,” Izzo said. Monday at his weekly press conference. “Are we fatigued? Are we tired? Some of it is my fault. All of it that seemed to create some controversy in both a positive and negative way and it was just the truth.”
Fast forward to Tuesday night. Izzo said after playing Duke his team has made considerable progress since the beginning of the season now that the gauntlet is over, but stressed retaining that progress will be important moving forward.
“Make no mistake we got better tonight, a lot better tonight,” Izzo said. “We made some progress tonight, in all honesty, I think we’ve made progress in every game we’ve played.”
Developing on the fly
Through the first eight games this season, MSU is 12th in the Big Ten with a scoring offense averaging 70.8 points per game and 10th in the conference in scoring defense, allowing about 68.6 points per game. Bridges has been at the forefront of MSU’s offensive spread, shooting 47.7 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent from three point range — putting him at about 16.6 points a game.
The other two Spartans averaging double-digit scores a game are fifth-year senior Eron Harris and freshman forward Nick Ward. Harris, who had a season-high 31-point game against Florida Gulf Coast on Nov. 20, has started all eight games at guard and has scored in double-digit figures in five of those games. With lower body injuries to senior forward Gavin Schilling and UNLV graduate transfer Ben Carter, Ward has platooned with redshirt-sophomore Kenny Goins as the team’s makeshift big men, averaging about 15.6 minutes, 5.5 rebounds and 10.5 points per game.
“It’s kind of neat isn’t it, when they’re doubling a guy who I didn’t even know would play this year,” Izzo said. “But three teams have now, and that’s something we’re going to have to be better at.”
Izzo said Ward has improved vastly this season on both sides of the ball, and in recent games has been double-teamed. Foul trouble and turnovers, though, have been a problem for both the tandem and the team — averaging 20.1 minutes a game, Goins has turned the ball over 12 times and Ward has eight. As a team, MSU has the second worst turnover margin in the Big Ten, with 125 total turnovers on the season and a -6.1 margin.
After averaging fewer than 12 turnovers in each of the last three seasons, an increased role of this season’s freshman class is one of the reasons MSU is currently turning the ball over at a rate of 15.6 per game. This year the Spartans are 4-1 when committing 15 turnovers or less, and 0-3 when over 15 turnovers, including the loss on Tuesday to Duke where the Blue Devils scored 19 points on MSU’s 18 turnovers.
“We have to get better at completing the second half,” Harris said. “When we get tired we have to stick to what we were doing in the first half. ... Our substitutions have to be ready to come in the game and be just like the starters. That’s what’s going to make this team.”
A mix of young and old
Izzo said multiple times this week Harris and Goins, along with sophomore guard Matt McQuaid and junior guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., all need to give consistent outings to benefit the team’s detriment. Before Tuesday’s loss to Duke, MSU was 4-0 in games when Harris scored 10 points or more, and 0-3 in games where he was held to single-digit scoring. McQuaid has primarily served as the team’s distance shooter, converting 15 of his 38 field goals this season from 3-point range, while switching between a starting role and coming off the bench.
In addition to Bridges and Ward, Izzo has also incorporated freshmen guards Cassius Winston and Josh Langford into the mix as added depth to relieve the upperclassmen. With Winston and Langford averaging 17.0 and 16.0 minutes, respectively, the tandem is combining to average 9.5 points, 5.1 assists and 1.75 rebounds per game.
Winston trails only Nairn as the team’s leading passer with 33 assists, Nairn has 41. Izzo’s current freshmen, however, have accounted for more than half of the team’s total turnovers, Bridges leading the team with 27 in total and the four freshmen have combined for 64 of the team’s 125 turnovers.
Izzo has acknowledged this highly-rated freshman class is far from perfect. After Duke, he said it’s time for the newcomers to take a more commanding role with the team.
“I’m not going to deal with it, I’m very disappointed,” Izzo said. “(Ward) has to play better, Miles has to play better, Cassius has to quit turning it over. Yeah they’re all freshmen, but eight games in now is a lot of minutes. It’s time to quit making excuses for the freshmen. They have to start playing.”
What lies ahead
Having played eight games in the month of November, only two of those games were at Breslin Center. In December, MSU will play seven games in total, six at home and finish non-conference play with five consecutive home games, starting with Oral Roberts University (1-5 overall) on Saturday.
Three of MSU’s five opponents each have winning percentages below MSU’s, with the exceptions being Northeastern University (4-2 overall) and Oakland University (6-1 overall). The Spartans will not play on the road again until they travel out to Minnesota to open conference play on Dec. 27.
“We have a lot more time to practice now and a lot more time to rehab our bodies,” Harris said. “I’m not disappointed in my team over this stretch of games. We can’t dwell so much on the past and we have to move forward and continue to get better.”
Izzo said part of the reason why he scheduled so many demanding games at to start the season was to immediately toughen the team up, helping a young team mature on the run so they can develop for the rest of the season. While the incoming slate of games isn’t Arizona, Duke or Kentucky, Harris said these upcoming opponents will still be tough, and the Spartans will still have to fight for those wins.
“All the rest of these games, none of these games are going to be easy,” Harris said. “The end of the season is going to come quick and we need to wake up now.”