COLUMN: 'Back to the drawing board' for Izzo after big loss to Penn State
A win over Penn State on Saturday at the Palestra would have showed immense growth for the Spartans — especially for MSU's freshman class.
It was the first time head coach Tom Izzo started all four of the highly-touted first-year group at the same time, a moment that was inevitable from the start of the season. Four of the starting five Spartans played at least 27 minutes on the floor, but as a whole combined for a microscopic 38 points in MSU's 72-63 loss to the Nittany Lions, the first loss to Penn State in nearly six years.
"This was humiliating for me to be in such a great city and a great basketball venue and my players did not play and I did not coach," Izzo told the media in his opening remarks after the game.
Penn State was in the driver's seat from the get-go after jumping out to an early 8-2 lead and never looked back while MSU scooted behind in the dust. After trailing by 12 points at halftime, MSU had a number of chances to come back, and were even within six points with 3:32 to play. But four-straight turnovers kept the rhythm sporadic and with each sequence the Spartans continued to come up empty-handed.
It was a glimpse of the Spartans of old — a lackadaisical unit waiting for the game to come to them, unaware that Penn State socked them in the mouth after the first buzzer. An "AAU" mentality.
"I think Penn State played harder than us, played better than us and deserved to win," Izzo said. "For me it’s back to the drawing board, of which I'm sure I'm going to have many, because we do not know how to play hard enough. I gave you a warning for our media, after that Rutgers game that looked like a 30-point win that we didn’t play very good in that game and I said it, and I let people question my sanity. We got beat by a good team tonight."
MSU was out-rebounded, out-scored and out of luck on Saturday. If Izzo is to take anything away, it's that his freshmen aren't ready to start together. The freshman class is immensely talented, and it's shown with wins against Minnesota on the road and Northwestern, but they aren't ready to lead the way quite yet.
"I did not bring them to play, so that whole thing falls on me," Izzo said. "But I’m just so tired of trying to explain why I don’t see the big light at the end of the tunnel — I see us getting better, and the minute I say it we take that for granted."
Freshman guard Cassius Winston was nearly non-existent with five points, shooting 2-for-5 with both scores coming in the final minute of play when the game was already out of reach. Winston finished with three assists and three turnovers in his most limited role nearly all season allowing for junior guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. to take the reigns at the point for the contest.
Freshman forward Miles Bridges earned his way back into the starting lineup for the first time since injuring his foot on Nov. 29, just a game after returning from the injury. Bridges finished with 27 minutes, a block and a steal, but was snubbed with only eight shots from the field and yielded only four points and three turnovers. To expect the Bridges of old, averaging approximately 16 points and eight rebounds a game, at this point in his return is silly — Bridges is an excellent player, but it even took former guard Denzel Valentine nearly a month to return to par after a knee injury.
Forward Nick Ward and guard Josh Langford rounded out the freshmen starters, combining for 57 minutes. Ward scored a team-high 16 points with five blocks and a steal while Langford drove the lane twice, something rarely attempted by the shooter.
With Minnesota coming to town on Jan. 11, Izzo will have to find the vigor in his team to beat the Golden Gophers for the second time this season. After narrowly escaping "The Barn" that is Williams Arena, Minnesota is out for blood while looking to climb back into the thick of the Big Ten standings.
Izzo can, and should, use his freshmen core at the same time on Wednesday, but not to start things out. With Bridges back, the Spartans have the means necessary to tinker with lineups and keep perimeter shooters like sophomore guard Matt McQuaid and senior guard Alvin Ellis III in the mix. Minnesota is a good team, and a beatable one, but not when the Spartans are lacking upperclassmen leadership as shown against Penn State.
A loss like the one Saturday will stick with Izzo. It sounds cliche, but it is a loss Izzo will look back within the dog days of the season to build off of, and one that MSU can rebound from with a win on Wednesday. But until next tipoff, it's back to the drawing board.