Ahead of No. 9 tournament seed, MSU's season plagued by inconsistency
There’s no question this season has been a challenge for head coach Tom Izzo.
With the arrival of a highly-touted freshman class and a rigorous travel schedule in non-conference play, Izzo often said this season is a new benchmark in his career — putting the program in “uncharted territory.”
But for the 20th consecutive season, through the growing pains of starting a freshmen-dominated lineup, injuries and midseason lulls, Izzo’s Spartans have found themselves in the NCAA Tournament, this time as a No. 9 seed.
Plagued since the start
Just as it was in 2011, the Spartans sit at 19-14 overall heading into March Madness. This year’s Spartans began the year winless against AP top-25 opponents to start the season 4-4.
Depth began to hinder MSU throughout the season as well. Senior forward Gavin Schilling and graduate student forward Ben Carter missed the season from the start after they sustained separate knee injuries. Fifth-year senior Eron Harris suffered a season-ending injury on Feb. 18 against Purdue, creating a thin rotation for the team’s wings.
Freshman forward Miles Bridges was also sidelined with an ankle injury after the team’s loss to Duke on Nov. 29. A jarring loss to Northeastern on Dec. 18 officially stirred the narrative of a team in jeopardy of missing an invitation to the Big Dance.
“I just feel like we passed through so much at the beginning of the season,” freshman guard Joshua Langford said. “If you looked at our schedule early in the season, you know we had some ups and downs, but it’s preparing us for now. Now we know how to deal with adversity, and that’s what you want to see in a tournament situation because this is March and that’s why they call it (March) Madness.”
For the three upperclassmen who’ve been through the gauntlet of a decked-out schedule, there was never any angst when it came to Selection Sunday and where, if at all, the Spartans would place in the tournament. The only focus going forward will be maintaining consistency in postseason scenarios.
“There’s no anxiety,” senior shooting guard Alvin Ellis III said. “It’s going to be the same mentality. It’s one-and-done time. I try to keep stressing it to the guys, especially the younger guys, by saying, ‘We need every game’ and we’re going to take it one game at a time.”
Ellis has started the last six games at shooting guard since Harris went down with the injury. Harris averaged 22.1 minutes and 10.4 points per game this season. Since the injury to Harris, Ellis has averaged 27 minutes and 6.2 points a game.
Even with a healthy Bridges, losses to Penn State University, Ohio State University and Indiana midway through conference play questioned the team’s physical grit and mental toughness. Izzo criticized his team’s with each loss and narrow win with approaching their opponent with an “AAU mentality.”
The return of Bridges did, however, help Izzo steer the ship and dismiss any worries of a missing the tourney. Bridges, the unanimous Big Ten Freshman of the Year, carried the team when needed and helped MSU earn key wins in the regular season over Minnesota, Northwestern, University of Michigan and Wisconsin.
“We just have to be ready to play every game,” Bridges said. “We’re trying to play for a championship. That’s what we do here. We don’t settle for less. We can’t be satisfied. We just have to continue to play hard.“
The fight ahead
But squashing MSU’s “AAU mentality,” or tendencies of missed execution, has been a work in progress for Izzo the entire season. Even after MSU’s 63-58 loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, Izzo and the players said the Golden Gophers earned the win by out-toughing the Spartans.
When starting three freshmen for most of the season and playing four for nearly 20 minutes in each game, Izzo said MSU’s lack of competitiveness isn’t a product of laziness, but rather the result of inexperience.
“I think that’s the problem nowadays, no one understands about winning,” Izzo said. “It’s the AAU mentality. I felt like my team, and me myself, didn’t do a very good job of handling that. If it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t bother them, if they want to forget it today or tomorrow, I’m not going to.”
Priming the Spartans for consistent play has been no easy task, and it’s a burden each player carries upon themselves. Izzo said he blames himself because the freshmen aren’t experienced enough to develop urgency in playoff situations.
The inconsistencies turn into self-doubt. The tale of two teams becomes imminent. These same Spartans blew Penn State out in their first round of the conference tournament and held a nearly 30-point lead, but fell to Minnesota the next day because they came unprepared.
“If they don’t understand it, that would be like the math teacher that flunks the student,” Izzo said. “It’s the teacher’s fault that they don’t understand it. It’s the coach’s fault. I have to do a better job of that. I will do a better job of that, but at the same time I’m not going to allow my team to think that’s the way Michigan State plays, because it’s not.”
When close games turn erratic, and eventually into a loss, the self-loathing trickles down to the players.
“We can’t keep using losses to motivate us because it’s one-and-done time,” Bridges said. “It just seemed like we were satisfied with everything. We didn’t accomplish anything, but we play like we did.”
Time to assert itself
Izzo said one of the biggest reasons the team has struggled to overwhelm its opponents is because players are not assertive. Junior point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. is the consensus clubhouse leader of the Spartans, but hasn’t put up the results to match the status quo of an on-the-court leader.
Izzo said he knows Bridges needs to be the man to take initiative.
“They’re unbelievable guys,” Izzo said. “But with good guys, sometimes you need a jerk. I guess that’s why I’m here. A full-fledged jerk, sometimes you do need that on your team. That’s what I’m hoping Miles (Bridges) will turn into in a bit.”
For Bridges, Nick Ward, Langford and point guard Cassius Winston to play as well as they have been is one of the reasons why MSU was in the hunt for a tournament berth in the first place. Izzo’s four freshmen have accounted for 488 of the team’s 850 made field goals.
“We asked a lot out of those guys for being so young,” Nairn said. “I think as leaders we have to do a better job of helping them out.”
Most of the team’s growing pains can be credited to Izzo’s reliance on the freshmen, as well as the lack of depth down the stretch, but Izzo isn’t using it as an excuse. Neither are his players. As Izzo has leaned on his first years down the stretch, they’ve been forced to play better than their age allows.
“Us freshmen, we’re really sophomores now,” Langford said. “We’re not really freshmen anymore, we’ve been around the block a little bit. Also, overall I feel like we’ve become a better team. We’re a stronger team. Everybody understands their role and everybody understands their purpose on this team and what their job is.”
MSU will play No. 8 seed University of Miami on Friday. With Izzo’s 20th-straight season at the Big Dance a lock, the Spartans are confident in their ability to thrive in March.
“We have to keep surviving and advancing,” Langford said.