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Column: Michigan State basketball wasn't supposed to win at Mackey Arena

January 28, 2019
Freshman guard Aaron Henry (11) guards Purdue's Carsen Edwards at Mackey Arena on Jan. 27, 2019. The Spartans fell to the Boilermakers, 73-63.
Freshman guard Aaron Henry (11) guards Purdue's Carsen Edwards at Mackey Arena on Jan. 27, 2019. The Spartans fell to the Boilermakers, 73-63.

In my last column, I used a “Breaking Bad” reference to talk about Michigan State's ability to come into opposing arenas, fall behind and then suck the energy out of a crowd.

As Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend.

The Spartans were humbled a bit at Mackey Arena Sunday afternoon, with a crowd that was raring to go before the opening tip. The scoreboard showed an anti-MSU hype video, displaying previous victories over MSU at Mackey from yesteryear. If Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves and Denzel Valentine could all lose at Mackey, then so could this team.

MSU looked listless in the first half, late to track cutters, indifferent on the defensive glass, and lackadaisical offensively. The number of possessions in which Cassius Winston was forced to try and create — against excellent perimeter defense — late in the shot clock was staggering. While MSU has played in difficult environments, nothing matched the intensity of the crowd and the Boilermaker team.

“Our freshmen needed diapers today," coach Tom Izzo said postgame. "It’s one of those days where I knew they were gonna get indoctrinated."  

Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown were the freshmen that got multiple stints, and it was a bit of a mixed bag. They were indecisive in the first half, clearly rattled by the stage and the raucous crowd. Izzo ran Henry in the second half, and he was better. 

So, now we get to the excuse. Or maybe it’s not an excuse, maybe it’s a reality. This was MSU’s third game in six days. At the wing position, two of their three most experienced players, Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens, did not play. Their minutes went to freshmen unfamiliar with environments like Mackey. MSU does not have transcendent, lottery-level talent like it has in previous seasons.

Those are not excuses, those are reasons. A team with more veteran leadership, on the court instead of just the bench, probably handles it better. It doesn’t mean Purdue should apologize for the victory, it just means that Langford and Ahrens would have helped quite a bit. MSU had been undefeated since Langford went down against Northern Illinois, which surprised just about everybody. It was bound to show at some point, and it did Sunday afternoon.

They got punched in the mouth in the first half and played with no fire.

But in the second half, we saw a different MSU team. A confident team, playing loose and free, as they used a 23-4 run to cut into a 23-point deficit.

“We kinda took a collective effort, and we just decided that we were gonna play harder and play smarter in the second half,” Henry said. “In the first part of the second half, it looked like it was gonna continue. I’m happy we found a way to come back, and even though we lost, we showed our heart.”

In an environment that difficult, with everything going against them, MSU did not shrink. They fought back, and really were a couple of plays away from stealing the game, as they did last season with their miraculous 27-point comeback against Northwestern.

“They’re the Big Ten champs,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said postgame. “Until somebody proves otherwise, from a consistency standpoint, they have a great chance to win it again.” 

Going forward, I’m not sure how much this result will matter. MSU is 9-1 in the Big Ten, halfway through this newfangled 20-game Big Ten schedule. They’ll battle No. 5 Michigan all the way to the wire for the Big Ten crown — the Wolverines had a similar result to this last weekend, falling by double digits at then-unranked Wisconsin. 

With a week off and a comparatively easy stretch of games ahead, the plan and goals should not change. Purdue is good, they are supremely coached and Mackey was a hornet’s nest all game. MSU was never supposed to be good enough to win games like this, particularly not when undermanned. In many ways, this team has already exceeded expectations this season.

The sky is not falling. It would be nice for MSU, however, if they could have a couple of titans on the wing back on the court just to hold it in place.

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