Column: The vicious cycle eating away at MSU basketball
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo is right when he says this team isn’t as good as last season’s.
But after the ninth-ranked Spartans lost again in upset fashion to Illinois (8-15, 4-8 in Big Ten) on the road Feb. 5 — marking the team’s third loss in a row — it’s become abundantly clear MSU (18-5, 9-3) is in the midst of a tailspin. It’s caused by running potential Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston into the ground and a lack of productive minutes from the likes of big men Nick Ward, Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman.
Winston scored a team-high 21 points and held a game-high nine assists, but accounted for nine of MSU’s 24 turnovers, a season-high for the team and career-worst for the point guard. Winston and Goins played 37 minutes, but the loss marks the eighth time in nine games that Winston has played 5-plus minutes.
Izzo told reporters after the game the turnovers were “unexplainable,” explaining his team couldn’t seem to maneuver its simplest plays.
“You can’t turn the ball over on junior high plays,” he said to reporters. “And we did that.”
Winston, a Wooden Award finalist, and the Spartans were unable to read the Illini’s pressure defense from the very beginning. Illinois’ defensive effort really came at no surprise, given the fits its given MSU each of the last two seasons. (A road loss in 2016-17 and 15 turnovers in an eventual 87-74 win last season.)
Winston, who’s been battling tendinitis in both knees since late January, committed his first turnover 36 seconds into the game and from then, turnovers seemed like an infectious disease the Spartans had no chance of fighting off. Illinois made the most of MSU’s sloppy ball handling, turning it into an additional 28 points.
“They did a good job speeding us up, forcing us into tough situations,” Winston told the media after the loss. “We just didn’t do our job of just staying poised, staying calm and running our offense.”
And of course there are many ways fans can justify the loss. Perhaps the easiest take is that without Joshua Langford, who will have season-ending surgery to repair a stress reaction in his left ankle on Feb. 7, the team is lost.
In a sense, yes. It’s a compelling argument given that with Langford, MSU went 11-2 and averaged 87.6 points a game and without have gone 7-3, averaging just 74.8 per since.
With that logic, its reasonable to think because of Langford’s injury, it forces Winston into more responsibility as the team’s primary scorer.
For the most part, yes.
But MSU was able to go into Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa — all tough games to play on the road — and grind out wins. It became so apparent that was Izzo’s game plan: Because of MSU’s athletes, they could out-endure and wear the opposition down with a constant flow of fast-break play and bludgeon the other team once it reached exhaustion.
It worked until Purdue handicapped MSU’s offense by out-rebounding them at Mackey Arena in late January, taking away Winston’s effective transition game.
Indiana followed suit, keeping MSU’s bigs out of the game again.
Against Illinois, Ward, Tillman — who scored a career-best 16 while starting over Ward — and Goins combined for 15 boards and 36 points.
In the selected sequences Winston either played off the ball or was on the bench Tuesday, the offense looked lost. To make matters worse, Matt McQuaid is forced to facilitate Langford’s role on some possessions while delegating as the backup point guard when Winston is out because freshman Foster Loyer isn’t ready to play against Big Ten talent.
This team, Winston included, looks gassed and inside its own head. It’s not getting the same scoring contribution from Ward as earlier in the season and Winston isn’t able to be a one-man wrecking crew.
Whether it’s Ward, Tillman, McQuaid or someone else needs to step up.
This team, when working at its highest function, was one of the most efficient offenses in Division I. To get back to that, MSU may have to drop some games now, or else risk another early exit in March.
The problem with that is Izzo longs for another regular season conference title, which is still attainable. MSU is only one game back of first-place Michigan. But those in East Lansing want more than a regular season banner to hang, rather a deep run in March, which Spartan fans haven’t seen in a while.
It’s clear that MSU is in a vicious circle: To rejuvenate Winston he needs rest, but Winston can’t rest because without him the offense roams among the walking dead.
But to waste another season of MSU’s core nucleus would be a travesty. Everyone agreed just a few weeks ago the Spartans were a potential Final Four pick.
They can return to that. Every great team faces adversity. The offense needs a clear reset, something to get out of its own head.
It needs a healthy Cassius Winston.