Sunday, July 12, 2020

Column: What's different about Michigan State men's basketball on the road?

January 16, 2020
<p>Guard Cassius Winston (5) peers through Purdue's defense on Jan. 27, 2019 at Mackey Arena. The Spartans fell to the Boilermakers, 73-63.</p>

Guard Cassius Winston (5) peers through Purdue's defense on Jan. 27, 2019 at Mackey Arena. The Spartans fell to the Boilermakers, 73-63.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

We’re halfway to the big dance and Michigan State men’s basketball just snapped an eight-game win streak at Purdue 71-42 Jan. 12. The Spartans recorded their lowest shooting performance of the season, 35.3%, and coach Tom Izzo called it the "biggest beating" he's ever taken.

Granted, Purdue was one of MSU’s first true road-tests in the Big Ten but even at Northwestern, in an arena that was about two-thirds Spartan fans to start, Izzo’s squad barely scraped by. However, at home the Spartans have been looking better every game, winning eight of their nine games at Breslin Center.

So what’s the different about Michigan State on the road? 

Ironically, the Spartans biggest issue on the road is the same one Izzo has been preaching since the Champions Classic in November – turnovers.

At Northwestern on Dec. 18, the Spartans faced one of the least-experienced teams in the conference and an early 16-point lead thanks to one of their better shooting nights of the season sounded like a recipe for an easy Spartan win.

However, when you hand 24 points to your opponent off of 16 turnovers, that win doesn’t come as easy as it should have. Sloppy ball-handling in this matchup allowed Northwestern to draw the game within four points with two minutes to go, forcing MSU to gather everything they had to bring the game home in the final seconds.

At Purdue the story was similar. Michigan State committed 18 turnovers, their most all season, but this time it wasn’t the points they handed over, it was the points they took away from themselves by turning the ball over that hurt them the most. 

MSU put up 42 points at Mackey Arena, its lowest game total since Jan. 31, 2012, when it scored 41 in a loss at Illinois. The Spartans lost nearly every offensive opportunity they had due to turnovers and compounded it with an abysmal 12.5% mark from three.

To put it simply, Michigan State could never find an answer for Purdue’s tight defense. Not even senior guard Cassius Winston could read Purdue’s strategy, going 0-for-5 from the three and 4-for-13 overall in an uncharacteristic performance for himself that Izzo categorized as “the worst game Cassius (Winston) and Xavier (Tillman) played.”

Perhaps the only answer for MSU when shooting ability fails them is their 74.7% performance from the free throw line. However in order to take advantage of this, they have to get to the line first, which proved difficult at Purdue as MSU only put up six free throws, all of which came in the second half.

So the problem? That’s consistency in shooting, ability to read defense and ball handling. But should Spartan fans be worried? I don't think so.

Realistically, there was no way MSU was going to make it through conference play without suffering a loss. That’s just college basketball, and maybe the Spartans needed this loss to put them back to work.

Flashback to the beginning of the season when MSU suffered an early 3-2 record with an underwhelming performance against Duke and an upset against Virginia Tech. They used that energy to rip off eight straight which included a standout win against in-state rival Michigan.

It seems like they're in the same place right now, putting out arguably their worst performance of the season at Purdue. But, if there's one thing to know about Izzo-coached teams, it's that they'll use this loss as a motivator to prove themselves even more in the future.

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