Even before coach Tom Izzo called a 7:30 a.m. meeting the morning after dropping its second straight to Penn State and proceeded to have a practice full of “energy,” a focal point of late, you could get a sense Michigan State had a grasp on its recent struggles ahead of its rematch with Michigan Saturday at 12 p.m.
“That's the first thing I said when I got in the locker room to the guys was it sort of seems like last year and how around this time we weren't playing our best basketball,” sophomore forward Aaron Henry said Tuesday.
As far as “last year,” Henry is referring to the Spartans' three-game skid, which concluded with a 79-74 loss at Illinois that incited the infamous “nut up or shut up” mantra and is reminisced as the turning point of the 2018-19 season.
When asked about the similarities of this stretch and the three-game skid, Henry and junior forward Xavier Tillman, cerebral as they come, responded with similar insight.
“First thing I said to X (Tillman) when I came in — we had some experiences last year where we lost those games and we didn't have to have it,” Henry said. “We didn't have to have the one in Wisconsin or the one here. … We should’ve seen this coming after the Wisconsin game. ... But, we didn't have to go through this … not saying this is the end of the world cause we still have eight games left, but we could possibly need these two.”
The Spartans also turned the ball over 15 times Tuesday night. Cohesion continues to concern MSU both on and off the court, and the lack thereof is exaggerated through recent lineup shuffling. This is something Tillman recognized in the defeat.
“The word that we used after was 'togetherness' and being connected as far as on the defensive end,” Tillman said. “We had some plays where Lamar Stevens was going isolation on us and we're like, ‘go help, go double,’ and then like ‘I don't want to leave the shooter.’ Instead of being frustrated, we broke it down after the game.”
As MSU goes for its first five-game win streak over Michigan since 2014-17, here are some players to monitor before tip.
Isaiah Livers, F, Michigan
Averaging 13.1 points per game, Livers has missed Michigan’s past three contests. The Wolverines missed the junior forward in their first matchup with MSU. All eyes will be on Livers as he is a “game-time decision.”
Brandon Johns Jr., F, Michigan
The East Lansing native averages 6.5 points a game but has come on of late in an increased role due to Livers’ absence.
Paolo Giannandrea: 70-63, Michigan State
Jayna Bardahl: 75-67, Michigan State