Then-No. 1 Michigan State entered Madison Square Garden in the opening game of the season against Kentucky. Freshman guard Rocket Watts hit a cutting senior guard Cassius Winston, and MSU was quickly up 2-0 but failed to see another lead in the contest. The same team was blitzed from the opening tip by Duke — and by a much larger margin — on its home court.
This trend has manifested itself on the road in Big Ten too. Slow starts against Indiana in Bloomington and in Madison on Saturday, in a 64-63 loss to Wisconsin, continue to plague No. 14 Michigan State (16-6, 8-3 Big Ten).
”We just needed to come out focused from the beginning,” Watts said following his career-high, 16-point showing. “We're doing the same thing over and over. We play away games. Teams get hot. They get up on us by a lot.”
The Spartans enjoyed an advantage for a mere 25 seconds of gameplay. To Watts’ comment, the Badgers rode a 43-27 halftime lead with 58% shooting in the first and unforced Spartan errors throughout to a one-point victory.
The result was ultimately indicative of the contest — all things considered. As the score appeared to be eternally fixed at 61-57, Wisconsin endured a four minute scoring drought and did not make a field goal in the last seven minutes.
Despite this, MSU, playing against a shorthanded opponent, relied too heavily on its pair of Detroit guards, and two of its “big three” struggled.
Winston, amid a 23-point day, dropped dimes that were as good as lost change; junior forward Xavier Tillman’s 3-of-15 shooting proved fatal in what ultimately became a one-point affair.
Sophomore forward Aaron Henry also remained quiet outside of a first-half alley oop finish.
The Spartans still had two stars on the day, though. Watts confidently converted four shots from beyond the arc, displaying poise and a quick “first step” on drives en route to a career day.
“It lets you know, okay, if I'm not gonna be a scorer tonight, we're still going to be okay because someone is going to step up for us,” Tillman said.
His contribution even stretched beyond the point total.
“It definitely diminishes their confidence because ... it won't be a defensive mistake,” Tillman said. “It'll be he's creating for himself and he's going to make sure the defense jumps, get them faking on his drive, then snatch it back for a shot."
But, as Izzo has emphasized time again, the Spartans need three stars present to be successful, especially in a conference as hostile as this one. At one point, Watts’ contributions were requested as a luxury. Now, they’re looking more like a necessity.
“It was a complete energy problem,” Izzo said of MSU’s flat showing. “My best players really struggled. Thank God for Rocket.”