The number one.
For some it’s the difference in a grade, or maybe the milestone mark of an anniversary or birthday. But for Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, it’s the difference between where his team is at and where they need to be.
“We’re a basket away, we’re a layup away, we’re one stop away from being very, very, very good,” Izzo said. “We need to find ways to win games instead of finding ways to lose games.”
On Monday morning, Izzo didn’t bring his team straight to the gym. Instead he prepared them a slideshow, analyzing each of the Spartans' nine losses this season.
“I was just trying to show how much a layup, a free throw, a turnover changes a game,” Izzo said. “We showed the last two or three minutes of each one of those (lost) games and even my staff, who didn’t know I was going to do it, said, ‘Wow.’”
Izzo said that with the exception of Duke and Purdue, he found that in the last two or three minutes of games the Spartans dropped, they averaged trailing by about one or two points. Alternatively, in the games the Spartans won, the final minutes averaged a 17-point Spartan lead.
Take Maryland for example, the Spartans trailed by two with 1:20 remaining. Or Penn State when the Spartans trailed by one point with 11 seconds left. Or Wisconsin when a buzzer-beating Cassius Winston three determined a one point loss for his team. It all came down to one.
“Of the nine games, there were five of them that were more than winnable,” Izzo said of his teams’ losses this season. “It seems that there’s been a common denominator here, that from Kentucky on, with two minutes left to go in the game we’re down two, we’re down two, we’re down one, down four a couple times and then it’s either a great play by them … or a bad play by us.”
The Spartans have not won a game in this season in which they trailed at halftime. Izzo said it’s “maddening” to see the potential his team has during their mid-game runs, like at Michigan or against Maryland, but not see these positives carried out for the entire game.
“You just sit there and say, ‘When do people wake up?’ and you’re saying the same thing over and over, but I just keep going back to we are very young,” Izzo said. “We’re relying on those young guys and I've got to be as patient as I can be with them because they have done good things.”
With tournament season creeping up on them senior forward Kyle Ahrens said it’s time for his team to find the answer to their struggles.
“We sat down this morning and saw it on paper, it’s four or five games that we were a layup and a block away from being at the top of the Big Ten,” Ahrens said. “It helps knowing that, but we have to continue to get better each and every day. Leaders have to lead and other people will follow. We just have to continue to prepare each and every one of these guys. ... Because in March, you don’t get a second chance. It's win or go home.”
Izzo spoke specifically on his three sophomores Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry and Marcus Bingham Jr. as pivotal players needing to step up as the season rounds out.
“Its been disappointing. I think those three sophomores have so much more talent than they give,” Izzo said. “There’s no reason Gabe and Aaron shouldn’t be living on that offensive glass.”
Henry said his team is trying to take things game by game, not jumping to conclusions as many fans have after some less-than-average performances from the Spartans.
“I don’t want to say time is completely on our side but there’s still games left,” Henry said. “We can connect and continue to get better for the tournament. I'm not saying we are worried about that right now. We’re still trying to win game by game, one game at a time.”
As the Spartans travel to Nebraska on Thursday, they’ll focus on that one. That one layup, one block, one steal or one less turnover that could potentially put them right back where they started the season, as No. 1.