I’ve been spoiled as a hoops fanatic, but I think I’m pretty grounded.
I was born just months after MSU men’s basketball’s sole title under Head Coach Tom Izzo. Although I haven’t been alive to witness another, I also have never dared to fathom a year in which the Spartans miss the NCAA Tournament.
The closest instance in recent memory occurred in 2014-15 when Travis Trice’s debut in the starting lineup stomped any and all buzz of MSU’s status as a “bubble team,” one that rode a seven-slot through the East Region to Izzo’s seventh Final Four.
So — year after year — when the masses of East Lansing pose “what’s wrong with this year’s team?” I maintain that they’re exercising the early season blues.
Will people believe me now that there is something wrong with this team....or do I still need to wait for March?
“Just wait ‘til March,” I continually mutter to myself.
The holdout from November until spring usually pays dividends, as these teams come together masterfully at the end of the campaign and pose as hot of a threat as any in the 68-team field.
But for the first time in my lifetime, they legitimately might not make it there.
Not only that, but MSU has never posted a losing Big Ten record under Izzo. Yes, Ohio State’s pull as a national football power granted them leniency in qualifying for the college football playoff, as they proved they truly belonged in the four-team conversation.
Sitting at 8-6 overall (2-6 Big Ten), and with only nine scheduled games remaining, MSU might need a similar grace, granted they complete the entirety of the remaining schedule. It seems the Spartans themselves have overcome COVID interruptions, but the status of their Big Ten foes is out of their control.
I’d say we might have an NIT Final Four with MSU, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina. Two problems:
1. My guess is there won’t be an NIT.
2. There are stronger mid-majors this year, without nonleague resumes, who the selection committee will leave out of the NCAA tourney field.
Against OSU basketball on Sunday, coming off a COVID pause bookended by back-to-back losses, MSU discarded every staple of basketball under Izzo in a 79-62 loss.
The turnovers were actually good by MSU standards; they committed 10 while they averaged 14.2 per game coming into the matchup. And in a conference which junior guard Joshua Langford described postgame as “the most physical,” the Spartans seemed to be physically outmatched, as CBS commentator Bill Raftery uttered an anomaly — that MSU presented a “lack of toughness.” They provided no answer for Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell who shot 6-of-12 overall and even stepped out for a three to total 20 points.
MSU lost the rebounding battle by only one, but they ceded boards at critical moments, moments where they could have cut it to single digits in the waning minutes in what was one of the poorer performances I’ve witnessed in my fanatic and journalistic viewership. The Spartans missed wide open looks, also at inflection points, and OSU seemingly didn’t miss anything. And when they did, they got it on the put-back.
“I thought we had some good shots — they just didn't go in,” Izzo said postgame. “Aaron (Henry) and Josh (Langford) and Rocket (Watts) had a few, but (Henry) and (Langford) are two of my better shooters and I thought they had some good shots. I thought (OSU) made some unbelievable shots — I think three of them right at the end of the shot clock. I mean that one on (Langford) when he just threw it up there.”
The Spartans didn’t shoot it poorly from the line, statistically speaking, but Izzo also acknowledged the fact that their 23-of-31 (74.2%) was far more inefficient than it seemed, as missing four front ends on 1-and-1 opportunities left eight points in the rafters.
Despite all of this, MSU had ample opportunity to claw back into it.
When the scoreboard read 13-7, Watts hit his sorely missed signature floater to cut it to four. But instead of that spearheading a run, OSU remained steadfast.
“I think we came out (of half) with three or four straight stops defensively,” redshirt junior forward Joey Hauser said postgame. “So, those are times where we’ve got to capitalize and make our own run.”
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Even when OSU endured scoring droughts of their own, MSU wasn't able to jump on the chance to make it a game. Watts missed on multiple wide-open corner three looks to cut it to single digits down the stretch of the second.
Sophomore forward Julius Marble II missed a put-back, and so did junior forward Marcus Bingham Jr. I could go on. Simply put, MSU did everything in its power to lose this contest Sunday.
In garbage time, OSU made a fadeaway two-point jumper as the shot clock expired; Watts rimmed out on a wide-open layup on the ensuing break, and that all but epitomized the day for MSU.
Next, they get National Player of the Year candidate Luka Garza and AP-ranked No. 8 Iowa.
When asked about potential lineups moving forward, specifically about Watts at the point, Izzo searched for an answer.
“I don't know," Izzo said. "You know, I don't know. I just know this. A lot of people are rotating people, and I'm going to keep rotating until I find the right rotation."
Izzo always seems to find it, so maybe that means he always will. I hope to look like a fool in retrospect, but for once I’m not counting on it.
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