Michigan State men's basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo walked up to the podium for the postgame press conference with his hands in his pockets and biting his cheek. When he reached the microphone, he only had one word at first to describe how he felt.
Column: Michigan State needs to return to its brand of basketball after home defeat to Northwestern
Izzo was disappointed because MSU overlooked and underestimated yet another opponent and this time it finally came back to bite them. Unlike High Point, Nebraska, Minnesota or even the first matchup with Northwestern, Michigan State couldn’t find the luck or hit the shots down the stretch to be able to pull out another win after playing poorly.
Today, Michigan State’s recent magic ran out. They had no answer for an 8-6 Northwestern team that was missing its best player in senior forward Pete Nance. They couldn’t match the physicality and intensity that the Wildcats brought into East Lansing and because of it, MSU is no longer atop the Big Ten.
It is the fifth straight game where Michigan State has failed to put together a complete performance and play to the best of their abilities. However, the difference between today and the four previous victories was glaring: Michigan State never ramped up the intensity to match Northwestern.
“I think I got a good team,” Izzo said. “But they're a good team when they're playing hard as hell. We're not the most talented team in America.”
And for the last five games, Michigan State has not been playing hard.
In Wednesday’s last-second win over Minnesota, MSU started strong before letting the Gophers back in late. Against Nebraska and the first matchup with Northwestern, it was a sluggish start that led to early deficits before kicking it into gear.
The weaknesses that have popped up since Christmas for this MSU team should be more concerning for fans than just one loss in the middle of January.
The identity of an Izzo-led Michigan State team is based on effort and physicality. The goal is to control the offensive and defensive glass, limit shots at the rim and run in transition. This brand of basketball is so synonymous with Michigan State and has been so successful that Collins argued that it has become the standard across the Big Ten in order to keep up with MSU.
However, this iteration of Michigan State basketball hasn’t lived up to the program’s expectations for the past month despite riding a nine-game winning streak into today.
Over the last five games, Michigan State has relied on strong shooting performances to lift them up over the shoddy and inconsistent defensive efforts that have been apparent in each game. Today, not enough shots fell to overcome the 17 turnovers and Northwestern’s 17 offensive rebounds to be able to keep up the facade that everything with MSU is all peachy.
The effort by the big men for Michigan State has been the most concerning part of the struggles over the past five games. Senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. has looked like a shell of his former self and cannot make enough plays to stay on the court right now. Today, he played a season-low 12 minutes after showing very early on that he wasn’t all that interested in the contest today.
“It frustrates me when a guy walks up and down the floor, it frustrates me,” Izzo said. “That's been an enigma for me. There's been a couple of things that have been a little bit of an enigma. That's probably why I don't feel we're as good as we could be.”
Junior center Julius Marble II was able to step up and have a career offensive performance instead, but could not be the same disruptive force in the paint to deter shots inside. Northwestern outscored Michigan State 28-20 in the paint, led by redshirt junior center Ryan Young, who had a team-high 18 points.
Without Bingham on the floor, Young was able to score consistently against Marble and redshirt senior forward Joey Hauser, who split time at the 5 after Bingham was benched for an extended period for the third consecutive game.
Michigan State was outrebounded 40-35 by Northwestern. Senior forward Gabe Brown led the way with nine rebounds but MSU did not have a single forward with more than four rebounds despite setting up shop in the paint on most possessions.
The toughness that Izzo desperately craves and demands out of each of his players seems to have left this team at the worst possible moment heading into the toughest stretch of the schedule. Michigan State is at the point of the season now where slip-ups — especially at home — can be detrimental and derail what was once a promising season.
Now, Michigan State has five days to figure out how to get back to the roots of the program before traveling to Madison to take on white-hot No. 13 Wisconsin on the road. The team is left at a crossroads between using the loss as a wake-up call and living up to the sky-high expectations laid out for the program or wilting under the pressure and fading away from being a legitimate contender.
The direction that the team takes will be entirely in the hands of the players, who can dictate the effort they bring on a game-to-game basis from here on out. Izzo and the coaching staff can do things to try to push them to be better by holding them more accountable for mistakes on the court, but the coaches can’t go out on the court and make sure players are giving it their all.
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The effort needs to be better than it has been over the last five games dating back to the close win against High Point. From top to bottom, the players for Michigan State need to step onto the court ready for a dogfight, because that’s all you get in the Big Ten and NCAA tournament. It is in every single player’s hands to make sure the 14-2 start wasn't for naught and get the team back to playing Michigan State’s brand of basketball.