Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: In brutal loss to Michigan, Michigan State's inconsistent identity became clear

March 2, 2022
<p>Senior forward Gabe Brown after the game against Michigan at the Crisler Center on March 1, 2022. The Spartans lost to the Wolverines 87-70.</p>

Senior forward Gabe Brown after the game against Michigan at the Crisler Center on March 1, 2022. The Spartans lost to the Wolverines 87-70.

Photo by Lauren Snyder | The State News

Michigan State Men's Basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo looked tired and spoke softly, sometimes about ball screens, sometimes about leadership. The maize Block M behind him clashed with his green and white pullover as his eyes focused and he started to say something that throngs of people in East Lansing probably asked themselves and each other a couple thousand times during the previous 40 minutes of basketball. 

“I don’t know. I don’t know how you come off a game like Saturday and then come down to your rival and, and, uh…,” he said before pausing and trailing off. 

Let’s take a step back and talk about Saturday. Michigan State played giant killer for an afternoon, knocking off Purdue 68-65 on the strength of a stepback three from junior guard Tyson Walker. Buoyed by a balanced offensive attack, a tenacious, determined defense and a home crowd that lived and died with every possession, the Spartans broke their three-game game skid and got a coveted perfect moment. 

It was a win they absolutely had to have to stem the bleeding and put some much-needed juice into a crucial closing stretch. In getting it, the dismal feeling that had accumulated around them over the last few weeks dissipated instantly as Walker’s shot nestled around the rim and through the net. 

Things that didn’t seem possible at one point, seemed possible once again. 

Then there was Tuesday. After the first five minutes in Ann Arbor, the broken record started to screech and scratch again as Michigan ripped off a 14-0 run to take the lead and never looked back. 

The hits kept coming. Sophomore forward Terrance Williams II hit three triples, exactly half the amount he’d hit in Big Ten play up to that point. Freshman guard Caleb Houstan put together a strong third game in a row with 16 points. And sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, the same one who cryptically insisted that his team would get another crack at their rival after getting trounced in East Lansing on Jan. 19, dropped a career-high 33 points in a game he wanted and made the most out of. 

“Give them credit…I guess?” Izzo said. “The better team won tonight” 

Michigan State lost 87-70. That old dismal feeling crept in and soon settled like a fog as Pump It Up blared through Crisler Center heading into the second half, the crowd swaying to the club beat. In the haze, the Spartans’ identity shed some of the clouds around it. 

To be clear, this identity business is a little cliche. College basketball has a lot of buzzwords around it, one of the lasting favorites being identity, i.e. 'Team A doesn’t have much of an identity right now. Team B really gets what their identity is, Team C is desperately trying to find their identity,' etc. Like a lot of buzzwords, it gets lazily trotted out in an attempt to diagnose flawed teams. 

So when some unexpected losses came up in early January, that discourse seemed to be the route for the Spartans. What is Michigan State’s identity?

Nobody really knew but time went on and two answers came up. Sometimes they’re a hard-nosed defensive team that lugs their three stone tablets (defend, rebound and run) into each game with a humming offense that can put it on anybody to back it up. Sometimes they’re a model of dysfunction with botched half-court sets, missed defensive rebounds and some woeful ball screen action piling up as teams drop double digit scoring runs on their head with few players able to step up and get a bucket to stop them. 

After Michigan and a season of flip-flopping, there’s just one answer: the team is both. It is capable of playing the sort of basketball that boosted fan’s hopes after an unranked start as much as it is able to play in the manner that has knocked them out of the race for a Big Ten regular season title on a game-to-game basis. Tuesday night’s result was plenty of things but to call it confusing or any term of that ilk is a stretch. 

After 29 games, this is what the team is. It’s identity? What goes up, often comes right back down. 

If the juxtaposition of the Spartans’ performances against Purdue and Michigan seem unfair-a season-best game followed by a season-worst-there’s other examples to bolster the case. Oakland to High Point, Northwestern to Wisconsin, Illinois to the first Michigan game and so on and so forth keep the storyline alive as well as Michigan State’s last two. 

The responses reveal it, too. After pinpointing a lack of energy as one of the root causes of their fourth road loss in a row, senior forward and co-captain Gabe Brown struggled for a reason why they’ve struggled in this department once again. 

“I really can’t tell you,”Brown said. “I just felt like we didn’t have the energy today as a group, even myself. I gotta bring it, everybody has to bring it each and every day.” 

This wasn't an unfamiliar answer. Sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard, who sat out the second half after playing 11 minutes in the first due to an illness, pointed to a lack of energy dampening their chances after the Illinois loss on Feb. 19. Brown said it himself after the second Northwestern loss on Jan. 15. 

When asked about Brown’s comments, Walker offered a slightly different take. 

“I don’t think it was a lack of energy,” Walker said. “I just feel like we didn’t play as physical as we did last game. We didn’t seem like we were playing hard. We were just letting them do what they wanted to do.” 

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Izzo bemoaned that lack of physicality and toughness after losing on the road to Penn State on Feb. 15. Redshirt senior Joey Hauser said much of the same after the loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 9. 

The reasons haven't changed. Nor have the results.

After Michigan, Izzo also lamented the lack of leadership on the team, an issue that has lingered since the high-highs and the low-lows that have defined Michigan State’s season really started to swing at the start of the year. In his eyes, it appears that the situation there will likely not be taking a massive step forward. 

“We’re not going to fix our leadership right now,” Izzo said. “What we’re going to do is try to figure out how we can do a little better job on those ball screens.” 

Even if the leadership dynamic doesn’t shift, things can change. There’s a reason it’s noted that Michigan State is as wildly inconsistent as they are right now because, well, that’s what they are after 29 games. All of the basketball left? Dribble penetration defense can get better. Post play can get better. Transition offense can get better. 

Hey, it is March, right? It’s certainly not unfathomable — if maybe a little too expected at this point — to believe that a Michigan State team could start stacking strong performances on top of each other as soon as Thursday night’s tip against Ohio State.  

But with two regular season games to go, there’s not a lot of time left to shake the trend. The issues that plagued January and February have carried into March and it’ll take a truly rapid turnaround to prevent the team’s final identity and legacy to be cemented as what Izzo said after a road loss to Illinois: consistently inconsistent. 

Or rather, what goes up, often comes right back down. For a team running out of landing spots, that might be the most dire reality of all. 

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