When star sophomore Miles Bridges announced last season that he would return for a second year, college hoops pundits and fans pegged Michigan State on their short list of teams good enough to hoist the national championship trophy come April.
The Spartans started the year certainly looking like one of those teams, winning 15 of their first 16 games, with their only loss coming to a Duke team that was No. 1 at that time. After a brief stint as the No. 1 team, MSU has struggled in their last three outings, going 1-2 in that stretch, including getting whomped in Columbus, squeezing by Rutgers and getting outplayed in a loss to their in-state rival on their own floor.
“Sure, I’m disappointed in the play this week,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “And of the rivalry, and watching Wagner celebrate on the court, but at the same time he deserved to.”
Since a 30-point blowout win against a good Maryland team, MSU has been in a tailspin. They got dominated in Columbus, a game which they were held to just 39% shooting with Nick Ward having only three points, all from the free throw line. With an early 11-4 lead, Tom Izzo substituted Tum Tum Nairn and Matt McQuaid for Cassius Winston and Josh Langford, an early coaching blunder leading to an 11-0 run for the Buckeyes. That, along with an Izzo technical foul to close the first half, sent OSU into the locker room on a 12-0 run and an eventual 80-64 win.
In their next game out, MSU struggled with a middling Rutgers team at home, needing overtime to put away the Scarlet Knights. Bridges had a rough night, finishing with just 11 points, and like several games this year, had many people questioning his shot-selection and killer-instinct, or lack thereof so far this season.
Izzo isn’t worried about his team’s confidence after a string of losses, but does want his team to be able to show more grit and out-physical opposing teams, “I’m gonna show him [Bridges] how to be more of a jerk on the court. I’m good at that,” Izzo said. “We lost a couple games. Big deal.”
The Spartans were outplayed and outcoached in their loss to Michigan Saturday. MSU played well enough to preserve a 37-34 lead at the half, but Michigan executed as well as you can in the second half, shooting 50% from the floor. John Beilein’s team uncovered flaws to this once impenetrable MSU team, particularly in Winston and Langford. Beilein did a great job getting Michigan in sets where laterally, Winston and Langford were nowhere near quick enough to make key defensive stops when they needed them, especially defending a simple dribble-drive into the lane.
“What we’ve got to do to is get rid of ball screens,” Izzo said. “We’ve done a better job this year, but just one of those days we didn’t do a very good job, so I’m not worried about quicker guards.”
MSU looked out of sync offensively against Michigan, and struggled mightily creating their own shots. Unlike the Spartans, Michigan had a clear plan and purpose of where they wanted to go when they had the ball. And for every run MSU threw at them, the Wolverines were ready, and responded with perfect execution, largely in part to Mo Wagner’s game-high 27 points. Wagner was far and away the best player on the floor Saturday.
“They just out-toughed us. Simple as that,” Bridges said following MSU’s 82-72 loss to Michigan. “We’re the ones that are supposed to be out-toughing people. To be out-toughed on our home floor to our rival school is embarrassing.”
It’s now a distant thought that MSU should seamlessly roll through the Big Ten season unblemished. In their past three games, the Spartans have shown teams that even they have a chink in their armor, and just might be a step below Michigan and Purdue, at least for right now.
Now with two losses in the last six days, it has many Spartan fans wondering, what now? Michigan State has as much talent as you’ll find on a college basketball team, headlined by the preseason Wooden Award nominee Miles Bridges. Bridges has been good this year, leading the team in scoring (16.8), but many are questioning whether this has been the Bridges from a season ago. Bridges has often been far too passive, settling for jumpers rather than looking to be aggressive driving to the hoop, when he’s at his best. But, like Wagner did today for Michigan, MSU is going to need that and then some, from their star player if the Spartans want to have a deep run in March.
The Michigan loss will certainly sting, but MSU won’t be able to remedy that until a potential rematch in the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden in March. I don’t feel much different of this MSU team than I did before Saturday’s game, but this is certainly a time for Izzo to get back to the drawing board and find some answers that help steer this team back on the rails in the next coming weeks.
The path for a Big Ten title isn’t as lucid as it was preseason for the Spartans, with OSU turning some heads and Michigan and Purdue continuing to impress, but it is still no question a feasible goal for this team. With a manageable schedule, including Purdue at home, MSU is still very much in control of their lofty aspirations this season and given the talent and depth they have, still have what it takes to reach a Final Four this season.