Early Season Struggles for Sparty

I really want to bite my tongue on this one.  Or in this case, tie my hands behind my back so that I won’t be able to type what I’m about to say.

As college basketball fans know, Michigan State basketball is considered one of the premier basketball programs in the nation.  In every college basketball expert’s season preview, Sparty is always considered to be a “lock” come NCAA Tournament time no matter what players are returning or are new to the system.  The answer is as simple as “Tom Izzo is their coach.”

With seven BIG Ten conference regular season and five postseason championships and seven final fours to go along with a national championship in 2000, Izzo has all the accolades to show he’s one of the all-time greats with the likes Bob Knight, Coach K, Dean Smith, etc.  Not known to recruit the big names in some aspects, Izzo prides himself and his staff on bringing the players in and developing them to their full potential.

Recent players such as Draymond Green, Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes were not heavily recruited during their high school years.  Izzo took a risk with these guys.  The chance of passing up on targeting higher ranked recruits and looking beyond the talent and numbers and understanding that these players could excel at Michigan State.  As a result, all three players are currently on a NBA roster and credit Izzo for their success in not only on the basketball court, but their overall satisfaction with life and realizing their full potential.

Izzo has come face to face with a new obstacle this year.  Expectations were high in East Lansing as the highest-ranked recruiting class in the Tom Izzo era stepped foot on campus this summer.  Although Valentine and Forbes graduated from last year’s team whose season ended in the first round in a shocking upset against Middle Tennessee, consensus top 100 recruits Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Josh Langford all decided to take their talents to Michigan State to play for Coach Izzo and Sparty for the 2016 season.

With the return of the lone-returning starter from last year’s squad, Eron Harris, and three-point specialist Matt McQuaid, critics from across the country were still predicting Sparty to finish atop the BIG Ten at the conclusion of the season.  In addition, the Spartans were ranked 12th in the preseason AP Top 25 poll.

In order to test his young team early, Coach Izzo put together one of the toughest non-conference schedules in college basketball.

The injuries hit hard early.  Potential starting big men Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling both suffered knee injuries that required surgery and forced them to sit out the full season.  Izzo’s team was without their best two big men for the remainder of the year, just another fork in the road for this already young group.

On November 11th, the Spartans packed their bags and learned the hula while playing #10 Arizona in the Armed Forces Classic.  Needless to say, this new look team didn’t play scared.  Jumping out to a 17-2 lead, lots of people including myself, started to flip through the menus on the TVs to see what other college hoops games we could catch without wasting our time watching this blowout in the making.  Not to mention, Bridges looked like the second coming of Valentine.  Playing for his life, almost as if he didn’t play well he wouldn’t survive, the 6-foot-7 freshman rattled home four thunderous dunks to go along with a Julius Erving-ish reverse layup and expanding his game to the outside while pulling up and hitting jumpers in his man’s face.

The youth and inexperience started to show almost immediately.  All of a sudden, you look up, Arizona holds a 34-30 lead at halftime.  It was an omen of the season to come.  Miles Bridges was almost non-existent in the last eight minutes or so of the first half.

Arizona went on to sneak past Sparty, 65-63, on a last second lay-up by G Kadeem Allen.  The Spartans had multiple chances of closing out the Wildcats but couldn’t find an answer in the last minutes of the contest.

Bridges finished with 21 points and 7 boards but was 1-6 from three.  No other Michigan State player scored in double figures.

A game plagued by turnovers and ugly shot attempts was in the past and was to be looked at with optimism as the road didn’t get much smoother from here on out.

What followed Arizona was a whole different animal.  A Tuesday night date with #2 Kentucky on ESPN in the Champions Classic was next on the docket.

Kentucky set the tone on the defensive side of the ball.  The Spartans coughed up the rock 20 times and shot 5-26 from 3-pt land which is good for 19%.  While Bridges showed the country just how good he could be in the Arizona game, the freshman finished with six points, 12 boards, and went 2-11 from the field to go along with nine turnovers in the 69-48 loss.

The lone bright spot was C Kenny Goins as he finished with a team-high nine points and showed poise and toughness against a talented and long Kentucky frontcourt.

The Spartans returned home to East Lansing to play two smaller schools, Mississippi Valley State and Florida Gulf Coast.

The norm was expected as Sparty massacred MVSU, 100-53.  Senior guard Eron Harris, who was expected to be Bridges’ sidekick this year in the scoring department, finished with 19 after being almost non-existent in the first two games of the campaign.

The critically acclaimed “Dunk City” from Florida Gulf Coast traveled up to East Lansing to square-up against Michigan State.  Both teams flirted with the lead and went back and forth like a heavyweight fight before the Spartans held a one point lead with two seconds left in regulation.  A controversial clock issue on the inbounds helped Sparty escape with a one point win over FGCU and brought them back to .500 with a 2-2 record.  Harris once again piled it on as he finished with 31 points and went a perfect 6-6 from 3pt land.

They say a win is a win and no matter what the score, the fact of whom won is the only thing that matters.  But it was obvious, this team cannot perform like they have in the first four games and expect to be a contender in the BIG Ten with teams like Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue.

The Battle 4 Atlantis was the next destination for Tom Izzo and company.  High-major programs such as Baylor and Louisville were in the field of 8 along with MVC-power Wichita State, LSU, St. John’s, VCU and Old Dominion.

Edging St. John’s in the first game, 73-62, the Spartans were scheduled to play a tough, physical and talented Baylor team that used a 12-2 run to knock of Sparty behind 26 points from star-studded senior Johnathan Motley.  The Spartans jumped out to a five point lead to start the contest but the Bears proved to be too much winning by 15 with a score of 73-58.

A promising victory against a balanced and quick Wichita State team might have resurrected this team and proved they could still be good by beating the Shockers by 5 in a physical, high scoring affair 77-72.

The business trip continued in another match-up with a top 5 team in Duke at Cameron Indoor.  Sparty held tight against the short-handed Dukies but the duo of Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard combined for 44 points as they carried their team to a 78-69 victory over Bridges and Michigan State.

Four “cupcakes” were scheduled to give this team a confidence boost after playing a brutal early season arrangement of games.  To make things worse, the Spartans (4-4), were to play the next couple contests without star freshman Miles Bridges.  Something that could be looked as a positive as Bridges seemed to be doing most of the work on offense and his injury provided other players to step up and fill that gap with him out of the lineup.

In the first three contests of the four game home stretch, the Spartans snuck past Oral Roberts (80-76) and Tennessee State (71-63), and controlled Youngstown State, 77-57. Sitting at 7-4, the Colonial Athletic Conference’s Northeastern Huskies paid a visit to the Breslin Center.  The Huskies, then 5-5 on the year and ranked 145th in the country according to KenPom, knocked off previously ranked No. 18 UCONN on the road earlier in the year, 64-61, so they came in unphased and ready to earn their second win against a Top 25 opponent this season.

Without the presence of Bridges, the Huskies used a 12-2 run in the final minutes of the game to stun the Spartans at home, 81-73.  Another game that MSU seemed to have control off slipped away in the second half as they held a 51-45 lead with less than 12 minutes left.

Shortly after the Baylor game, Tom Izzo apologized to his team about their early season tough schedule.  The veteran coach said to the media, “And yet, I’ve always played a tough schedule. … You know what? You can take it as an excuse, you can take it as the truth, I don’t give a damn. I’m telling you what I did. This ain’t on them. It’s on me.”

You’d think something like that would pump up a team and make them run through a brick wall. Yet, this team suffered arguably their worst two losses in the Tom Izzo even after all that.  After sneaking by Oakland last night, 77-65, where the Horizon League’s Golden Grizzlies shot 33% from the field, the Spartans open up conference play on the road at the Barn against a surprising young and talented Minnesota team on the 27th.  The chances of Bridges playing in that game are uncertain although he is out of a walking boot now and starting to participate in contact drills again.

At this point in the season, Michigan State is not a NCAA Tournament team.  There only chance of securing a spot in the Field of 64 would be running the table in the BIG Ten postseason tournament which would provide them an automatic bid.

We’ve seen Tom Izzo’s teams in the past struggle throughout the year and sneak their way into the NCAA tournament and make a deep run.  More recently, in 2015, when the 7th seeded Spartans defeated 2 Virginia (Round of 32), 3 Oklahoma (Sweet 16) and 1 Louisville (Elite Eight) before eventually losing to the national champs, 1 Duke, in the Final Four.

Unlike this team, the 2015 final four team was loaded with upperclassmen in the starting lineup including juniors Forbes, Valentine and C Matt Costello, plus seniors Branden Dawson and Travis Trice.  Three of the five starters are now on NBA rosters.

In his 21 seasons at Michigan State, Tom Izzo has never had a losing season.  With an 8-5 record in non-conference and BIG Ten play looming, that streak has the possibility of being snapped more than ever this year.  In addition to that, this team runs the risk of being the first MSU team to not make the NCAA Tournament since 1997, exactly 20 seasons ago.

Like I said earlier, Izzo has a way flipping the switch in his team’s finding a way to win ball games later on in the season.  The questions are for this team, who is going to step up when called upon? Miles Bridges has shown flashes of potential but he’s still a freshman. Will Eron Harris eventually live up to the expectations with his ability to score? Can Nick Ward fill the void in the paint night in and night out? Who can consistently run the show? Will Tum Tum Nairn step up like the upperclassmen he is or will Cassius Winston take over the starting duties as a freshman?

As this point, I’m reluctant to say. But I really don’t think the Spartans will hear their name called on Selection Sunday.  It’s still early, but as of now, I don’t like their chances.

So many questions left to be unanswered for this team.  If Michigan State makes it to the tourney, I’m open to troll feeding. But if they don’t, I told you so.

Sean Bock
Freshman at the University of Iowa studying Journalism. I'm known for playing little defense and looking to shoot the three ball every time down the floor. Follow me on Twitter @Sean_Bock_4

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