As Gary Harris’s potential game-tying jumper clanked off the rim Sunday in Columbus, a team that once held the nation’s number one ranking was forced to leave northern Ohio losers of seven of their last twelve and major concerns heading into postseason play. Entering Sunday the Spartans were locked into the 3 seed for the Big Ten Tournament so while the game itself had little significance, you know Tom Izzo would have liked to end the regular season on a strong note. Instead, the Buckeyes sent the Spartans into the tournament losers of three out of four and searching for answers. With that, let’s recap Michigan State’s season.
Following the early season statement win in Chicago versus then #1 Kentucky, this team looked poised to have a special year. Little did we know at the time that Kentucky would become the dysfunctional mess they are today, but aside from that, MSU has had their own problems to try to alleviate. Everyone points to injuries and to be fair, it’s hard not to. With the exception of Denzel Valentine, every key player in the Spartan rotation has missed time due to injury or illness. While Michigan State lost some head-scratchers to Georgetown and Nebraska at home without some important pieces, they have been at full strength since the calendar flipped to March and the Spartans still find themselves losers of two of their last three, including a terrible loss at home to the 8 need in this week’s tournament, Illinois. Clearly the cohesiveness that is critical for a deep tournament run is missing from this team, the difference now is that time is not on their side. With a single-elimination format from here on out this team has to set aside excuses if they expect to come close to meeting preseason expectations.
It may be a blanket statement to say that this team has not performed up to par with a typical Tom Izzo coached squad, the numbers would suggest this is, in fact, true. The Spartans this year are 50th in the country in points allowed per game and 59th in rebounding, two areas that Izzo and his staff pride themselves on excelling in. Perhaps even more of a concern is this team’s inability to find a consistent late game closer. It’s a difficult situation to dissect. Experience was thought to be one of the strong suits of this team. With two seniors in Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, and no player in the top seven of the rotation younger than a sophomore it’s easy to see why such an assumption could be made. But in late game situations, no clear go to guy has been established. Gary Harris, arguably the most talented and highest rated NBA prospect, has struggled with his jump shot consistency all year. Payne has been phenomenal for stretches but his disappearance in the home loss to the Illini is troublesome. And finally Appling, who had seemed to embrace his new role of facilitator while increasing his scoring and efficiency early in the year, has struggled to regain that balance in conference play due in large part to a bad wrist on his shooting hand. In past years, the Spartans have been able to overcome such deficiencies by playing excellent defense and controlling the glass. But the fall off in both categories has magnified the issues this team has encountered late in games.
BTT Outlook and Beyond:
I wrote earlier in the year that if this team gets healthy they have to be the odds on favorite to cut down the nets in Dallas and to a certain degree I still stand by that claim. NCAA tournament history has shown that how teams end regular seasons and even conference tournaments has little bearing on what will occur in the big dance. Look no further than Connecticut’s run in 2011 on the heels of a 9-9 conference record and ninth place Big East finish. However, in this case, I think it is important for MSU to win a few games in the Big Ten Tournament for if nothing else but to get more game experience for their first and second units who have had very little time to play together. The Big Ten Tournament will go a long way towards influencing the selection committee on where to seed the Spartans in the big dance. As it stands now, even with Sunday’s loss, Michigan State figures to be a 5 seed. But with a strong run and maybe even a tournament win they could stand to rise as a three seed (best case scenario). However, an opening game loss to either Iowa or Northwestern could plummet MSU to a six seed and a tough matchup for what figures to be either a prominent mid-major or talented, underperforming big conference school. Either way, the Spartans are on a collision course with one of the top 8 teams in the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16. What would have been hard to fathom in November is that Michigan State would not be one of the top 8 seeds come March but this is the bed the Spartans have made for themselves and now they have to lay in it. You’d be a fool to doubt Tom Izzo with his track record this time of year but him and his staff are going to have to come up with answers and fast if they look to keep his streak alive of every senior class reaching at least one Final Four in their time in East Lansing.