It has been a while since we saw the Michigan State Spartans in the AP Top 25 rankings and this team has no where left to go but up following their substandard start to the season.
The Spartans have a 7-4 record and all four losses have come against top 25 opponents. The closest game was their two-point loss to Arizona, but the Spartans were handily beaten by Kentucky, Baylor and Duke. For a typical Tom Izzo coached team, this type of grueling non-conference schedule seems fitting, but this isn’t your typical Izzo team.
There’s an obvious lack of veterans on the roster, which is a rarity for the Spartans. Not only are five of the top six scorers underclassmen, but four of those five are freshmen - Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford.
The visible struggle this young team has endured can be correlated to the grueling schedule. Tom Izzo even went as far to apologize to his team and the fans on behalf of the schedule and though the schedule shouldn’t excuse poor play, he owned up to his part in the scheduling, deflecting blame from the players.
Nonetheless, Izzo didn’t apologize when the Spartans squared off against national powerhouse Duke on Tuesday Nov. 29, losing by the final score of 78-69. Despite a tie game at halftime, the young Spartans could not overcome their mistakes on the road and a veteran Duke team capitalized off those mistakes - a recurring theme when the Spartans have played these type of opponents.
One of Michigan State’s biggest problems is their reliance on true freshman Miles Bridges and his All-American type production. He’s been a dominant force, averaging 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but an injury has kept him sidelined the past three games. Other players have stepped up their individual games to another level, which they have surely need in hopes of securing wins in Bridges absence.
The plethora of injuries plaguing them this season has given others the chances to find a way to contribute and create a role.
Senior Eron Harris is averaging 13.5 points per game on the season, but in the past three games he’s averaged 15 points. Although it’s only a one-half point increase from his average, that’s what Michigan State will need the rest of the way. The freshman Ward is averaging 11.9 points-per-game and 6.1 rebounds off the bench, but in Bridges absence his impact has increased to producing 15.6 points and 7.6 rebounds.
There is some good news, though, and it’s that their Achilles heel is also a relief with their only losses coming against ranked opponents, which means the Spartans are defeating the teams they’re supposed to. Nonetheless, here we are and the Spartans are now in a sink or swim position. They have reached a point where something must change and this pivotal stretch could define their season. Of course the eventual return of Bridges should have a considerable effect later on in the season.
For a team keeping their head afloat, Michigan State must catch their second wind because it won’t get any easier as the season progresses into a tough conference slate. Overcoming this crutch must be achieved in hopes of being NCAA tournament eligible, though there is still plenty of time for Izzo to get things turned back around in East Lansing.