In the wake of a younger, more athletic Texas team handing Michigan State its fourth pre-Christmas loss of the season Wednesday night, it's time to ask the question we've been trying to avoid for most of December.
Should we be concerned about the Spartans?
It was easy to look past Connecticut upsetting Michigan State in the Maui Invitational semifinals behind a herculean 30 points from Kemba Walker. Losses to top-ranked Duke in Durham and to undefeated Syracuse at Madison Square Garden are certainly also forgivable setbacks.
It's far harder to excuse the Spartans for allowing good-but-not-elite Texas to come into the Breslin Center and emerge with a comfortable 67-55 victory to snap Michigan State's 52-game home winning streak against nonconference opponents. The Spartans' lone second-half lead came at 32-31 a few seconds after halftime, making this perhaps the most thorough home loss they've suffered since a 72-50 thrashing at the hands of Duke in 2003.
Michigan State has recovered from early struggles before during its historic run of six Final Four appearances in 12 years, but the Spartans appear to have further to go this season than in years past. The last time they lost four times before Christmas was the 2003-04 season when they finished 18-12 and lost to Nevada in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Much like that season when Michigan State sat at No. 3 in the preseason polls, much was expected of the Spartans this year. They returned the core of a squad that reached two straight Final Fours, making them the most popular choice besides Duke to win a national championship this season.
It's not difficult to diagnose what went wrong for the Spartans against Texas.
They out-rebounded the Longhorns and defended fairly well, but ill-timed turnovers and erratic shooting prevented any hope of a comeback. The Spartans shot 29 percent from the field against the Longhorns, highlighted by a combined 3-for-18 night from frontcourt starters Draymond Green, Delvon Roe and Adreian Payne.
Maybe the only good news for Michigan State is that it will have a nine-day break to collect itself prior to the start of Big Ten play.
Perhaps the Spartans can use that time to nurse some injuries, regain their shooting stroke and rediscover an identity. It's never smart to write off a Tom Izzo-led club, but it's also fair to say that Michigan State has a big transformation ahead of it to get to where it wants to be.