Michigan State seemed to have control of the Big Ten when it began play last week, but now it’s struggling to hold onto first place.
The 10th-ranked Spartans look to avoid their first four-game losing streak in three years and keep Penn State winless in league play Saturday.
Michigan State (19-6, 9-3) has fallen into a three-way tie with Illinois and Ohio State for first place in the Big Ten. The Spartans were the only undefeated team in the conference when play began last week, but they have lost three straight, including a 76-64 defeat at home to No. 6 Purdue on Tuesday.
Although Kalin Lucas returned after sitting out the previous loss to Illinois with a sprained ankle, the Spartans shot only 32.1 percent and trailed by 14 at the half. They were held more than 10 points below their season scoring average.
“The major surprise to me is a lack of effort right now,” coach Tom Izzo said. “When we’re jogging back on defense and they’re going in for layups and dunks, that is effort-related and that’s unacceptable.”
Michigan State has allowed each of its last three opponents to shoot better than 50 percent after yielding 39.5-percent shooting in its first 22 games.
One of the few positives Izzo took away from Tuesday’s loss was the play of Lucas, who finished with 12 points in 29 minutes. Izzo seemed especially frustrated with starting guard Durrell Summers, who sat out the second half after scoring two points in 16 minutes.
Summers is averaging 10.5 points and 7.8 rebounds.
“If more of the guys had (Lucas’) heart, we’d be real good, but we’re getting some guys who are playing better and some guys who aren’t playing as well,” Izzo said, “and you can’t have your best players not playing well.”
Michigan State plays three of its next four on the road, including the next two. The Spartans haven’t lost four in a row since Jan. 27-Feb. 7, 2007.
“We’re still tied for first place,” Lucas said. “A lot of people don’t look at it that way.”
While Penn State (8-15, 0-11) has yet to win a Big Ten game, Lucas and the Spartans are well aware of how dangerous overlooking the Nittany Lions can be. Penn State shocked the then-ninth-ranked Spartans 72-68 in East Lansing last season.
Taylor Battle, who scored 29 points in that win, is second in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 19.1 points. He’s averaged 22.6 over the last seven games, scoring 20 in a 66-64 loss to Minnesota last Saturday.
Penn State’s previous three losses were by double digits. It trailed by six with less than two minutes remaining before Battle tied it with 9 seconds left. Lawrence Westbrook hit a long jumper as time expired.
The losing streak is the longest since the Nittany Lions dropped 13 in a row Jan. 6-Feb. 24, 2007.
“Being 0-11 right now, that’s like the worst feeling ever,” Battle said. “But it gives you the stride to want to win. We are trying and trying. Sometimes I think we get uptight a little bit, but tonight we hit our shots. And then they just came back and made a spectacular shot.”
Penn State has lost five straight against ranked opponents, with four of the defeats coming this season.