As Bryn Forbes dribbled up court for a breakaway layup that would have put his team up four over No. 12 Maryland in the closing seconds Tuesday night, Michigan State appeared on the verge of its first marquee win of the season.
Two critical late-game decisions gone wrong ripped that win from the Spartans' grasp and enabled the Terps to escape with a 68-66 double-overtime road victory in their Big Ten debut.
Referees stopped play before Forbes' layup because teammate Travis Trice had signaled for a timeout in the frontcourt with 12 seconds remaining. Maryland's Jon Graham then fouled Matt Costello, who missed one of his two free throws to give the Terps new life entering their final possession of regulation.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo chose to defend straight up rather than foul to prevent a 3-pointer, but the decision backfired when Dez Wells buried a clean look with five seconds remaining to knot the score at 48 apiece. Wells and freshman point guard Melo Trimble combined for 15 of Maryland's 20 points in the two overtime periods, rallying the Terps from a four-point deficit in the first extra frame and propelling them into the lead from start to finish in the second one.
While Maryland's victory improves it to 13-1 and further solidifies it as a potential challenger to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title picture, the bigger story is where the home loss leaves Michigan State. The Spartans are 9-5 with a bad loss to Texas Southern and nothing even close to a quality win on their resume.
It's way too soon to start declaring Michigan State's NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy with all but one Big Ten game left to play, but the Spartans certainly have more work to do at this stage of the season than they've had in years past. Their only win against a power-conference foe came against a Marquette team that is headed for a rebuilding season.
In retrospect, it's not a huge surprise to see Michigan State in this position given the talent it has lost and the recruits it has swung and missed on.
Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling all departed after the Spartans' Elite Eight campaign a year ago. Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, Tyus Jones, Tyler Ulis and James Blackmon are among the many elite prospects who spurned Izzo when he tried to recruit them as potential replacements.
The result is a Michigan State team without its usual array of talent.
Branden Dawson is a solid all-around player, but he's not the go-to threat the Spartans need. Playmaking forward Denzel Valentine remains too erratic for that role and Trice is better suited for the job of spot-up shooter than someone who creates for himself and his teammates.
All those issues were on display Tuesday when Valentine suffered through a foul-plagued off night, Dawson posted nine points and 11 rebounds and Trice needed 22 shots to score 26 points. Michigan State shot just 32.3 percent from the field and compounded that by missing nine free throws.
Perhaps that trio will continue to develop as the season goes along. Maybe some younger players will grow into bigger roles. But what's clear at this point is that Michigan State isn't as talented as usual this season and the notion that the Spartans could miss the NCAA tournament is far from unfathomable.
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