The lingering question in the wake of Michigan State's 76-64 loss to Purdue tonight is one we probably won't be able to answer with any certainty for a few weeks.
Has this three-game slide exposed flaws in the Spartans that will eventually cost them in the NCAA tournament or is it merely a product of an injury to their best player coinciding with the toughest stretch of their schedule?
Before guard Kalin Lucas went down with an ankle injury in the second half of a loss to Wisconsin a week ago, Michigan State had a top-five ranking, an flawless 9-0 record in conference play and a three-game edge on its closest Big Ten challenger. Seven days and three losses later, surging Illinois has caught the Spartans at 9-3, with Purdue and Ohio State at 8-3 and Wisconsin at 8-4.
Though Lucas clearly lacked his typical burst on Tuesday night, he gamely gave it a go, grimacing his way to a 12-point night in 29 gritty minutes. But without Lucas at full strength to take it to the rim, Michigan State struggled to create good looks in its half-court offense, shooting just 32.1 percent from the field as a result of settling for so many contested jumpers.
Still, not all of Michigan State's problems could be traced back to Lucas not being at full strength. The Spartans surrendered 47 first-half points, allowed Purdue to shoot 57 percent from the field and failed to find any answer for Boilermakers guard E'Twaun Moore down the strech.
When Michigan State trimmed and 18-point deficit to three on a Chris Allen 3-pointer with 4:29 to go, Moore curled around a high screen and roll and buried a three of his own to silence the roaring crowd. Moore again used the high screen and roll on Purdue's next to possessions, hitting Robbie Hummel for a layup off the dribble and then getting in the lane for a bucket of his own to build the lead back to 10.
The good news for Spartans is that a midseason dip like this one doesn't mean they're doomed to fail. It wasn't this late in the season, but in 2000, Michigan State's dropped three of five while Mateen Cleaves recovered from a stress fracture and came back to win the national title.
Does this Michigan State team have a similar run in it? With back-to-back games against Ohio State and Purdue looming in a couple weeks, let's see how the Spartans respond.