Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo has two days to solve issues against Michigan

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Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
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ANN ARBOR — Tom Izzo half-chuckled at the question. Partly because he remained immersed in the frustrations of the moment, partly due to the absurdity of the reality of Michigan State basketball’s past month.

His team moments earlier watched No. 2 Michigan celebrate a Big Ten regular-season championship after its 69-50 win Thursday night, the Wolverines dancing around with maize confetti fluttering down from the Crisler Center rafters onto the court where they stomped all over MSU for 40 minutes. But it was an 11-minute stretch in which a seven-point deficit turned into a blowout courtesy of a 25-4 U-M explosion where the Spartans’ resolve dissolved.

Energy and effort were in short supply in the second half for MSU. Shots both inside and outside went amiss on offense, footwork looked sluggish on defense. Their biggest rival recognized that and pounced.

Izzo and his players trudged back through the tunnel to their locker room, with music blaring behind them as the Wolverines enjoying their first crown since 2014. Work already had begun in his head how to correct things, while still processing everything that went wrong.

So the question about what’s next, with a rematch Sunday, drew one of Izzo’s few smiles. After all, he gets two off days to prepare this time, not just one after the Spartans’ sixth game in 13 days.

“I don't think I'm gonna worry about healing,” Izzo said. “I think I'm gonna worry about practicing. So at least one day, I'll get them practice here. It's been one day in about two weeks, and we need it.”

MSU (14-11, 8-11 Big Ten), still trying to convince the NCAA selection committee it deserves an at-large berth, hosts Michigan (19-2, 14-2) in the regular-season finale on Sunday at Breslin Center in East Lansing. Tipoff is 4:30 p.m. on CBS.

Whether 24 extra hours will help get their legs some rest can help remains to be seen. As does whether Izzo and his players can channel their frustration of a blowout loss into a third top-five upset in the final two weeks of the regular season to solidify a 23rd straight NCAA appearance.

“It's always gonna piss me off to be down 28 to a team that we feel like we can beat,” sophomore Julius Marble II said. “It means a lot more because it's Michigan.”

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MSU made just 36.4% of its shots Thursday, missing all nine 3-point attempts and getting outrebounded, 34-28. The Spartans allowed the Wolverines to shoot 50%, including 7 of 16 from 3-point range.

Aaron Henry, who took over in the second half two days earlier in MSU’s comeback win against Indiana, had little left against U-M. The junior forward missed his final six shots in the second half and finished with 14 points on 6 of 15 shooting. He was the only Spartan to score in double figures but also committed a team-high four of their MSU 12 turnovers in his 31 minutes.

Senior Joshua Langford, after dragging his way through 34 minutes in Tuesday’s win over Indiana, made just 2 of 10 shots and one rebound in 33 minutes against U-M. Junior Gabe Brown missed his only two shot attempts and grabbed just four boards in 27 minutes.

“Everybody's been playing tons of games, so there's really no excuses,” said junior Joey Hauser, who had six points and four rebounds in 20 minutes. “We've been doing a lot of treatment, a lot of stuff to stay off our legs before to prepare for games, a lot of film watching. Maybe Aaron and Josh are playing heavy minutes. Those guys, they're legs might be a little bit more tired. So the guys who are not playing as many minutes gotta step up and fill in those shoes.”

There were two turning points. First, when Henry scored through a foul by Franz Wagner as part of a three-point play, only to have a video review deem his flailing elbow that hit the Michigan freshman center in the face an infraction. While each player made 1 of 2 ensuing free throws, Izzo sat Henry the final 2:45 before halftime after his second foul.

Michigan State Spartans forward Aaron Henry reacts to a call in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Center, March 4, 2021.
Michigan State Spartans forward Aaron Henry reacts to a call in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Center, March 4, 2021.

“I did not see it,” said Izzo, who was at the opposite end of the court from the play. “Was it a right call? Wrong call? I don't know. Was it a turning point? It was a big play, so let's just say that. And if it was the right call, it was still a big play.”

Then after coming out of halftime trailing by 11, the Spartans scored the first four points of the second half and appeared to be catching their second wind. But Rocket Watts failed to dive for a loose ball rebound, and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson did to take it from the MSU sophomore. Dickinson’s extra effort got Wagner a 3-pointer that sparked 10 straight points as part of the knockout run that ballooned the Wolverines’ lead to as many as 28 with a little over 4 minutes to play before both teams emptied their benches.

Watts’ lack of hustle got him a seat on the Spartans’ bench for the final 17:01, ending his night with just six points on 3 of 8 shooting and two turnovers.

“I'll just say you've known me for 30 years,” Izzo said when asked about Watts, “you figure it out and write it what you want to write. … It's hard to have effort-related things coming right out of halftime, because you should be a little bit fresher. There's no excuses for that.”

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks with guard Rocket Watts during the first half against Michigan on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at Crisler Center.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks with guard Rocket Watts during the first half against Michigan on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at Crisler Center.

Hauser broke down what he thought went wrong on that play.

“That's something that we cover every day,” he said. “It's really a momentum changer. … That's a turn of three or four points right there that can really change the momentum of a game, and it did tonight.”

Izzo has tried to keep his players physically healthy during this late-season stretch by trying to sharpen them mentally with walk-throughs and film studies. He admitted that some issues that appeared effort-related could have come due to fatigue. He expressed his frustration in players not displaying the hustle and toughness “that are maybe Michigan State lore” in a rivalry game with so much still on the line.

“We'll try to fix those things and do a little better job,” Izzo said. “I think we felt good enough that we played good enough and stretches, and we think we know why things went awry. We'll keep that between me and my team, and then we'll go from there.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball: Tom Izzo has 2 days to solve U-M issues