Michigan State basketball fighting fatigue, frustration, but season starting to teeter

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Marcus Bingham Jr. and A.J. Hoggard trudged back to the bench, their heads drooping with a mixture of disbelief and embarrassment.

Myles Johnson’s follow-up dunk a few minutes earlier posterized Bingham. Geo Baker zeroed in for a 3-pointer over the flat-footed Hoggard. Rutgers’ knockout run confirmed the reality of what happened Thursday night.

This did not look like Michigan State basketball. Tom Izzo knew it. His players knew it. Anyone watching on TV knew it.

Confidence wavering. Energy absent. Fight fading.

Jan 28, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Myles Johnson (15) dunks the ball over Michigan State Spartans forward Marcus Bingham Jr. (30) during the second half at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 28, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Myles Johnson (15) dunks the ball over Michigan State Spartans forward Marcus Bingham Jr. (30) during the second half at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A 20-day layoff due to COVID-19 issues ended after three games were postponed, but the Spartans returned to action looking like a team that had not played in nearly three weeks. Shots were short, passes were errant, decisions and reactions arrived slower than usual.

SHAWN WINDSOR: MSU is a mess. Tom Izzo is running out of time to fix it

The Scarlet Knights took full advantage, opening both halves with big runs and bookending them with a final furious flurry that sent MSU to a humbling and humiliating 67-37 defeat at Rutgers Athletic Center. And it put the already fragile Spartans in an even more precarious position — questioning themselves.

“This is a question of our ticker,” said junior captain Aaron Henry, whose seven points and six turnovers both were team highs. “It's not a question of getting shots up or understanding things. It's attention to details, it's intangible things, a question of our heart.”

The Spartans (8-5, 2-5 Big Ten) — who got back three of the five players who tested positive for COVID-19 — did none of those things. They hadn’t played since a 55-54 home loss to Purdue on Jan. 8, and it showed on both ends of the court, leading to plenty of ignominious superlatives.

The 37 points were MSU’s fewest since a 43-36 loss to Iowa on Jan. 12, 2008.

The 30-point defeat was the Spartans’ biggest blowout loss since falling 98-63 to No. 1 North Carolina on Dec. 3, 2008.

They also lost to Rutgers (9-6, 5-6) for the first time in 12 meetings.

How did the Scarlet Knights do it? By taking advantage of MSU’s turnovers in ripping off a 15-0 run to open the game and an 11-2 run to begin the second period after the Spartans had cut it to three late in the first half.

“We just lost all our energy and we didn't come out strong enough or physical enough,” sophomore Malik Hall said. “And they punked us.”

[ 25 years of 'Mr. March': Order our updated Tom Izzo book today! ]

The team that averaged 80.0 points in winning all six of its nonconference games has scored just 91 in its last two losses combined and got held under 60 for the third time in its past five games. MSU made just 7 of 33 3-pointers against Purdue and Rutgers and shot just 28.6% overall on Thursday. Not having junior swingman Gabe Brown, who is out with COVID-19, also compounded the Spartans’ outside shooting problems.

Turnovers and rebounding remain problematic. The Scarlet Knights turned 21 MSU giveaways into 33 points and enjoyed a 42-33 rebounding advantage and 36-18 edge in scoring in the paint.

Izzo was not prepared to blame the long layoff or COVID situation. During much of MSU’s 10-0 comeback after the slow start, which made it 22-19 with 3:21 to play in the first half, Izzo was the one providing the energy and intensity that rubbed off on his players.

By the end, he sat as a bewildered onlooker, trying to process in real time what afterward he said he needed to see on film when the team got back to its hotel.

“We didn't do a very good job,” he said. “And that falls on me. … I'm sure we have a little COVID hangover, I understand that. But that will not be an excuse for the way we played.

“That would be a good excuse for losing a game, but not the way we played.”

Joshua Langford returned and played 21 minutes after having the coronavirus, but he went 1 for 8 for three points with just one rebound and three turnovers. Izzo lamented playing the senior that long.

However, Izzo put more of the onus on his supposed Big Three — Henry, junior forward Joey Hauser and sophomore guard Rocket Watts. The trio combined for 17 points, five rebounds, 10 turnovers and missed all seven of their 3-point attempts.

“It starts with me,” said Henry, who was 3 for 10 and grabbed just three rebounds. “I had six turnovers tonight, didn't shoot the ball well. And as a leader, I can't do that. It starts at the head, and I'll take responsibility for that.”

Both Watts and Hauser continued their slumps, and neither appeared rejuvenated from the time off.

Hauser didn’t score until 6:37 remained in the first half, including a blocked 3-point try, and made just two shots in the second half to finish 3 of 5 for six points. The 6-foot-9, 225-pounder grabbed just one rebound and struggled to contain the 6-11, 255-pound Johnson, who finished with game highs of 13 points and 14 rebounds.

Watts also got beat off the dribble by Rutgers’ guards a number of times, also committing a lazy reach-in foul on a Johnson dunk during the Scarlet Knights’ pull-away run to start the second half. Offensively, Watts' shooting confidence continues to wane after a 2-for-7 night. He scored his four points in the final 10 minutes, his eighth single-digit scoring performance in his last nine games.

“We gotta get some guys playing a little better,” Izzo said.

Jan 28, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA;  Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Myles Johnson (15) jumps for a rebound against Michigan State Spartans forward Joey Hauser (20) during the first half at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 28, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Myles Johnson (15) jumps for a rebound against Michigan State Spartans forward Joey Hauser (20) during the first half at Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC). Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Down low, it remains a struggling revolving door with Bingham, Thomas Kithier, Julius Marble and Mady Sissoko — who also returned from COVID and played four scoreless minutes. Izzo called Bingham MSU’s best player in the first half, but Johnson’s big game does not bode well for the Spartans, who face No. 7 Iowa and Luka Garza, who leads the nation at 26.9 points per game, on Tuesday.

Gone are the dreams of taking a run at a fourth straight Big Ten title. Same for making back-to-back Final Fours. Just keeping Izzo's 23-season NCAA tournament streak alive will be a challenge. These Spartans look more and more like a team that will be fighting for their postseason lives in the final two months of the regular season.

In many ways, they already are.

“I'm sure we'll find our way. I'm sure of it,” Henry said. “I'm not letting that happen that we don't.”

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 frustrated, fights fatigue as season teeters