Michigan State basketball's blowout loss at Minnesota highlights alarming trends

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·7 min read

Before Michigan State basketball began one of the worst Big Ten starts in Tom Izzo’s 26-year career, when the Spartans stood 6-0 and among the top 5 teams in the country, the Hall of Fame coach hinted at something.

He was talking about figuring out how minutes among his interior rotation might work out. But it now seems to be a prescient glimpse into what has happened since.

“We might have to sacrifice a little early,” Izzo said, two days before MSU got cold-cocked at Northwestern in the conference opener.

The words he used after that 79-65 defeat Dec. 20 to the Wildcats condemned his players, his staff and himself.

“Disappointed.”

“Inept.”

“Awful.”

Dec 28, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Gophers guard Marcus Carr (5) drives to the basket as Michigan State Spartans players guard him during the first half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 28, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Gophers guard Marcus Carr (5) drives to the basket as Michigan State Spartans players guard him during the first half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The ones he chose Monday night after No. 18 MSU’s 81-56 blowout loss at No. 24 Minnesota were much more circumspect, even though plenty of evidence pointed to something bigger than just a lot of missed shots.

“The good thing is it wasn't defensively. I'm going to build on that,” said Izzo, who maintained the same focus on the positives as he did after Friday’s Christmas Day loss. “The bad thing is it was offensively, and I'm going to try to improve that.”

The Spartans’ quest for a fourth straight Big Ten regular-season title endured another significant blow in an eight-day span. MSU (6-3 overall) opened Big Ten play 0-3 for just the second time in Izzo’s 26 seasons, including Friday’s 85-76 home loss to No. 7 Wisconsin.

And he knows he must keep reminding his team those are only three games out of 20 – even if he felt the Spartans “hit rock bottom offensively” against the Gophers (9-1, 2-1).

“That's my job. I mean, I get paid to do that. … It is a challenging task,” Izzo said. “As I said, the conference is gonna be good – Minnesota is another good team. But I'm not worried about losing my players.

“Where I talked about the energy level at Northwestern, there was no problem the last two games with the energy level.”

But there have been alarming trends.

Izzo shook up his starting lineup at Minnesota, inserting Foster Loyer at point guard and bringing Aaron Henry off the bench. That shifted Rocket Watts to shooting guard, and the sophomore’s struggles continued. He went 1-for-9 for just two points against the Gophers and is 5-of-29 shooting for just 12 points in three Big Ten games.

Izzo said moving back to his natural position it was what Watts “kind of wanted” because he has not been comfortable at the point.

“I'm just trying to help Rocket get through the things he's gotta do,” Izzo said. “He was more comfortable at (shooting guard) year. So that's kind of the experiments. I mean, they're different experiments that you gotta do. It's sad that you gotta do them during the year, but we knew this problem from Day One.”

More: What's wrong with Michigan State basketball after its third straight loss? What isn't?

More: Michigan State basketball's biggest concern: How to get Rocket Watts to take off

As Watts went, so did the rest of MSU’s offense.

The Spartans went just 6-of-38 in the first half, missing 10-of-12 3-point attempts and airballing layups and deep shots. They were 4-of-31 at one point. Stagnancy permeated half-court sets. They went 7 minutes, 10 seconds in the period without a field goal and just two free throws, missing 12 straight at one point.

MSU trailed 36-16 at halftime, its lowest-scoring half since scoring just 14 points on Dec. 30, 2014 in the first half against Maryland. The Spartans only trailed in that game by three at halftime in that eventual 68-66 double-overtime loss.

The poor shooting carried over, as MSU finished 18-of-70 from the field (25.7%). The Spartans committed just six turnovers that led to six Minnesota points, but Izzo pointed to long rebounds as a boost to the Gophers’ scoring.

Watts wasn’t alone.

Henry finished 3-for-10 shooting for a team-high 11 points with four rebounds and three assists, and Izzo said bringing the junior guard off the bench is “not gonna last.” No other MSU player scored in double figures.

Loyer went 2-of-6 for eight points, senior guard Joshua Langford was 2-of-10 for five points, junior forward Joey Hauser hit 1-of-8 for six points, and junior Gabe Brown missed all five of his shots in going scoreless.

“It just wasn't our night as far as shooting the ball,” Loyer said.

Izzo’s tinkering put his two freshmen in bigger roles as well. Point guard A.J. Hoggard scored nine points on 4-of-9 shooting in 15 minutes, while forward Mady Sissoko went scoreless in 12 minutes, but snagged six rebounds.

While pointing out the offensive deficiencies, Izzo said “the good thing is it wasn't defensively. I'm going to build on that.” He felt his guards contained Minnesota’s Marcus Carr, who finished 7-of-13 for a game-high 19 points with five assists and four rebounds.

The Gophers also used Liam Robbins’ height and offensive aggressiveness to get 12 of his 18 points in the opening period. And the 7-footer’s toughness in the paint allowed him to get five of his nine rebounds before half and helped Minnesota to a decided 52-36 edge on the boards for the game.

Minnesota Gophers center Liam Robbins (0) shoots the ball over Michigan State Spartans forward Joey Hauser (20) on Dec. 28, 2020, during the first half at Williams Arena.
Minnesota Gophers center Liam Robbins (0) shoots the ball over Michigan State Spartans forward Joey Hauser (20) on Dec. 28, 2020, during the first half at Williams Arena.

“Anyone who knows Michigan State knows that they’re a team that likes to crash the offensive glass in transition,” said Robbins, a Drake transfer. “So we knew it was important to end the possession so that we could get in transition and start our offense.”

The Spartans did not have any second-chance points on their six first-half offensive rebounds. The Gophers had a 6-0 edge on the fastbreak to go with a dominating 14-2 advantage in post scoring in the opening 20 minutes.

“I have no problem with our defense,” Izzo said. “It was our offense.”

Still, Robbins hit a 3-pointer over Kithier’s late closeout to start the game then backed down Hauser after it for an easy bucket. Carr’s step-back 3-pointer over Watts to open on a 9-0 run from which MSU never recovered.

Watts closed out around a screen on Minnesota guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. and fouled the 15.8% 3-point shooter, giving him three free throws in another 7-0 run. Henry overpursued Gabe Kalscheur – a 19% 3-point shooter – and got beat off the dribble. Help defense from Brown and Hauser arrived late, with Henry fouling on the driving layup and Kalscheur completing a three-point play that put Minnesota up, 29-11. Henry passed off Carr to Kithier on a switch at the end of the half, and the Gophers star drained a step-back 3-pointer to put his team up 20.

Now comes a few days of soul-searching, more experimentation with lineup combinations, possible paring of the playing rotation and grueling practices with no classes. The Spartans travel Saturday to Nebraska to try and snap the losing streak after winning all its nonconference games. The Cornhuskers (4-5, 0-2) play Wednesday night at Ohio State. Izzo has never started 0-4 in Big Ten play.

He knows the questions that need answered. He also knows it is up to him to figure out the puzzle.

“Are we tough enough? No. Are we leaders enough? No. But those are the things that were the same problems when we were 6-0 that I talked about and that we have to improve on,” Izzo said. “We're just gonna keep working on it. We'll get better for the next game, I promise.”

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's blowout loss to Minnesota highlights alarming trends