Michigan State basketball's focus isn't on NCAAs, but rather 'do we continue to fight'

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Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Tom Izzo ticked off a number of reasons why he felt Michigan State basketball faded again against Purdue.

Rocket Watts being sick and struggling to play through it. Foster Loyer dealing with an injured shoulder that likely will need surgery. A season-long struggle at point guard worsening at the most critical time.

Poor box-outs at the foul line. Missed free throws.

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Trevion Williams camping in the post “a hundred hours sometimes” for another dominant performance. A continual musical chairs approach to Izzo’s own center position not helping to contain the Boilermakers’ star.

Michigan State forward Joey Hauser (20) reacts as he walks off the court with a teammate after Michigan State was defeated by Purdue, 75-65, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.
Michigan State forward Joey Hauser (20) reacts as he walks off the court with a teammate after Michigan State was defeated by Purdue, 75-65, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.

After-effects of January’s COVID-19 outbreak continuing to hamper his players. The long-term ramifications of an abnormal “spring, summer and fall” that did not allow them to improve their skills as much before the season. A deep Big Ten with generational big men adding to the Spartans’ problems in the paint.

And so on.

“Listen, I got a million excuses,” Izzo said after Tuesday night’s 75-65 loss at Purdue. “And I don't really give a damn what anybody thinks publicly as far as some of that, because I know what's going on.”

But he also made a rare admission that seldom has been heard during Izzo’s 26 Hall of Fame seasons at MSU.

“Other teams have probably better teams than we are right now,” he confessed. “We got to find a way to win.”

COUCH'S 3 TAKES: MSU's loss at Purdue dashes all hope for NCAA tournament

That is where Izzo’s team sits with seven regular-season games left, all of them against teams in the top 50 of the NET Rankings that help determine at-large NCAA berths.

The stretch run for MSU (10-9, 4-9 Big Ten), which has lost six of its last eight, starts with the first of two remaining against Indiana (50th) at noon Saturday in Bloomington. Two remain against Michigan (third) and one apiece with Illinois (fourth), Ohio State (sixth) and Maryland (36th).

“This one is definitely gonna hurt, though,” said junior captain Aaron Henry, whose 15 points led the Spartans on Tuesday. “I mean, just look at it as a learning experience. … But as a leader and as a captain on this team, it's our job to pick it up and be there for (teammates) and let them know we got another game to prepare for.”

The Spartans likely would need to at least win four of those regular-season games or make a deep run in the Big Ten tournament to bolster their resume enough just to get onto the bubble, let alone be in position for an at-large invite. Though that is not what Izzo says he is most concerned about.

“We gave a hell of an effort tonight, we made some mistakes,” he said. “I'm not worried about our brand, I'm not worried about Michigan State, I'm not worried about the tournament. I'm worried about getting my team better.”

MSU actually climbed two spots to No. 93 in the NET Rankings with the Quad 1 road loss to the Boilermakers, who are 27th. But in a fifth straight loss at Mackey Arena, the Spartans also continued to show all of the reasons their NCAA tournament hopes — and Izzo’s streak of 22 straight appearance — are dangling by a thread. They are spiraling toward Izzo’s worst finish of his career and possibly the program’s first sub-.500 Big Ten record since 1992-93.

Williams dominated inside, scoring 28 points on 13 of 21 shooting. The former Detroit Henry Ford Academy star scored 16 in the second half and 10 in the final 4:45 to help the Boilermakers finished with a 48-24 scoring advantage in the paint. Purdue’s guards also drove the lane with ease, as 28 of the Boilermakers’ 30 first-half points came in the paint, two free throws the outliers.

MSU also committed 11 of its 16 turnovers in the second half, and 12 of Purdue’s 18 points off those miscues came in the final 11:54. Joey Hauser gave the ball away six times, including three egregious turnovers in the final 1:35 that led to seven straight points by the Boilermakers to squelch any chance of a Spartan comeback.

Feb 16, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA;  Purdue Boilermakers forward Trevion Williams (50) takes a shot over Michigan State Spartans forward Marcus Bingham Jr. (30) during the first half f the game at Mackey Arena. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 16, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Purdue Boilermakers forward Trevion Williams (50) takes a shot over Michigan State Spartans forward Marcus Bingham Jr. (30) during the first half f the game at Mackey Arena. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

“Some things just don't go your way. ... That's the way we got to live with it,” Izzo said. “A lot of people got beat up by Michigan State over the last 20 years.”

There were promising elements.

Hauser had 11 points with three 3-pointers, one of which gave MSU its last lead at 42-41 with 12:57 to play. Julius Marble scored 10 points in the second half, while Mady Sissoko had five points and four rebounds in the first half. The Spartans made better than 40% of their 3-point attempts (7 of 16) for just the second time in the past eight games. They also beat Purdue on the boards, 36-28.

And MSU stayed in the game late. Again. Before losing. Again.

“We battled them,” Izzo said, “but there wasn't much we could do. … If we play this good, we're gonna win some games, we just got to shore up a few things.”

And fast. Because time is running out.

“Things aren't pretty right now. We're supposed to win games,” Henry said. “But it's just how we respond. … Do we continue to fight, or do we just fold?”

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's focused on improving, not NCAA tournament