Everyone in East Lansing knows the saying - January, February, Izzo. Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans have earned that reputation, consistently finding ways to play the highest level of basketball when it counts the most.
January, on the other hand, is a very different story.
Saturday, Michigan State lost to Michigan at home by double-digits. It was the Spartans second loss in three games and third game in a row that could safely be described as an embarrassment.
Unfortunately, this has become something of a pattern over the last three years. Since the 2015-16 season, the Spartans have posted their worst record in the month of January.
Michigan State has gone a combined 11-9 in January over the last three seasons, a winning percentage of 55%. Every other month during that stretch the Spartans went 54-24 with a winning percentage of 69%.
Comparing these Spartans teams from year to year over this stretch is difficult. Two years ago they featured a heavy senior lineup with Final Four expectations, a year later they were freshman dominated and had stretches of being concerned about making the tournament. This year, the Spartans are almost just as young, but with the championship expectations of two years ago.
The differences don’t stop there – the Spartans have found different ways to lose those games. Sometimes with abysmal shooting percentages, others with through-the-roof turnover numbers, and sometimes with an opponent that can’t miss.
This year, the biggest issue seems to be getting into a rhythm on offense. In the two losses, they have combined for 29 turnovers, with 13 more in the overtime win over Rutgers. Even when they don’t turn the ball over, the offense has looked stagnant, failing to get into play calls and relying on one-on-one play to score at all.
The blueprint, on both sides of the ball, appears to be pressuring the MSU guards. Until fixed, that’s a bad problem to have in the Big Ten.
But this year’s issues don’t resolve some of the problems from the past. There are plenty of excuses to explain away the January woes through the years. The start of the second semester for players and settling into Big Ten play among the most understandable.
However, the only true consistency through those years, unfortunately, has been Tom Izzo.
This is both good and bad news for Spartans fans wringing their hands after this week’s embarrassments. On one side, there are six more games Izzo and MSU need to get through before reaching February.
On the other, there is no reason to believe that problems in January will hurt the team in March. Despite a shocking NCAA Tournament loss in 2016, the Spartans had just finished off winning the Big Ten tournament, and last year MSU found itself in the Sweet Sixteen giving arguably the most talented team in the field a fight.
This Michigan State team is extremely talented. There is no guarantee that they will bounce back, but all signs point to Izzo being Izzo late in the year. But until then, let’s all just bundle up and get through January.