It was too little, too late for the Michigan State Spartans in their first game of the Maui Invitational.
In what was supposed to be the first of two warmup games before the ultimate showdown against Kansas, the Spartans lost in ugly fashion to the Virginia Tech Hokies, 71-66.
The issues were nothing out of the ordinary for the Spartans–sloppy play, a slow start and poor shooting. The difference, however, was their senior star Cassius Winston wasn’t there to single-handedly save the team.
Winston picked up his second foul with nearly 10 minutes to play in the first half and stayed on the bench until the break. During that time, MSU went from up one to down four. There was no one on the court to steady the team when Virginia Tech dialed up the defensive pressure, and no one to make a shot when the team needed it most.
Making things even more difficult, Winston played his worst game of the young season even after returning in the second half. The senior point guard scored only seven points with two assists and three turnovers.
The back-breaking moment came with MSU down three and 30 seconds left. After an offensive rebound, Cassius Winston had a relatively clean look at a mid-range jumper just to watch it rattle out.
With all of that said, Winston was not the reason MSU lost, he just wasn’t the reason they won.
The Spartans have yet to find a Robin to Winston’s Batman. Xavier Tillman has continued to have an up-and-down season, turning the ball over five times and scoring only nine points, including a questionable three-point attempt that was missed in the final 20 seconds.
Aaron Henry led the team with 18 points, and to be fair he played a great game. Had Henry’s performance came on a night when Winston, or anyone else for that matter, had a typical star performance, the Spartans would have won by double-digits. Henry continues to improve on the season, but hasn’t yet shown that he can lead a team to victory–and it may be too much to ask of him at this point.
No one else scored double-digits for MSU. The bench, which played such a big role in the win against Seton Hall, scored only 18 points with half of that coming from Gabe Brown. Malik Hall fouled out of the game without scoring at all.
Ugly basketball isn’t unusual in November, especially in games played half-way around the world. But to get these wins, which could be the difference between a one or two seed in March, upperclassmen need to take over. Unfortunately, there was no one there to pick up for Winston when he needed them.
There are two ways to look at the team from this point. Either they need to find a way to survive these early games and figure out how to be that upper echelon team now that they are without Joshua Langford. Or this is the kind of experience the extremely young Spartans need to build toward the ultimate goal, which will only make them that much scarier down the stretch assuming Langford can return.
This isn’t an entirely new feeling for MSU fans. Losing early games in sloppy fashion has almost become a staple in the Tom Izzo season. But that doesn’t mean it always gets fixed. Michigan State desperately needs to find someone who can truly take over and be the top option if Winston isn’t at his best. Teams will gameplan to take the guard out, he will have off nights. Eventually, someone needs to have the kind of game that puts them on the college basketball landscape.