It was tough to watch.
No, hold that. It doesn‘t even come close to describing what it was like to witness the Michigan State Spartans lose to the Purdue Boilersmakers yesterday afternoon. The final score of 42-71 might look a bit outragous in the grand scheme of things but in the end it probably is the best indicator for the kind of gut punch Tom Izzo‘s boys received while dropping their first conference game of the season. You just have to ask the Hall of Famer himself. He described the game as maybe “the worst beating” he‘s taken as a coach. In case you were wondering, the man has coached over 850 college basketball games. Quite a few indeed and it adds a certain weight to his description of what took place in West Lafayette roughly 24 hours ago.
Yeah, tough to watch isn‘t strong enough and clearly an understatement. Sure, you get these types of games every once in a while. The ones where everything goes wrong for you and everything goes right for the opponent. Games in which your stars can‘t hit the ocean from the beach and the opponent‘s bench players channel their inner Stephen Curry. The games that take up a dynamic in itself, with the crowd going wild, the referees being a factor, an average team rising levels above their previous play and your own streaking squad seemingly forgetting how to play basketball altogether. These games happen, period. In every sport, to anyone, anyhwere. Even to the best of them.
For a program as successful as MSU has been for the quarter of a century you could be more than tempted to just view it as such. A bad day at the office. Bury or burn the tape and go back to business the next time around. While you certainly don‘t want to jump to any long term conclusions regarding the ultimate potential of the 2019/2020 Spartans, yesterday‘s game was just a notch above (or below) those „normal“ lackluster games mentioned before. Atleast for a team that has started the season with national championship aspirations and the last time I checked still had them. You can lose at Purdue, even if their team is nothing to write home about this year. But when you look as bad and as discombobulated as the Spartans did yesterday, then a long hard look in the mirror is needed. And will probably be given to the players by Tom Izzo and the coaching staff.
The biggest issue there is with viewing the game as a mere wakeup call is that this team shouldn‘t have needed one. After entering the year as the preseason number one they stumbled out of the gate, even if some outside factors were way beyond their control. And if their uninspiring loss to Kentucky in the Champions Classic or their bad showing at the Maui Invitational weren‘t enough, atleast their pathetic and hugely dissapointing performance in a lopsided loss to Duke at the Breslin Center should have done the deal. When all it took for this team to feel great about themselves were some wins against average to bad competition and a win against a now five loss Michigan team (playing without one of their most important players) then you have to wonder a bit about their mental makeup. Unlike their coach and their superstar, this year‘s Spartans as a group have not earned the benefit of doubt yet. Cassius Winston has but other than that? Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry played great in last year‘s NCAA Tournament but in bigger roles this year as leaders they still have to prove that they can lead a team throughout the grind of a season.
Tillman certainly is giving it his best shot with strong performances lately but Aaron Henry remains a huge question mark and thus a problem for MSU. He is currently shooting 28.8 % from the field in Big Ten play (yes, you read that right) and continues to leave a lot to be desired. After numerous benchings early in the year he has shown some more willingness to rebound and create for others but overall his aggressivness is not even close to where it should be. Or where it could match his tremendous potential. The Spartans will go nowhere if he doesn‘t turn it around until March because next to Tillman and of course Cassius Winston they desperately need players who can step up and make plays. It was greatly apparent yesterday against Purdue, who gladly gave space to others in order to stifle Winston. They even left Tillman wide open, knowing that he still is hesitant to pull up from the outside and feels way more comfortable being set up. Cassius Winston is a great player and will be a historic one in college basketball when all is said and done. While he has the ability to single handidly win you games, asking him to do it every night from now on until the end of the season is just too much. Michigan State‘s gameplan already is too centered on the pick and roll between Winston and Tillman, they better figure out a plan B or the lack thereof could be their ultimate downfall.
Figuring out a way to be successful when Winston isn‘t playing at his best is one thing, another is that MSU‘s coaches are still struggling with their substitution patterns. It seems as if the coaches routinely forget about certain players on the bench (Marcus Bingham for example), override others, struggle to feed hot hands or really adjust to the flow of a game. Defining clear cut roles is good and fine but when players play above or below their potential then it might be a good idea to adjust a strategy on the fly. More often than not the coaches though have figured out these things in the past, even if horrible regular season losses gave the Spartan faithful a few more gray hairs than they would have liked. You still have to wonder why they haven‘t gotten through to Aaron Henry yet? Why haven‘t they figured out the rotation at the four? How could their team come out that flat yesterday, even with three previous losses at Mackey? The answers hopefully come in the upcoming weeks, preferrably in the way of a reaction by the team.
With all that being said though, yesterday‘s game only counted as one loss, as bad as it was. Michigan State is still sitting pretty atop a crazy Big Ten, even with some more road games coming up in the next couple of weeks. All their goals are still in front of them. But after yesterday, they certainly have run out of wakeup calls. They should really be awake now.