If there is one thing that this year has taught all of us, it’s that you can’t count your chickens before they hatch. On Sunday afternoon, MSU hoops fans had high hopes. Big Ten foes Iowa and Illinois had both lost over the weekend, and the Spartans were poised to possibly move up to the No. 3 ranked team in the country. The only thing standing in their way was a little road trip to Evanston, Illinois to face the Northwestern Wildcats. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, almost everything could go wrong.
The Spartan’s played poorly on both sides of the ball, shooting only 39 percent from the floor (including eight-of-31 from three-point range). At the same time, Wildcat Boo Buie scored a career high 30 points. As a team, Northwestern shot a blistering 53 percent from the field and 10-of-21 (48 percent) from three.
Following the game, Spartan Coach Tom Izzo said that he was “disappointed and to be honest with you, confused.” He added that Sunday’s game was “one of the more inept performances of my 26 years” as head coach of the Spartans. Throughout the press conference Coach Izzo continued to use words such as “ridiculous” and “disgusting” to describe his team’s effort.
So… What Went Wrong?
When senior caption Josh Langford was asked what went wrong, he did not mince words. “We just didn’t come to play.” When asked if the errors on defense were mental or effort related, Langford also gave a straightforward answer: “It was a mixture of both. It’s not about X’s and O’s, it’s about effort and it’s about following the scouting report.” He added, “if you’re giving 110 percent out there, mental mistakes can get covered up by effort. If gets really bad when you have effort-related mistakes and mental mistakes.”
As for those mental mistakes, both Langford and Coach Izzo commented that the team’s problems on defense started less than a minute into the game. Izzo said, “I didn’t think that we were ready from the opening second. There were some things that we didn’t cover and plays that we had worked on for three days. It was consistent too. My three or four best players all struggled.”
Sophomore forward Malik Hall agreed. “We just weren’t focused in on the scouting report. The coaches told us what we needed to do to cover certain people and we didn’t cover the scouting report well enough.” Hall went on to explain that the entire team recognized the problem at halftime, but for some reason they were not able to correct it.
Despite the obvious shooting woes for the Spartans on Sunday evening, everyone seemed to agree that the problems were mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Langford said “it was not about making shots. We will shoot better. You can’t really control whether the ball goes in the hole or not. But you can control your effort. You can control how hard you play.” Later Coach Izzo added that previously “we’ve shot 29 percent and won a game.”
So Why Did It Happen?
When Coach Izzo was asked about whether he expected this type of a let-down the answer was clearly no. “I didn’t see it coming. The practices were good, the film sessions were good.” Izzo placed most of the blame on himself for not having his team ready and he praised the effort and preparation displayed by Northwestern head coach Chris Collins and his Northwestern team.
At the same time, there perhaps were a few possible explanations for a lack of intensity and focus. The players just finished with finals week, were playing in their first Big Ten road game where they had to contend with new COVID testing protocols, and MSU had not played a game in a week. But, as Izzo said “Gonzaga didn’t play and they were up 20” as they knocked off No. 3 Iowa this weekend. The No. 1 team in the land actually had not played in over two weeks and also has to contend with a certain global pandemic.
Was the team starting to read their own press clipping a bit too much? Izzo at first balked at that idea. He said, “we worked pretty hard. Guys were focused in.” Then again, he added, “beating Duke, probably everybody, you know the girlfriend, the parents, everybody thought that it was a big deal. I didn’t.” Or, was the team perhaps a bit distracted by the thought of potentially having their families come to watch this Friday’s upcoming game on Christmas Day against Wisconsin? Perhaps that was an issue as well.
Regardless of the reason, Coach Izzo summed up what went wrong as follows, “The first job that wasn’t done was by the head coach. His job to make sure that a team is ready to play. Then the individuals within that group have to make sure that they do their job.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
With a ranked Wisconsin team planning to pay the Spartans a visit on Christmas Day, the key question now is how to move forward. Coach Izzo seemed eager to watch the film and to start to make the needed corrections. He seemed ready to go back to work. “I’ve been a little softer myself this year. It’s time to take the gloves off. Now we’ve got no school. We can go to work…The coach has got to get them ready to play.”
Going forward, Izzo implied that players who were not giving maximum effort might be spending more time sitting next to him than playing. In fact, that seemed to have started before the game even ended, as MSU appeared to empty the bench in the final minutes when the game might have still been within reach.
Coach Izzo explained his decision as follows: “We have an agreement. If you don’t play good. No problem. If you turn the ball over, I don’t like it, but no problem. If you miss shots, no problem. If you don’t want to give the effort that is needed to play at this level? That’s a problem…I am not going to condone the kind of play that we had tonight by leaving guys in there.”
As for the players, Josh Langford said, “we have to learn from it, lick our wounds, and take it face on. We have to watch the film and keep moving forward.” Malik Hall agreed, “We are all pissed off about this loss and we know that we got embarrassed...We need to do better and try harder…and have that winning and fighting attitude no matter what.” He added, “our one main focus no matter what happens next week will be to get a win on Christmas day and to get it rolling again.”
I think that Spartan fans would agree that a win over the Badgers on Christmas Day would be the perfect gift to see under the tree.