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Defense Wins Championships, but will Michigan State?

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NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Michigan State Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Michigan State Spartans squared off against the Wisconsin Badgers on Christmas Day. A game that had so much potential, and a game that would’ve cemented MSU’s status as one of the top teams in the nation had the Spartans managed to pull out a victory. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Throughout a strong start offensively that led to a tied score of 42-42 at halftime, the Spartans went cold in the second half. Not just cold however, freezing — they couldn’t even buy a bucket at times.

The last nine minutes of the game, the only players who were able to score for the Spartans were Joey Hauser and Thomas Kithier, combining for a total of 15 points. Cold streaks like that can’t happen in the Big Ten, especially in the 2020-21 season where the Big Ten is deeper and more talented than it has been in years. If your arguably best offensive players in Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry combine for 17 points, then you’ll be lucky to even be in the game, let alone winning it. Hauser was able to put up a phenomenal 27-point effort, but even then it wasn’t enough to secure the victory as the Badgers ended up winning by a final score of 85-76.

In order for this team to succeed, the Spartans need Joshua Langford and Gabe Brown to step up and provide more scoring. Relying on Watts to create his own chances will not lead to a winning style of basketball, and will certainly drive head coach Tom Izzo nuts.

“Well there is part of me that is pleased, and part of me that is very very disappointed.” Izzo said, following the loss to Wisconsin.

Obviously, with the game tied 42-42 at halftime you can tell that the Spartans were doing something right offensively. Defensively, Michigan State was able to set the tone in the first five minutes — but the Spartans were unable to contain D’Mitrik Trice (brother of former Spartan, Travis Trice) as he torched the Spartans for a career-high 29 points. Defensively, the Spartans tend to get lit up by a single player from opposing teams — whether that be Boo Boui from Northwestern or Rashad Williams from Oakland.

Izzo, at the beginning of the season, said that this could be his best defensive team ever, yet, the effort on that end of the court has been ultimately disappointing across the board. The Spartans haven’t been able to become a presence defensively in the paint like in past seasons when we saw the likes of a Xavier Tillman or a Jaren Jackson Jr. who were elite post defenders. This team however has yet to find its rim and paint protecting big man. Izzo saw flashes of what Marcus Bingham Jr. was capable of becoming in the beginning of the year, but he ultimately hasn’t proven that he can play at this level. Julius Marble is still raw and developing and even freshman Mady Sissoko isn’t ready to play at the Big Ten level. This league is filled with talented bigs, whether that be Iowa’s Luka Garza or Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn or even Michigan’s freshman Hunter Dickinson. Big Ten basketball is known for it’s hard-nosed and gritty play, but so far this Spartan team has shown that it doesn’t have that. It doesn’t mean Michigan State won’t have those traits by the end of the year, but so far this team has been very underwhelming defensively.

One thing that torched the Spartans all day on Friday was the fact that Trice was able to blow past the Michigan State defenders on the perimeter and often have a clear and open path into the lane. The help from the big men was almost nonexistent, which led to several easy baskets which can and did break the Spartans’ defensive morale. Thus, the Spartans amassed a grand total of zero blocks, which gave the Badgers confidence when driving to the basket.

It seems that the Spartans’ best post defender against the Badgers was Thomas Kithier, although he is vastly under-sized. He was in the right spots and was able to force turnovers as well as contest shots from taller and bigger players. Throughout the season though, Malik Hall has been phenomenal, but again lacks the size to go up against these big centers that the Spartans are going to face in the Big Ten.

Tom Izzo certainly has his work cut out for him, but he knows what his guys are capable of. Now it’s just a matter of getting his boys prepared to face Minnesota on Monday. The Spartans should not give up hope on this team, but certainly this season’s success will go off of how the defense grows. Defense wins championships, and the Spartans are a long way away from competing for their fourth regular season championship in a row — let alone their aspirations of bringing the first National Championship home since the year 2000.