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Notes & Quotes: Michigan State still looking for its “alpha dog”

Wisconsin v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans have now dropped three games in a row to begin Big Ten play, after being thoroughly beaten by the Minnesota Golden Gophers by a final score of 81-56 on Monday night.

After losing Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman to the NBA, the team is clearly lacking leadership and a go-to guy on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The team is still searching for its “alpha dog” on the court. The fans know it and Michigan state men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo knows it as well.

“I said that in the beginning of the year, that’s one of our issues — we don’t have great leadership,” Izzo said in the postgame press conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just hard to find one of those ‘alpha dogs’ as you say — I’ve had four or five of them in my whole career. This team doesn’t have that right now, but we’ll see.”

While Izzo admits the team is missing a guy who can truly take over who has a killer instinct, he is taking part of the blame himself and hopes to do a better job as the season moves forward.

“The head coach gotta do a better job, too, maybe he has to be the ‘alpha dog,’ so I’ll try to do a little better job myself,” Izzo said. “I just don’t know how we missed the number of shots we missed, I really don’t, but we did and we gotta move forward.”

Izzo was actually pleased with the defensive effort from the Spartans, but thought it was the lack of offense and inability to hit open shots that was the biggest reason for Michigan State’s dreadful performance — MSU went just 18-for-70 from the floor (25.7 percent, including making only six three-point attempts on 25 attempts, 24 percent).

While Izzo had a lot of praise for Minnesota, he thought the Spartans executed their defensive game plan for the most part and played hard. But there were simply too many missed shots to allow MSU to be competitive.

“Hard as it is to believe, where we’ve been really poor (this season) has been defensively, and I thought we did everything just about tonight we wanted to do defensively,” Izzo said. “Three minutes left to go, I think they (Minnesota) were shooting 38 or 39 percent. They shot 20-something percent I believe from the three (editor’s note: Minnesota also shot 24 percent from deep). Our goal was not to foul — they make 24 free throws a game, we held them to taking 17. Our goal was to not let (Marcus) Carr go off — I thought we did an unbelievable job, I mean he hit a shot before halftime and a shot at the end of the game that were phenomenal, but I thought we did a great job on him. Our goal was not to turn it over, and the only way they scored early, it wasn’t the turnovers, it was a couple of bad shots and missed shots that ended up breakaway layups. They got three layups at the very end of the game. We got 70 shots, we wanted to do that. So I had no problem with the defense, it was our offense.”

Part of the problem offensively is that Izzo and his staff are three games into Big Ten Conference play and still haven’t figured out the rotation. Players haven’t stepped up and taken command of a specific role, which is why we are still seeing Michigan State play so many guys.

“Trying to maneuver some people around, get some people a chance, tried to get Rocket (Watts) off the point because that’s what he kind of wanted,” Izzo said. “We struggled a little bit there, but in general we had open shots. (Joey) Hauser had open shots, (Josh) Langford had open shots, I thought Gabe (Brown) had some open shots, and we just missed shot after shot after shot. The good thing was it wasn’t defensively and I’m going to build off of that. The bad thing was it was offensively and I’m going to try to improve that.”

Figuring out the point guard spot is essential for Izzo and the Spartans. Rocket Watts has played there this season, but hasn’t been a natural fit at the one spot, and Watts came to Izzo asking to go back to the shooting guard position. Foster Loyer is a tough player and a good shooter, but he is limited physically. Due to the issue at point guard, Izzo is still playing around with lineups to see what works best, which included bringing junior guard/forward Aaron Henry off the bench on Monday.

“Rocket hasn’t been as comfortable at the one (spot), so when I talked to him I said I’m gonna try to move him to the two (guard),” Izzo said. “So I thought I’d give Foster (Loyer) a chance. I needed somebody coming off the bench, so I just tried Aaron (Henry) there for a day, that’s not gonna last. I knew we had to have one (of) Rocket or Aaron in the game at the same time to guard Carr. I’m just trying to help Rocket get through the things he’s gotta do, you know he was more comfortable at the two last year. So, that’s kind of the experiments, I mean there are different experiments that you gotta do. Sad that you gotta do them during the year, but we knew this problem from day one.”

Izzo did praise true freshman point guard AJ Hoggard, who was one of the few sparks off the bench for the Spartans against the Gophers. Hoggard finished with nine points, one rebound, one assist and two steals. Izzo also liked what he saw from Loyer, but said “his minutes are gonna be what they are.”

Despite not having a true point guard or an optimal lineup at this point in the season, and despite the losing streak, Izzo is not overreacting and understands there are still 17 games left in the season. He is still trying to figure out what works best for the team moving forward.

“It’s not panicksville,” Izzo said. “I didn’t do it because I’m panicking, I did it because I’m trying to find the right combinations.”

As for the team, which again has dropped three games in a row and was absolutely blown out of the water by Minnesota, the players aren’t hanging their heads and there was no quit in the squad, according to Izzo.

“The team was fine,” Izzo said. “The team was fine in the huddles, the team was fine everywhere. I’ve got no problems with that. To miss as many shots as we had and still play as hard as we did defensively, I give our guys a little credit. And I’m the first to give the blame if there’s blame that needs to be given.”

Following last night’s game, there is plenty for the Spartans to improve upon. Izzo is going to make sure this team gets better.

“Are we tough enough? No,” Izzo said. “Are we leadered enough? No. But those are the things that were the same problems when we were 6-0 that I talked about that we have to improve on. We’re just gonna keep working on it, we’ll get better for the next game, I promise.”