Watching Tom Izzo‘s postgame press conference on Tuesday night, after his team narrowly beat the Illinois Fighting Illini 70-69 on the road, you probably couldn‘t help yourself and figured that this legendary man on the podium felt quite a bit of relief. Why not? It was the first victory in four games, the first road win against a good team in conference play (sorry, Northwestern and Minnesota) and it kept the seemingly free falling Spartans right in the middle of the race for the Big Ten regular season crown. With a loss MSU probably could‘ve kissed those dreams goodbye for good, just like their mini midseason crisis might have spiraled out of control and threatened to drown all hopes of achieving anything meaningful on a national level later in March.
“It was a hell of win, we beat a good team,” Izzo agreed. “I‘m really proud of my guys. They fought the whole time, the fought in the huddle, they fought on the bench, everywhere. Maybe it will propel us forward.” Saying these things wasn‘t only Izzo channeling his inner Winston Churchill, he rather underlined how important this win was for this group and how them finally coming out on top in a close road game could mean a lot going forward. After leading by as much as 20 points early in the second half, Illinois, aided by Cassius Winston‘s foul trouble and a barrage of Spartans‘ turnovers, stormed back into a lead late in the contest. If Xavier Tillman‘s marvellous putback dunk with about six seconds left wouldn‘t have given MSU the win, it might have been hard to imagine this team ever recovering from it. Not with their already battered mental state, not with so many things going wrong lately.
Dark cloud still hanging over the team
“This team and the individuals have dealt with a lot of things that most people haven‘t dealt with over the course of a season and I sure wish nobody would ever have to go through,” Izzo earlier reminded reporters that the dark cloud of Zachary Winston‘s suicide is still hanging over the program and more importantly this team. He has often admitted he doesn‘t know how to deal with it, he said his team has no idea how to handle the situation. Lately assistant coach Mike Garland was also absent due to a personal matter. “I think the team factor that is more mental than physical is easy for me to see but hard for me change,” the Hall Of Fame coach said, referring not only to dealing with the tragedy but also to the mental state of his entire group of young men trying to win basketball games, meaningful ones, in the process.
To be clear, the things that happened haven‘t forced Xavier Tillman miss layup after layup recently, they haven‘t forced numerous players like Aaron Henry or Rocket Watts make the same mind boggling mistakes over and over again and they haven‘t forced others miss wide open shots repeatedly. What they did though was they took their toll on the mental stamina of the entire team, something that can‘t ever be assessed by numbers, words or anything else. Luckily for them they – atleast on Tuesday night – didn‘t have to take another gut punch and learn how to deal with it among everything else. Their athletic achievement the rest of the year could be a gigantic part of the healing process, they now still have everything in front of them and can actually ask themselves: Is this the turnaround we all been waiting for? The moment where – in typical MSU fashion in the Izzo era – the team shifts into another gear in February and rolls into March with a head of steam?
Of course right now it is impossible to say. A tiny part of the answer might already be given though on Saturday when the league leading Maryland Terrapins visit the Breslin Center. If the Spartans want to challenge for the Big Ten regular season title they probably have to have this one, especially considering their daunting late season schedule. In regards to their national goals though, the Big Ten, which is deep this year but lacks really great teams, only tells one side of the story. Generally MSU is still sitting very well numbers wise and in comparison to most teams across the country. The analytics crowd loves them as they are 11th in the NET and 9th in KenPom. They also possess a top 20 rankings in the latter‘s defensive and offensive rankings, numbers that in recent years have been requirements for teams who wanted to cut down the nets at the end of March Madness. Other statistics give hope aswell. Michigan State is 4th in the country in assists per game, 11th in rebound margin and 7th in opponent‘s field goal percentage. Cassius Winston (18.3 points per game, 5.7 assists) and Xavier Tillman (13.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.1 blocks) are certainly two players you could see leading a team deep in the Tournament, the success of MSU‘s coach doesn‘t need any mention.
A lot of work to be done
But to really believe in a turnaround it needs a lot more, you just have to remember that they looked everything but a national title contender recently or ask said coach. “We haven‘t played with much grit lately,” Izzo says. “Cash and X have given me a lot but they need to give even more. Our break has been non existant lately, we have to get that going and we have to take better care of the ball.” Most of MSU‘s problems lie on the offensive end and it also is the part where the most has to happen in the upcoming weeks. 34.7% from three point range have them sitting 108th nationally and outside of Winston you probably wouldn‘t call any player a truly reliable or constantly willing shooter right now. While the overall rebounding numbers look good, the Spartans have struggled when athletic opponents have really crushed the offensive glass and they need more effort in that regard, especially from their athletic wings Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown. Their overall field goal percentage of 45.4% is also only good for 87th nationally. Not absolutely terrible but also far from championship caliber.
The Spartans will have to continue to show what they showed in the first half against Illinois with a lot less ups and downs in their confidence, their concentration and their effort. Mostly that can be said about Aaron Henry who has long been deemed the key to MSU‘s entire season. If he can find the level consistently that he has often showed glimpses of, then the entire group takes a gigantic step forward. Rocket Watts (12.5 points per game in his last four) is coming along nicely and could shoot you into a game in March. Maybe Gabe Brown returns to his aggressive ways he showed earlier in the year. If Marcus Bingham or Malik Hall or someone else could… yeah, I know, a lot of ifs, a lot of hope and a lot of unknowns. But as of now there still is time. MSU won‘t all of a sudden get bigger or more athletic inside, they won‘t magically find a capable backup point guard and they won‘t invent a new system over night. But with Cassius Winston, an absolutely generational player at the helm, they might not need as much for a true turnaround as many have expected a couple of days ago. Especially in a year where no real great teams seem to roam the NCAA landscape.
First and foremost though the Spartans need wins, more wins to further strengthen their confidence and prepare them for the mental challenge that the late season has in store for them. Tomorrow against Maryland might be another step in that direction. „Who knows what we‘ll do but it will definitely jumpstart something,“ Tom Izzo said on Tuesday scratching his head. Seeing him then with a worried look on his face showed you it‘s not a given that the Spartans will turn their season around. But knowing him also tells that as long as there are games to play, you better not count him or his team out.