It’s no secret that the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball team has not gotten off to the start in Big Ten Conference play that many fans expected. After beginning the 2020-2021 season with a 6-0 record, Michigan State then lost each of its first three conference games before finally defeating Nebraska this past weekend.
As such, the hot takes on Twitter and in the comments section of various articles have been, well, as if the sky was falling. I get it — I did not anticipate the Spartans to get off to an 0-3 start in the Big Ten, either, and the struggles on both offense and defense have been worrisome to say the least. However, there are still 16 conference games left to play. That starts tonight with a must-win home game against a tough Rutgers Scarlet Knights squad.
I know the projection doesn’t look great for the Spartans right now, but if there is anybody I trust to right the ship, it’s Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo — the guy with eight Final Four appearances and one national championship. The man who has led MSU to 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (and would have been 23 had last season’s tournament not been canceled). The National Coach of the Year on multiple occasions. The Hall of Famer. Mr. March.
Of course, it is because of Izzo’s success that Spartans fans expect, or rather, demand nothing but the highest results. So, a 7-3 record with wins over Duke and Notre Dame simply isn’t good enough right now, due to the poor play the team showed against the likes of Northwestern and Minnesota.
I see a lot of talk about how this Michigan State team is going to miss the NCAA Tournament. Come on, ladies and gentlemen, are you serious? The team has won seven of its first 10 games, with both quality wins and “quality losses” right now. The Big Ten is as strong as it has ever been so there will be tough matchups along the way, but that kind of talk is premature. Obviously that situation is in the realm of possibility, but the last time the Spartans missed the tournament was in Izzo’s second ever season in 1996-1997. To put that in perspective, I would have been 6-years-old when that season came to an end, and I am now a 30-year-old man. Michigan State has the third-longest active streak of tournament appearances in the nation, behind only Kansas and Duke.
Izzo has never finished a season with a losing record overall, or a record below .500 in conference play. I am not saying that it can’t happen this year, but it’s hard to argue with his track record. If Michigan State is even on the bubble to make the tournament, the committee will almost certainly include a program of MSU’s caliber in the field.
Let’s also factor in how the COVID-19 situation has affected the team, and the college basketball season overall. The Spartans had less time to practice, less non-conference games to tinker with the rotation and, of course, the coronavirus sidelined Izzo himself for a stretch in November — and who knows, he may still be feeling some of its effects. We also don’t know how many players, if any at all, have had to deal with it. Let’s not pretend that COVID hasn’t affected this basketball season as a whole, and can have both mental and physical effects on the coaches, support staff, players and anybody connected to the game, let alone the entire world. Because of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the team may need a little extra time to find itself.
Quite frankly, we should be counting our blessings that we, as fans, even get to enjoy college basketball, and already enjoyed a full season of college football, given the circumstances. We probably shouldn’t be irrationally complaining about it. Again, I get it, and I hold MSU basketball to the highest of standards myself, but context matters.
This team looked lost to begin Big Ten play — as if it lost confidence in itself. This year’s version of the Spartans simply hasn’t yet shown qualities of a typical Izzo-coached team: toughness, extreme defensive prowess, being able to out-rebound just about anyone and playing with a constant energy. Offensively, there have been way too many open jumpers missed, as well as way too many shots at the rim missed. The biggest issues for MSU are that there doesn’t seem to be a great answer at the point guard position, which is a staple for successful Izzo teams, or a consistent player at center. I am not denying that this squad has been downright hard to watch at times. I just am willing to be patient.
This team has talent all over the place. Maybe it’s a mental issue with the Spartans, given the current situation of the world, who knows, but it is easy to forget these are college students we are critiquing. It’s also not as if if we haven’t seen Izzo teams get into a slump before — granted, that usually comes later in the season. But whatever the problems are, give me Tom Izzo, over any other coach in the country, to be the person to get this corrected and finish the season on a strong note.
I am just speaking for myself here, and I am not here to say a turnaround is automatically going to happen, as this team still has a lot to improve upon, but I am saying to give the Spartans a chance and I am trying to provide maybe a just a little bit of perspective on this challenging season.
Trust in Tom Izzo, because after the heights he has taken this program to, at the very least, he’s earned that from Spartans fans.