After a three-game winning streak, including back-to-back wins over top-five teams, breathed vivacity into NCAA hopes, those hopes came crashing back down to reality Sunday in College Park. The Michigan State Spartans faced their own shortcomings once again in the wake of a brutal Big Ten schedule being crammed into a short time span following yet more COVID-19 impacts to human life almost a year into the ongoing international pandemic. Maryland defeated Michigan State by a final score of 73-55.
After scoring 27 points against Indiana, 20 against Illinois, and 18 against Ohio State, Aaron Henry managed just 11 points against the Terps, going an abysmal 4-for-16 from the field.
Henry gave credit to Maryland and their tough defense, also noting they made their free throws and hit a lot of their shots. But he felt like he missed shots and was short on a lot of them despite feeling “right on.” Asked about those missed shots being from the exhaustive schedule:
“Whether we’re tired or not, it doesn’t matter,” Henry said. “We’re playing for a lot. This is our last game of February and I’ve played in March before. I understand what it takes. At this time, everybody around the country’s legs are tired, just from the duration of the season. I’ll never use it as an excuse, no matter how I feel. I’ll just go home, take an ice bath and prepare for Indiana.”
It has been a tumultuous season and an incredible peak over the past week for the Spartans, though. Following the three-game winning streak, it had to be a rough go for the team, but Henry is keeping things in perspective.
“That’s where we grew the most,” Henry said. “Through so many lows, lows and lows throughout the season and a couple highs throughout this past week I think we’ve tried to keep an even keel attitude. We try to keep a one day at a time mindset and attitude. Today the ball just didn’t bounce our way, and I’m not going to go home and pout about it or put my head down. I’m going to go home and prepare for Tuesday.”
Maryland’s 11-0 start put MSU behind quick and the Spartans were never able to climb out of the hole. “That was the game right there,” according to Henry. He noted they came out to play, but Michigan State made some mistakes and that was the difference in the final outcome.
Meanwhile, fifth-year senior guard Joshua Langford led the team in scoring, but managed just 12 points. While not significantly different than his 15 points against Illinois last Tuesday, it had a huge impact overall in the aspect of the team’s total, as Joey Hauser was the only other player to go with Henry and Langford to hit double-figures with his 11 points.
Having been around the Big Ten so long, Langford knows this year is a bit more rough for a team in the league. The “margin for error is really slim right now,” as he noted. The Spartans have an extra burden on them if taking the program’s achievements into account.
Obviously, the team is well aware of the biggest elephant in the room from a fan perspective, the NCAA Tournament streak. It is essentially desperation status for Michigan State at this point to keep that alive. How do they do that without playing like they are in fact desperate?
“The biggest thing is recognizing where we’re at,” Langford said. “This is the reality of it, but at the same time, understand we have to go out there and focus on what we can control. If you go out there and think about what’s on the line at State, it almost kind of hinders the player. It is almost paralysis by analysis. We have to go out there and control what we can control and let the chips fall where they may.”
As for Tom Izzo in the wake of a rough loss, he had this to say:
“God I’m disappointed,” Izzo said. “Write it however you want it, but that team gets seven days off and we get these games the way we had. It was a factor. They played good, they’re a 68 percent shooting free throw team, but they hit 23 of 25 (it was actually 23-24). The only thing that bothered me was we started the game dragged down instead of getting there eventually as the game wore on.
“It was an eight-nine-10 point game the whole way and that was how it started. There was no excuse, we gave up some threes. A couple of those guys weren’t shooting those well, but they hit them today. We tried to come back at times, but our two best players struggled because I played them for 40 minutes, 38 minutes and I beat the hell out of them. Rocket (Watts) got in foul trouble and he didn’t play that good. I tried the freshman (A.J. Hoggard), but he didn’t play that well.
“Disappointing that we started the way we did, but also disappointing they finished the way they did because it looks like a blowout. But if they think the NET is the thing to do, and it makes a difference, but I disagree with that. But hey, we didn’t do our job, we didn’t win the game, the situation hasn’t changed.”
It doesn’t get more blunt than that, really. Coach Izzo went on to add he thought the team had the worst ball movement to start the game over the first six minutes in not just this year, but a couple at least. The team settled for too many three point attempts and didn’t move the ball or move around off ball.
As for the team as a whole, Izzo noted Langford and Henry “gave me everything they could, but some other guys just didn’t play as well as I hoped they’d play.” That didn’t apply to the entire roster, though.
I really feel good about Joey (Hauser),” Izzo said. “He hit some threes, he actually played more physical inside, he gets eight rebounds and he guarded people a little better. I think he’s working himself out of some things, and nothing’s been easy through all this, but that was very encouraging, and I think Malik (Hall) played a little better. But I thought Joey was one of the most encouraging parts of our day, and I thought Malik was second.
As for Henry’s and Langford’s struggles, it isn’t “mind over matter” down the stretch. The team also wants to play all the games they can, but there is a cost to that. When you have just a one or two day prep before facing a team, that’s hard. They gave everything they could, but it’s the reality of the schedule.
It’s nobody’s fault, though. Interestingly, Coach Izzo did mention he feels like he could have potentially opted out of some of the rescheduled games. This contradicts the comments made by Fred Hoiberg following Nebraska’s second game at Maryland in postgame remarks in which he made clear the only option given to the Huskers was switching the Maryland games to two nights in a row from a day off in-between to get the team home sooner. It was unclear if perhaps Izzo got that impression it is optional given Juwan Howard’s desire to avoid playing a tough slate down the final stretch because of “player health and safety” despite a COVID-19 free squad.
Finally, asked about the desire to avoid leaving the NCAA Tournament streak pressure burden off the team, does Izzo still think the team feels it?
“I don’t think so because one thing I’m decent at...is I address the elephants in the room,” Izzo said. “We talked about it six games ago. I gave them some scenarios, I did some things behind closed doors. (Twitter rant by Izzo I won’t bother transcribing)... Records are made to be broken. Streaks were made to end. That can’t be what we are playing for. What we are playing for is to get our seniors into the NCAA Tournament.
“What we’re playing for is to get better each and every game. If that sounds like coach talk, it’s not. I really believe that, I really mean that. Once we had a streak where every senior played (in a Final Four) and then one of my best teams didn’t make it. That was Garry Harris and them, but I’m not upset for me. I’m upset for them...I hope this means something for them and it’s not too much weight on them.”
Coach Izzo also went off one final time about the NET system, noting he will never run up scores against teams on purpose. “I am a little upset about the NET thing because everybody keeps bringing up the NET thing,” Izzo said. He cited Notre Dame in which the Spartans put in subs rather than run up the score intentionally, or in a way that seems the goal is to “get guys fired.” He also made a dig at Big 12 in football by pointing out the NCAA was supposed to “get rid of that crap back when football was Oklahoma beating people 88-nothing.”
You can catch the full remarks below. The Spartans are back in action tomorrow night in East Lansing against the Hoosiers.