After a brutal performance against their rivals — losing by the final score of Michigan 69, Michigan State 50 — the Spartans can have nothing but frustration and what-ifs as they rest up before the rematch with the Wolverines on Sunday.
The first big pivot-moment of the contest was referee Bo Boroski “taking-over” the first half and assessing Michigan State’s Aaron Henry a flagrant foul on a perfectly normal jump shot, which took Henry out of the game for the final three minutes. The second big moment of the game occurred early in the second half, after a good defensive sequence, a loose ball opportunity presented itself with the score at 39-32, but tired legs, or hesitancy, led Rocket Watts, the nearest Spartan, and the other Spartans to not dive on the floor, ultimately leading to a Franz Wagner three-point shot. That shot was immediately followed by a turnover from Watts and a Hunter Dickinson layup, pushing the lead to 12 points, and, I would contend, sealed the Spartans’ fate.
Playing their sixth game in 13 days, the Spartans could not afford a momentary slip in focus or level of competitiveness or toughness. But with those failures in the rear-view mirror, and everything to play for on senior night, including, possibly, the securing of an NCAA-tournament bid, the Spartans will have to refocus and recharge.
Joey Hauser, first up to face the media questions in the postgame press conference, remained as even-keeled as ever. He felt the team “Let (themselves) down a bit,” but was excited and eager to “get another crack at (Michigan) on Sunday.”
Asked about things that didn’t go well, Hauser noted that the team “did not shoot the ball well, gotta get the ball moving better on offense to get some kick out threes,” to which he added that the “missed cut-outs” and “loose-balls...changed the momentum.”
Tom Izzo addressed the media after Hauser, and, in his opening statement, he noted that he was “Very disappointed in the way we played. Our guard play was poor, got in some foul trouble with A.J. (Hoggard) and Malik (Hall). There was a lot of start and stop and that call on Aaron (Henry) changed the game.” Izzo later added, on the officials, “We’ve got so much stuff, you’ve got no flow to any game. Maybe that’s not the officials’ fault, maybe that’s the rule committee.”
Asked about the turning points, Izzo pointed, again, to the Henry flagrant call, and then commented on the failure to get on the floor for the loose ball in the second-half sequence mentioned above:
“Start out the second half and we had two stops, two baskets, and then, with the ball on the floor we didn’t get it and they got a three and that was basically it,” Izzo said
Asked a follow-up question on the loose-ball sequence, Izzo curtly replied:
“You figure it out and write want you want to write, that’s all I’m gonna say.....There shouldn’t be effort issues coming out of the halftime.... I don’t think it was fatigue stuff, I didn’t think a couple of plays were maybe Michigan State lore, that kind of did it.”
To interpret that classic bit of Izzo-English, it appears that Izzo did not believe that the Michigan State teams of previous, successful seasons would have allowed that loose ball to end up in the hands of the other team.
Looking ahead to the next game, and the days between, Izzo is not too concerned about rest or injuries:
“Are we wearing down a little bit? Maybe?,” Izzo said. “It’s really, really difficult when our best shooters are also having to be our play-makers. “I don’t think I’m gonna worry about healing, I’m gonna worry about practicing. We’ve had about one day of practice in the last two weeks. So we need it. We didn’t do some things we wanted to on ball-screens, but that was more individual guys not getting enough reps maybe.”
Last up for questions was Julius Marble, who was clearly still angry about the loss, understandably. Marble noted that the team did only an average job against Dickinson, holding him in check for stretches, and allowing him to go on scoring runs at times:
“There were stretches where he got going where we let him get to his spots or get on the glass,” Marble said.
Asked about the early dribble penetration the Spartans conceded to the Michigan guards, Marble focused on the help-defense from the bigs: “A little bit better on help defense (would have helped), so it was our job not to let them get down into the paint, but we had to adjust that a bit.”
Ultimately, Marble put the loss on a failure to execute plays or to play with consistent energy, focus, and grit, which echoed Hauser and Izzo’s own comments:
“We didn’t execute well tonight,” Marble said. “(We) need to execute and run our plays better and get into them a bit quicker....I think we had a good game-plan, and I don’t think we got to our spots or ran our plays....it’s about execution — we need to watch the film and come back better.”
Marble, of course, is right. Late in seasons, and in high-leverage games, which this one was for a while, teams generally know each other pretty well — execution of plays and sets, and execution in all of the little moments of unscripted, transition, and hustle sequences tell the difference. On Thursday, the Wolverines had the last word, on Sunday, the Spartans hope to rewrite the script.