The month of February has not been kind to the Michigan State men’s basketball team so far in 2022, and things did not get any better on Saturday, as the Spartans fell to the visitors from Illinois by a score of 79-74.
Following the game, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo expressed his frustration to the media in the postgame press conference. He talked about what went wrong, his respect for Illinois and what comes next.
What went wrong
“I don’t even know where to start,” Izzo said to open the press conference. “It is a shame how inept I think that we were on offense in the first half. We didn’t play very well. We just couldn't make shots either. We had some good shots. Max (Christie) and Gabe (Brown) had some good shots, but they just didn’t go in.”
Shooting was a problem for the Spartans, who 13 minutes into the game made just three of the team’s 19 shot attempts from the floor. This poor shooting enabled the Illini to build a 12-point half-time lead.
“We can’t be as good when your two best shooters are struggling,” Izzo later added.
Some of the struggles from the Spartan wings were due to the defensive effort on display by Illinois.
“The first half was about as good defensively as I felt like we played a long, long time,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said after the game. “I thought that we did a great job on Gabe (Brown). I thought we did a really good job on Max (Christie), and we forced two guys (A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker) who haven’t been big scorers for them to try to score the ball to beat us.”
Izzo was also frustrated by the continuing problem with turnovers. The Spartans committed a total of 11 turnovers on the day, but the most costly one came with just a minute to play and with Michigan State trailing by only three points.
A.J. Hoggard dribbled himself into trouble in the lane and wound up having his pocket picked by Illinois’ Andre Curbelo. The play resulted in an easy transition bucket by the Illini.
“I thought Tyson (Walker) was going to shoot it, to be honest,” Hoggard said. “But he gave it back to me. I’ve just got to make a better decision. I thought I saw something that wasn’t there — obviously it wasn’t.”
Turnovers have plagued the Spartans all season long. Izzo is well aware of the impact the giveaways had on the result of Saturday’s game.
“Those big turnovers, they cost you,” Izzo added. “You don’t get to do that against good teams.”
Izzo also emphasized that the “my bad” mentality needs to stop in a hurry.
“People on the court have to make a play or not make a mistake,” Izzo said. “If I am ever lucky enough to have grandchildren and that kid ever utters the word ‘my bad,’ it’s going to be a bad day at grandpa’s house.”
A few other factors also played into the loss. One big factor was the hot shooting of Illinois forward Jacob Grandison, who scored 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 6-of-10 from three-point range, a few of which were low percentage, desperation shots as the shot clock expired.
Grandison is a 40 percent shooter from deep for the season, but he had recently been in a bit of a slump. Over the past seven games, he had been just eight of his 33 attempts from beyond the arc. Coach Izzo even admitted that the game plan was to sag off of Grandison to help defend Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn in the post, but that that plan had to be scrapped early into the game due to Grandison’s hot shooting.
Izzo also commented that Cockburn managed to hit seven of his nine free throws (78 percent) despite being only a 64 percent shooter on the year. In contrast, Michigan State’s Julius Marble — who is an 82 percent shooter on the season — missed the front end of a one-and-one with just under four minutes to play.
Despite this miss, however, Marble posted eight points and 10 rebounds for the Spartans and garnered praise from his head coach in the press conference.
“I thought Julius played his tail off,” Izzo said.
Coach Izzo was also not pleased with the officiating in the game.
“I am sick and tired of officiating and consistency,” Izzo said, with clear anger in the tone of his voice.
He specifically talked about the way fouls were called in the post, as well as a pair of odd sequences where in one case a Michigan State player (Malik Hall) was down on the court and the officials allowed Illinois to play a possession four-on-five. Later in the game, when an Illinois player went down, the officials stopped the game.
Izzo also mentioned that Malik Hall was likely a little more banged up on that play than the Spartans first thought.
“But Malik (Hall) was hurt and he was hurt a little worse than I thought,” Izzo said. “He (Hall) said it afterward that he tried to suck it up, he was not even close to the same guy.” Izzo said.
This was likely a major contributor to Hall scoring zero points on just three shots from the field, one of which was an air-balled three-pointer.
It was very clear from the postgame press conference that the two head coaches have a genuine respect for each other and for each other’s programs.
When Coach Underwood was asked about the significance of getting his first win at the Breslin Center, he said the following.
“Our business was made great because of guys like Tom (Izzo),” Underwood said. “We talk a lot. We think a lot alike in terms of the way the game should be played and obviously he’s a Hall-of-Famer. So it was important for me because I have one here (at Breslin). So it’s a box checked.”
As for Coach Izzo, he was very clearly impressed with Illinois’ super senior combo guard Trent Frazier.
“Frazier might be my favorite player in the league,” Izzo said, “He was the best player on the floor. Not, Kofi (Cockburn). Frazier. He did it on the offensive end and he did it on the defensive end. He played hard and he made a big shot when it mattered.”
Walker’s Big Day
The clear bright spot in the game for the Spartans was the second half offensive explosion from junior point guard Tyson Walker, who scored 24 of his team-high 26 points in the second half, and who almost single-handedly willed MSU to a comeback victory.
When Walker’s teammates were asked about this sudden increase in Walker’s aggressiveness, Marble said that the change may have happened in part to a discussion with the players following the Indiana game.
“I was telling (Walker), ‘Hey, you have some fun out there,’” Marble recalled. “It didn’t seem like he was having fun. So I said, ‘Just play hard, play with passion, make shots, miss shots, turn the ball over, get yelled at by Coach — whatever it is, I just want you to play hard and have fun.’”
Walker seemed to agree. He acknowledged that he needed to “get out of his own head.” Walker also mentioned that it is not just offense but “frustrating somebody else on defense,” that is a big part of what makes the game fun for him.
There was some discussion in the press conference as to whether Michigan State might deploy the two-point guard lineup featuring both Hoggard and Walker at the same time. However, Izzo did point out that Illinois does have smaller guards than other teams in the Big Ten (such as Purdue and Michigan), which made this combination easier to use.
In addition, the way that Illinois was playing ball screens with Cockburn allowed Walker to have a more open window to take shots than he might against other teams. That all said, the fact that Walker had a confidence-building effort is certainly an encouraging result for an otherwise discouraging game.
What comes next
With the loss to Illinois, for all practical purposes, the Spartans are officially out of the Big Ten race. That said, there is still a lot to play for as MSU jockeys for position and seeding both in the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the poor play in the first 20 minutes, Coach Izzo and his players did see some encouraging signs.
“I think there’s always times when you can learn from games and learn from a loss,” Izzo said. “I built this place on competing...we competed in the second half. I don’t think we competed in the first.
“I do think this is one of the rare times in my career that I felt like we made some progress with a loss,” Coach Izzo continued. “I don’t ever prescribe to the idea that a loss was good for you...but we took a step in the right direction.”
Coach Izzo’s players seemed to agree.
“A lot of guys won’t admit it right now because we lost, but feel like we did build on it (made progress) a little bit because we got to get some type of rhythm going with the end of the season approaching,” Marble said.
“I just think they (Illinois) were playing harder than us,” Hoggard said. “We have to play with more energy. We believe energy brings results. So playing with more energy got the ball going to the net for us in the second half. So I just think that we need to do a better job of starting out games like that.”
The Spartans will have the opportunity to show those results on Tuesday night in Iowa City against the Iowa Hawkeyes. The game will tip at 7 p.m. EST and will be televised on ESPN.
To view the full remarks from Coach Izzo, Coach Underwood, and the selected Spartan players, click on the links below.