By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – Even Tom Izzo found it fitting the lights suddenly turned off during his post-game press conference — right as he was saying Michigan State will have to accept that this season is not always going to go smoothly.
“That’s perfect,” Izzo said, not even looking surprised. “The lights go out, it’s time to go home.”
The Spartans started strong in the first half, shooting lights-out, draining 3s, leading at halftime. Certainly, a win in Ann Arbor over the Wolverines, another Top 25 team, would hardly be considered a given in any case. With Michigan State having lost and reabsorbed so many players this season, the task would eventually prove to be too much. In the second half, Michigan guard Nik Stauskas scored 21 of his 25 points, and the Wolverines were able to dribble out the clock at the end of the game.
Michigan defeated Michigan State in East Lansing, too, earlier this season. In fact, the Wolverines have now beaten the Spartans in six of the last eight meetings between the teams, but Sunday’s game irked Izzo in a somewhat unusual way.
“Where the first game I was very proud of our effort, this game we looked tired,” Izzo said. “I was not very proud of our effort. I did not think – I think I did a poor job playing [Adreian] Payne too many minutes in a row, and he was just dead tired.
“We looked like a tired team, and I don’t know why because that shouldn’t happen, but with those guys, [Keith] Appling and Payne, I sort of understand it,” Izzo added later. “With the other guys, I really don’t. It was a game we did not play with the energy it needed to play.”
The season has been a trying one for Izzo, in his 19th year as Michigan State head coach. A staggering array of injuries and illness have befallen the Spartans, causing not just a myriad of missed games – seven for Payne, three for Appling, nine for Branden Dawson, three for Gary Harris, four for Matt Costello, two for Travis Trice – but countless missed practices.
Michigan State’s crippling lack of defense Sunday negated its 54.2 percent shooting – Izzo compared it to running for 300 yards, passing for 400 yards and still getting beat – prompting Izzo to say the team has become too offensive-minded. He also noted that the team’s shortcoming had to do with getting Payne (who missed nearly a month) and Appling (who missed several games this month) used to playing with their teammates again – and vice versa.
“It’s effort-related, but it’s also chemistry-related,” Izzo said. “Ball screens, we had that last one when they throw it underneath, the guy doesn’t call switch and he switches out. That’s part of playing together too. I think that’s the hardest thing that I’ve said all along; getting them back will be one bright spot, and then getting them back and playing like the team they need to play like is another.
“It’s going to be hard,” Izzo continued. “Getting guys back, you think is a plus, especially when they shoot well or do some things well, but they’ve still got to fit in with everybody, and we did not look very much in sync, especially, it’s hurting us way more defensively … You’ve got to check somebody. That’s the name of the game, that’s how you win big games on the road. We weren’t as pretty, maybe, when we had those guys out, but we were checking better, so we’ve got to get back to guarding people.”
Clearly, the circumstances are far from ideal for Michigan State, pegged since before the season as a likely Final Four contender. In fact, Izzo has never seen anything like the onslaught of injuries that have hit the Spartans. Upon inquiry of whether Appling’s wrist injury was still affecting his shot, Izzo could not help but laugh. Appling’s wrist will not heal fully until after the season, he said, but it is better, well enough to play, and Appling and the Spartans will have to get used to any limitations.
Izzo said he still believes Michigan State can make its usual mark despite the team’s bumps and bruises, however.
“Normality is not going to hit our team,” Izzo said. “I still think we have enough to do it without being normal, I really do. I think we have enough different pieces where we can still make a serious run at this league championship and beyond. But there’s going to be some bumps in the road here if guys don’t figure out that it’s not the same as it was, and that is frustrating to them.
“Keith had a very average practice two days ago because he wasn’t making a shot, and it really got to him,” Izzo added. “I love his competitiveness on that, I understand it, but it’s just the way it’s going to be, and he’s going to have to live with that and understand it, and I think this week he’ll get better and he’ll keep working on his shot. He’ll get better, but that’s the way it is right now.”