Forget Michigan State basketball’s 84-78 loss to Iowa on Tuesday, for a moment. Forget its recent 30-point loss at Rutgers.
Forget the four-game losing streak — Tom Izzo’s first since 2006-07. Forget the uneven playing rotation, the lack of experienced and capable point guard play, the lack of post defense and rim protection.
Forget all of that and think about why Michigan State’s struggles this season are so stunning. About why it’s shocking to watch these Spartans lose game after game, unable to impose their style of play, even on nights when they show spirit and vitality and make lots of 3s, as they did Tuesday in Iowa City.
Because you’re not used to this. Because MSU has made 22 straight NCAA tournaments. Because even when Izzo’s teams struggle, they are still competitive. They don’t start the Big Ten season 2-7.
But here they are, in danger of breaking one of the best sporting streaks in the state, up there with the Wings’ runs to the playoffs year after year, or the Pistons’ runs to the Eastern Conference finals.
Even in years when MSU doesn’t have Final Four potential, they don’t look like this, and Izzo gets the benefit of the doubt, because he always figures it out, at least enough to play in the postseason.
His sustained excellence is easy to take for granted. It may seem like a long way back, but the last time the NCAA held a tournament the Spartans played in the Final Four. MSU entered this season having won a share of the last three league titles.
So, no, Izzo hasn’t forgotten how to coach. He’s just having a down year. A product of a junior class that hasn’t quite developed — though Aaron Henry led Tuesday’s effort with 24 points — and a three-week shutdown because of COVID-19 and inconsistency at the spot you can’t have it: point guard.
He’s got reinforcements coming in next year. The program should be more recognizable this time next season.
Though, to be fair, it looked a little more familiar in Iowa City Tuesday night.
Izzo thought his team would win the game. He told them they would. He felt it in his gut. In part because he decided he needed to get tougher on them, something he’s grappled with this year with all the uncertainty.
He hasn’t figured out how much they can take, how much of his fire they need. Nor has he figured out who to play when, though it’s getting better.
MSU made some shots finally. Lots of them, especially early, and jumped on the Hawkeyes for an 11-point lead early.
You could see the buoyancy in their collective step. The crispness in their passing. The confidence as the game unfolded, that they could stay with Iowa, even beat Iowa, no matter that they are ranked in the top 10.
That we are even talking about MSU like this is surreal. Izzo was asked if his team’s effort might be a turning point.
“Is it a turning point?”
“No, it’s not a turning point. We’re Michigan state.”
In other words, they don’t believe in moral victories. And yet … that’s what Tuesday night was in a way.
That’s what it has to be.
As Izzo said, “if we would’ve played this good (all along), we would’ve won a lot of games. How about that?”
Does that sound like a coach who is searching for something to hang on?
Yes, it does, and it’s hard to blame Izzo. He hasn’t had a season like this since the 1990s.
And that distance is what has made these last six weeks so strange. That and the lack of certain fundamentals Izzo has always instilled.
Watching the Spartans continue to miss free throw cut outs. To not box out under the rim. To not get the feet set on a closeout. To lose shot-clock awareness. To not play with the kind of crazed urgency and physicality that has defined this program.
All of these things were better at Iowa, but not quite good enough to leave with a win. If there is any hope to get back to .500 in the conference, heck, if there is any hope to string a few wins together, MSU will have to show more of what it did Tuesday night.
The unselfishness was there on offense. The effort was there on defense.
More importantly, the belief was there on both ends. For now, in this tough and unpredictable season in East Lansing, that’s a start.
And that will have to do.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.