When the season started in early November, Michigan State was a nearly-unanimous No. 1 team. On paper, it had explosive scoring, experience, a go-to player in Cassius Winston, excellent defense and a proven coach in Tom Izzo.
Aside from a season-ending injury to guard Josh Langford, all of those attributes remain. But the No. 1 ranking is long gone. And as of Monday, so is any kind of ranking.
A three-game losing streak has the Spartans (16-8, 8-5 Big Ten) looking for answers ahead of Tuesday night’s Big Ten Conference trip to 22nd-ranked Illinois, which doesn’t figure to be in a welcoming mood after it dropped two straight to fall out of first place in the conference.
“There’s no question. The road doesn’t get any easier,” Izzo said. “We need to find a way to bounce back in an environment that will be big-time at Illinois, I’m sure, after they lost. A late-night game, a 9 o’clock game, kids will be getting ready just to go.
“The biggest thing is we still got to take care of what we do. That’s to take care of the ball a little better and get our break going, which to me has been nonexistent, and get a little more energy.”
Michigan State’s latest loss, 77-68 at Michigan on Saturday, included early turnovers in the first five minutes and 33.3 percent shooting from the field for the game. Not even Winston’s 20 points and six assists, or Xavier Tillman’s 17 points and 12 rebounds could stop the slide.
The Spartans also were outrebounded 46-40, one of only a handful of times this season they’ve lost the board battle. While they limited Michigan to 37.5 percent shooting from the field, they permitted the Wolverines to shoot 11 of 28 from 3-point range.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini (16-7, 8-4) have followed up seven straight Big Ten wins with the two losses, albeit against Top 25 foes. Neither the 72-65 loss at Iowa nor the 75-66 setback Friday night at home to Maryland is a terribly bad loss in looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament. But they both illustrate the exceptionally thin margin for error in the Big Ten this winter.
Illinois built a 14-point lead in the first half on Friday before Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called for a zone defense. The Illini started missing shots, Maryland ate up the deficit and the State Farm Center gradually grew silent.
Three Illinois starters each made just one field goal, with guard Trent Frazier’s 1-for-4 performance sticking out. Frazier sat out the last 12 minutes of the first half because he picked up two fouls, per coach Brad Underwood’s policy, and took only one shot after halftime.
“I thought he turned down a few in the second half that we need him to take,” Underwood said to the News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill. “Again, just one of those nights for those guys. We’ll be back.”
Michigan State won the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 2, getting 21 points and six assists from Winston in a 76-56 rout. The Illini canned just 22 of 75 shots from the field, going a dreadful 3 of 28 on 3-pointers.
–Field Level Media