1. Oof. For MSU, this has the elements of a free fall.
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Remember the days when this Michigan State basketball season felt like a seesaw?
The Spartans yearn for those days. What’s happening now has the elements of a free fall: Five losses in six games, three straight defeats, Tuesday night’s 86-60 loss at Iowa the worst of them.
MSU got blitzed. But it also looked like a team unable to do anything about it. By late in the second half, the Iowa students were chanting “NIT,” suggesting the Spartans would miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.
That’s still not likely, given MSU’s record (18-9, 9-7 in the Big Ten). The NCAA tournament would need to find 68 other deserving teams, and, if you start to look closely, there are others in worse states. If MSU wins one more game – even Maryland in the home finale – the Spartans are probably in at 19-12 overall, with 10 Big Ten wins, regardless of what happens in the conference tournament. Remember, how a team finishes in its last 10 games is no longer supposed to be part of the equation for picking the NCAA field. Even so, this has too often turned ugly of late.
MSU is a team with two shooting guards who, for a while now, can’t shoot. Freshman Max Christie finished 2-for-11 on Tuesday. Gabe Brown was 0-for-7. Together they were 1-for-9 from beyond the arc in only 44 combined minutes. Brown’s 20 minutes were tied for the second fewest he’s played this season (the fewest when he wasn’t in foul trouble). Christie’s 24 minutes were a season-low for him.
The Spartans are a good free-throw shooting team that doesn’t get to the line. They took four free throws Tuesday. Iowa took 20 and made 18. That’s not officiating. That’s approach. In the Spartans’ five losses in these past six games, they’ve averaged 10 free throws a game. Their opponents have averaged 18.8.
MSU has become a jump-shooting team that doesn’t hit nearly enough jump shots to be that. And it’s a team that doesn’t defend or rebound with enough vigor to keep from getting blown out against good teams in hostile venues.
Izzo said after Tuesday’s loss that changes were likely coming, though declined to specify. It’s not hard to read between the lines.
“We’re having this problem that every time we get (the deficit) to eight or nine, we just take a bad shot, we make a bad turnover, and so we’re going to change some things up probably,” Izzo said “At the same time, I thought we got good play out of both point guards (AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker).”
And later …
“It was (Iowa’s) 3-point shooting (12-for-28, though it seemed worse) and our lack of offensive productivity, and we got it to 10 there and then Marky (Marcus Bingham) is going to go one-on -one from the top of the key (and travel). … We’ve got to fix that. “
I think you’ll see Julius Marble starting. Izzo praised him and sort of bit his tongue with Bingham. Sort of. I’d guess you’ll also see Gabe Brown coming off the bench – a la Travis Trice, when he was struggling during his senior year, though it wasn’t like this.
I don’t know if there are any good answers for this season. The core of this group mostly just needs time, an offseason. But you can’t keep trotting out the same crew in the same order.
This, as Malik Hall said, was “embarrassing,” the 3-point defense especially, he said. I think it was also telling of a team that’s lost some confidence while facing the teeth of its schedule, a team that’s facing a series of All-Big Ten-caliber players – Iowa’s Keegan Murray on Tuesday – and doesn’t have one of its own.
“I think after you lose five out of the last six, you know, if that happens, you’re honestly going to waver a little bit as a team,” Hall said of the Spartans’ psyche.
“We will get better,” Izzo said, wrapping his press conference. “We haven’t quit. We’ll get back.”
2. Talkin ‘Keon Coleman, man
That Keon Coleman played three minutes in the first half Tuesday night spoke to Tom Izzo’s desperation. It also said good things about Coleman – that he was the guy the coaches turned to in that nothing-else-is-working moment. I’m sure Izzo didn’t plan on playing Coleman Tuesday (or this season, for that matter). But with 6:25 left until halftime and the Spartans trailing 37-22, it was Coleman’s turn, tossed into a game going nowhere good, fast. The game, however, wasn’t a lost cause at that point. It was too early for that. Izzo was praying for a spark. Coleman got the call.
Coleman, one of two MSU football players to join the team in January, didn’t register a stat in his exactly three-minute first-half stint – his first stretch of playing time other than at the end of blowouts. It wasn’t for lack of effort. He nearly ran over Tyson Walker going after a defensive rebound. He also nearly had a put-back bucket on the offense end, unable to corral the rebound. He played with energy on both ends and barely touched the ball on offense. In garbage time, he played two more minutes and hit a 3.
Coleman, though, let’s be clear, isn’t the answer this season. But that he was part of Izzo’s search for an answer Tuesday speaks to his strides di lui in practice and, perhaps, the possibility that after next football season, if he plays hoops again, he could find a role.
3. AJ Hoggard’s offseason assignment is clear
There are other issues with MSU’s offense right now before you get to AJ Hoggard. But one of the problems the Spartans’ other players are having in finding room to drive is that the guy defending Hoggard doesn’t respect his jump shot di lui and is helping off of him, sagging into the lane. That happened several times Tuesday night, with Iowa’s Tony Perkins deterring a drive or forcing the pull-up. Max Christie on a couple of occasions looked like he wanted to go, but he could see Perkins waiting. Another time, as MSU swung the ball around quickly, the natural basketball play was to swing it back to Hoggard, the man open at the top of the key. But he’s not a threat from there, so MSU wound up either taking a tougher shot or Hoggard had to reset a stagnant offense that wasn’t moving (another issue).
Hoggard has taken massive strides this season. He’s a tough cover downhill on the drive. We saw that again Tuesday. He’s got 62 assists and just 16 turnovers over the last 10 games. He still commits some painful ones. But fewer of them. He’s got a chance to be a heckuva player the next couple years at MSU. But he needs that jump shot to become serviceable to the point that leaving him open is no longer part of the opponents’ game plan.
Contact Graham Couch at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.