In 19 seasons as Michigan State’s head coach, Tom Izzo has earned a reputation for making sure his teams are ready for any postseason opponent. On Sunday, the Spartans proved there’s a first time for everything, stumbling their way to an ugly 60-54 loss to the seventh-seeded Connecticut Huskies.
The Huskies opened the game on a 12-2 run that set the tone for the entire afternoon, with Michigan State turning the ball over on offense and missing assignments on D. The defense would bounce back, and a tremendous individual effort from Gary Harris propelled the Spartans back into the game, but his 22 points weren't enough to eclipse another 25-point show from UConn superstar Shabazz Napier.
Napier also had six rebounds as the undersized Huskies pulled off another postseason rarity: showing up a Tom Izzo team on the glass. Despite a huge advantage in muscle for its Adreian Payne-led frontcourt, MSU won the rebounding battle by a mere 32-30 margin, not nearly enough of an edge when the Spartans were shooting 39.1 percent from the field.
However, the worst problem by far was Sparty’s inability to hang onto the basketball. You won’t see many teams win after committing 16 turnovers, and Michigan State didn't in this game.
It wasn't just the quantity of turnovers, but the way they were committed: sloppy plays, mental errors and unforced mistakes against a defense that doesn't normally create very many takeaways. The Spartans came out of the locker room like they weren't ready to play, and they continued looking that way for long stretches of what should have been their biggest game of the year.
No MSU player looked more lost than Keith Appling, the senior point guard who’s been battling a wrist injury since early February. Hopelessly overmatched by Napier on offense, Appling recorded just one field goal and two assists (against four turnovers) before fouling out.
For Appling and classmate Adreian Payne, the defeat carries even more heartbreak, as it was their final collegiate game. The duo becomes the first class of four-year seniors in Izzo’s career never to appear in a Final Four, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
Payne put up a fight, but 13 points and nine rebounds was hardly the dominant performance the Spartans needed (or expected) against an opponent without an elite low-post defender.
In a postgame interview on CBS, Izzo didn’t mince words about an offensive performance that was, well, offensive. Of the victorious Huskies, he said, “They deserve everything they got,” adding, “Today, we deserve what we got.”
Izzo's teams usually deserve, and get, quite a bit more when it comes to March Madness. The last time MSU suffered an upset against a team seeded as low as the No. 7 Huskies, it was 2006, when the Spartans were the first victims of the miraculous George Mason team that made the Final Four as an 11th seed.
This kind of implosion was hardly what anyone expected after MSU emerged as champions in the Big Ten tournament. As the Spartans prepare to move on from the disastrous conclusion to a promise-filled postseason, they have plenty of question marks regarding who’s coming back for 2014-15.
According to Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News, two key underclassmen aren't ruling out a return to East Lansing:
Gary Harris says he's not thinking about next year at this point. Branden Dawson said the same.— Matt Charboneau (@mattcharboneau) March 30, 2014
Even if that duo stays at Michigan State, though, the Spartans will be hard-pressed to make another push for the Final Four with Payne and Appling gone. The seniors aren't the only ones who will leave with regrets aplenty after an Elite Eight finish that should have been much more.