Tom Izzo has done so much more with so much less. In what was supposed to be a breakthrough season, with arguably the best team to take the Breslin Center floor since the 2000 national championship squad, Michigan State is reeling through early-season mediocrity.
Through 20 games, the Spartans are sitting with a 12-7 record, 4-3 in the Big Ten, and come Monday may be out of the Top 25 rankings. They started the year ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Yes, six of their seven losses are to ranked opponents, but it’s the way in which the Spartans have lost those games that is worrisome.
Double-digit home losses to Syracuse and Texas. Disheartening road losses at Illinois, unranked Penn State, and most recently Purdue. Not to mention, had Oakland University made half its free throws, the mid-major Golden Grizzlies would have downed Michigan State at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Spartan optimist will point out that it isn’t March yet. It’s not November, either.
If Michigan State is simply going to flip a switch and fix all its problems, as it has done in the past, Izzo and the Spartans had better do so soon. The Spartans’ most NBA-ready player, Durrell Summers, is in a shooting slump colder than the East Lansing wind chill. Senior point guard Kalin Lucas is back to the poor leadership characteristics that landed him on the bench earlier in his career. Delvon Roe is continuing his unfriendly relationship with layups and Korie Lucious is firing up ill-advised shots as if it’s his favorite hobby.
Michigan State does have three very winnable games ahead, home against Michigan and Indiana and at Iowa, which could create the momentum needed to make a late-season run at the Big Ten title and an ensuing deep run in the NCAA tournament. The Spartans have done it before, and if they do it again, these early-season struggles will be forgotten.
In a way, that’s Izzo’s thing. Struggle through a brutal non-conference schedule, lose some games they shouldn’t in conference play, and then shut everybody up by reaching the Final Four.
But the Spartans have had their share of failures too.
First-round tournament losses to the likes of Nevada, North Carolina State, and George Mason with a blowout second-round loss to North Carolina in 2007. All came after Michigan State stumbled through inconsistent regular seasons.
Michigan State’s next game Thursday, against Michigan at the Breslin Center, has major implications. Not because it would be a reassuring or big win for the Spartans, but because a loss could create a potentially devastating snowball effect.
With how strong the Big Ten is this season, top to bottom, a 20-win season is by no means a guarantee for Sparty. Even with the expanded NCAA tournament format, there is a chance an under 20-win team which loses early in its conference tournament gets left out of the Big Dance all together.
Whether it’s taking a sledgehammer to an old game tape, having Mateen Cleaves come in for an inspiration speech, or bringing back the helmets and shoulder pads, if Izzo truly has a magic switch that turns his team from inconsistent to clutch, he’d better use it now.