Fans of the 13-10 Michigan State Spartan basketball team are reaching a breaking point.
Following a 72-52 thrashing by the lowly Iowa Hawkeyes and an even larger defeat at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers, the program has reached a low point which hasn’t been seen in decades.
The Spartans are now tied for fifth in the Big Ten standings with a sub .500 conference record of 5-6. How is it that a team which many experts believed had a legitimate shot at a third straight Final Four bid before the season has slowly proven to be nothing more than mediocre?
Perhaps this atypical output can be traced back to some of the offseason issues that Tom Izzo and his team faced following their semifinal defeat at the hands of Gordon Hayward and the Butler Bulldogs.
At one point in time over the summer, it appeared that Izzo, having already proven his excellence at the collegiate level, was poised to finally make the jump into the professional ranks with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This speculation was largely overwhelmed by the Lebron James saga, which ultimately resulted in King James leaving Cleveland for South Beach in one of the most memorable offseason moves in NBA history.
Sensing that the Cavaliers organization may be poised to take a drastic downturn in the wake of James’ departure (like setting the all-time losing streak record), Izzo instead returned home to East Lansing to coach a talented Spartan squad returning many key pieces from the previous season.
This decision washed a wave of relief over the city of East Lansing, but what many failed to realize was that the damage had already been done. Who could have predicted that the Cavaliers' owner, Dan Gilbert, would be texting Izzo "hang in there" messages at this point in the season?
One of the keys to Izzo’s overwhelming success at MSU over his 15-year career has been his inherent ability to connect with his players both on and off the court.
He has repeatedly taken teams with mediocre, local talent and won more consistently in the NCAA Tournament than any other coach in the nation over that span. He maintains the astounding statistic that every single four-year player has made a trip to the Final Four while wearing the green and white, one of the most impressive feats in men's college basketball coaching history.
This ability to repeatedly bring the very best out of his young men may be Izzo’s greatest strength, and it all works, in large part, due to the connection and bond he creates with all of his players.
By nearly taking the job with the Cavaliers over the summer it appears that this bond has, for the most part, been severed with this year's team.
The Spartans have looked dysfunctional, erratic and downright unskilled at times this season. They have displayed a sense of mental detachment that is typically the complete opposite of everything Michigan State basketball represents. Senior Kalin Lucas, Big Ten Player of the Year in 2008, has appeared to have lost his killer instinct following an Achilles injury suffered in last year's NCAA tournament.
Many expected Lucas to make another run at the honor he received his sophomore year, yet he has sputtered in his recovery, leaving many fans wishing for the Kalin of old. The once high-flying Durrell Summers has repeatedly settled for mid-range jump shots and three-pointers rather than attacking the basket with the aggressiveness that brought fans to their feet during MSU's last two tournament runs.
Both Lucas and Summers have appeared sluggish and unmotivated and have lowered their draft stock significantly. Draymond Green, another preseason Big Ten POY candidate and arguably the Spartans' most talented all around player, has been plagued by foul trouble and untimely scoring droughts and at times has shown frustration mirroring that of the fans watching at home.
The Spartans have consistently been outrebounded by opponents, a category typically the greatest strength of Izzo’s teams.
These uncharacteristic attributes have illustrated a clear lack of cohesiveness since the season began, and the Spartans have shown little ability to improve as the season has progressed.
This list of disappointments has piled up throughout the season with few bright spots along the way.
The surprisingly poor effort has left many Spartan fans checking the recruiting board at a time when they would typically be gloating over Andy Katz's tournament projections. This list of incoming freshmen is one of the few promising aspects left this season with highly touted recruits such as Branden Dawson (Gary, IN) and Dwaun Anderson (Suttons Bay, MI) committed to next year's campaign.
While it is highly likely that Izzo will regain his connection with this squad as these youngsters, as well as freshman Keith Appling, progress through the program, it appears that this year is destined to be one of the most underachieving in Spartan history.