Michigan State is in a weird spot right now.
After starting the season 13-0, the Spartans have now lost three straight games. With No. 7 Maryland coming to town on Saturday, this team is in danger of losing four straight.
Yet if you peel back the layers of what has taken place, the three-game losing streak isn't as bad as it looks on the surface.
Michigan State didn't play well in the first loss against Iowa, but would anyone have beaten Iowa that night? The Hawkeyes are arguably playing better than anyone in college basketball right now, and they drained 10 of 22 threes at the Breslin Center.
The next two losses are harder to justify—neither Wisconsin nor Nebraska will likely end up as an NCAA tournament team—but the Spartans were two makeable Denzel Valentine buzzer-beaters away from a two-game winning streak and the sky remaining in its place in East Lansing.
Those shots didn't fall, and so here we are, with the team that spent four weeks at No. 1 losers of three straight with a losing record in the Big Ten (3-4) and one of the most talented rosters in college basketball headed to town.
Let's go ahead and peel back those layers and see how the Spartans got here.
Confused and Defenseless
On Monday, Tom Izzo spent a good portion of his 31-minute press conference voicing his displeasure and confusion over the new rule changes in college basketball and, ultimately, placing his team's inability to adapt on himself.
"I can't even complain about it anymore they're so adamant about it," Izzo said. "If that's the way it's going to be, then that's the way we've got to play. It is an adjustment for us, and maybe I've been too stubborn to adjust."
This is nothing new for Izzo. He was a vocal opponent of the changes two years ago when officials were calling more fouls while trying to decrease physical play. A similar initiative was put in place this year, as officials are to allow less contact on the ball and off.
The motivation of his recent frustrations was his team getting called for 28 fouls against Wisconsin in a one-point loss.
That was a winnable game for the Spartans, not because Valentine had a good look at what would have been the game-winner, but because Izzo's boys were pretty sharp on the offensive end.
The Spartans had one of their fourth-most efficient offensive performances of the season—scoring 1.24 points per possession, according to KenPom.com—but it's hard to overcome an opponent shooting 36 free throws.
This goes beyond foul trouble in one game. There's a noticeable difference in the defensive performance since Valentine returned to the lineup compared to how the team performed before Valentine's injury, and the numbers jump off the page.
|Michigan State's defensive efficiency|
|Points Allowed||Possessions||Def. Efficiency|
|Before Valentine's injury||683||808||84.5|
|Since Valentine's return||290||266||109.0|
Some weak nonconference opponents can often inflate (or in this case, deflate) those numbers, so let's just pull out the games against major-conference opponents before Valentine was injured. (I took Boston College out of the equation, since BC is the equivalent of a low-major program this season and it evens up the number of games at four apiece.)
|Defensive efficiency against major-conference opponents|
|Points Allowed||Possessions||Def. Efficiency||AdjO rank|
|Before Valentine's injury||256||265||96.6||81.3|
|Since Valentine's return||290||266||109.0||77|
As you can see, I also added the average rank of the opponents' adjusted offensive efficiency, and in terms of opponent strength, this is a pretty fair comparison.
Just like shots are more likely to fall when a team is playing with confidence, a confident team typically guards better, and Michigan State seems to be shaken on the defensive end.
It's not a leap to say there's some sort of mental hurdle that both Izzo and his players have to get over based off their reaction (and frustrations) to how the game has been called.
Take Wednesday's loss to Nebraska, for example. The Spartans adjusted to a frequent whistle in the Wisconsin game by doing everything they could to not foul against the Huskers, and they succeeded—they only notched 14 fouls in the game.
But instead of fouling, the Spartans adjusted by not guarding.
"Those of you watching would say, 'Well, we didn't foul a lot today,'" Izzo told the media after the game. "We got that cause we just said 'Oley.' We just let them drive right to the basket. I got to find a happy medium in there."
The Huskers scored 32 points in the paint, and most of those points came off drives. It was a take 'em attack. They simply spaced the floor and let their drivers go to work.
"Right now, we're missing that lockdown defender and for the most part, depending on who we put him on, it's been Tum [Tum Nairn]," Izzo said of Nairn, who has missed the last two games with a foot injury. "We are missing that lockdown guy right now. I'm playing Denzel a lot of minutes, so he's probably tiring right now, too."
How to guard—or how to guard without fouling—is not the lone Michigan State defensive issue. The Spartans are also having breakdowns in communication, particularly in pick-and-roll coverage, and part of that could be the number of different combinations Izzo has tried to run out. He played 13 different guys in the first half alone against Wisconsin and has run out a different starting lineup in each of the last four games.
"It’s hard to keep changing the lineup, and don't even ask me why I do it," Izzo said after the Nebraska game. "I don’t have a choice right now. It’s hard to do that and let everybody be comfortable."
What About the Offense?
While most of Michigan State's issues are on the defensive end, Valentine's return has also been an adjustment on the offensive end.
In his absence, the Spartans went to much more of an inside attack. Before Valentine got hurt, Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis were taking 11.7 shots per game combined. While he was out, those two averaged 14.3 attempts per game, and that trend has continued since his return—they're averaging 15.5.
"As Denzel said, he comes back in, and all of the sudden we're getting the ball inside more," Izzo said. "If you ask me, he's been kind of tentative."
Sparty's best offense in the nonconference was often putting the ball in Valentine's hands and letting him create. In the comeback against KU, for instance, he scored or assisted on 22 straight points on the run that gave Michigan States its lead.
The fact that the Spartans have added a little bit of diversity to their attack isn't necessarily a bad thing for down the road. Costello is playing the best basketball of his career. Davis is improving rapidly, and he kept the Spartans in the game Wednesday night by beating his man one-on-one in the post.
Adding an inside attack hasn't hurt Michigan State's outside shooting either. In fact, the Spartans are shooting even better from deep since Valentine's return than before his injury.
|Michigan State's 3-point shooting before and after Valentine injury|
|Before Valentine injury||99||255||38.8|
|Since Valentine's return||33||77||42.9|
MSU even made 11 of 18 threes against Nebraska, and that was with the team's best shooter, Bryn Forbes, going 1-of-5 from deep and missing some shots he usually drains.
Letting Valentine create more would not be a bad thing, but it's not like the way the Spartans are currently operating on the offensive end isn't working. They're getting good shots and shooting well. It's their defense that has mostly failed them.
How to Get Right
The bad news for the Spartans is that it's not exactly ideal to face the most talented team in the Big Ten when they're in desperate need of just getting a W. On top of that, the Terps can feast on all their major weaknesses right now.
Maryland has the best take 'em guard in the Big Ten in Melo Trimble. Mark Turgeon can simply copy and paste Nebraska's game plan. The Terps are also dangerous at the line if the Spartans convert back to their Wisconsin defense. Maryland shoots 76.1 percent from the free-throw line, and Diamond Stone is making his living there in the Big Ten—Stone has made 45 of 54 free throws in seven conference games.
But if there's a silver lining to Saturday's matchup, it's this: What better way to gain confidence than beating one of the best teams in the country? And the Spartans are at home.
Things look pretty doom and gloom right now, but the core of this team experienced last season when MSU was 19-10 at one point and ended up playing in the Final Four.
This is a good team that just needs to relearn how to guard and get its confidence back. That Tom Izzo fella seems to be a pretty good coach, and this roster is more talented than last year's.
Win or lose on Saturday, and in spite of their recent struggles, I wouldn't write off the Spartans.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.