A third consecutive loss at home on Tuesday against Purdue dropped the Michigan State Spartans to 12-9 overall on the season and an even 4-4 in conference play. It prompted head coach Tom Izzo to basically tell off MSU fans on their concern and displeasure over how the team has been playing as of late.
Another loss however putting them in a precarious position raises the question that is uncharted waters for Michigan State – are they really in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament?
In the eyes of many, their streak of 19 straight seasons dancing in March is absolutely in jeopardy. That string of tournament appearances if the third-longest active streak in Division I and the fifth-longest all-time. Actively, only Kansas (27 straight) and Duke (21) have appeared in more tournaments consecutively. For Izzo in particular, his named is etched into that entire streak, which puts him fourth all-time among college basketball coaches in consecutive tournament appearances, second only to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski actively.
This year’s team in particular is a tough one to figure out at times. There’s a number of areas this team is lacking in that one would see as a strength in the prototypical Spartan teams of the past. They are not nearly the rebounding force that fans have grown accustomed to seeing from them. Sure, they’re still in the positive at +2.8 per game, but that’s good for middle of the pack in the conference. MSU has always found themselves as one of the best board-crashing teams in the entire country. It often leads to second chances and putting themselves on the free throw line.
And speaking of those freebies, MSU is downright terrible at knocking those down this season. We’re 21 games in and the 63.7 percent shooting from the stripe is second-worst in the league, only Rutgers has a lower mark. This aspect is incredibly both painful and confusing. The team is literally giving away free points on the board, a team coached by a man who will shoot dozens of free throws himself during practices. And if one watches games, there’s little to nothing wrong physically or mechanically with the team’s shooting. Everyone has the form down, it’s all mental.
That free throw shooting can be a key reason, if not the reason, holding them back from a few extra wins. Just looking back on their last three games, all losses. MSU as a team during this recent stretch is 35/53, or 66 percent, from the charity stripe. Their opponents – Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue – is a combined 48 of 60, or 80 percent. Two of the losses (OSU, IU) are by single-digits in games where the field goal shooting was roughly even on both sides. And Tuesday’s tilt against Purdue was fairly even until the Boilermakers pulled away late in the second half.
The recent close losses can also be attributed to poor execution of defending the three-point line. In the last three games, MSU’s opponents are putting up 20+ attempts from behind the arc and knocking down at least ten of them. Sparty has not been bad in that area either, 28/61 (45.9 percent), but those couple extra made 3’s from their opposition coupled with the free throw mishaps are resulting in tough losses.
Tough, close losses have been somewhat a recurring theme for MSU this season. Of their nine defeats, six of them are by ten or fewer points. And really, there has only been one game, maybe two, where MSU was out of it from the very beginning. They got manhandled by Kentucky in the second game of the season at Madison Square Garden. And in a 15-point loss to Baylor down in the Bahamas, they were a -18 in the second half.
Then comes the scheduling. It’s a staple of Izzo-led MSU teams, scheduling tough early on as way of prepping for conference play and entering March. However, this year has been different. Izzo has admittedly regretted setting up a brutal schedule for a team filled with inexperienced freshman and a lack of true upperclassman leadership. Sure, the team has gotten what was advertised (for the most part) from superstar Miles Bridges and an emergence of fellow freshman and big man Nick Ward. But collectively, the jury is out on whether or not it is a tournament-caliber team.
Just looking back on some of their prominent games against top-tier opponents, they have losses to the current No. 4 (Kentucky), No. 5 (Baylor), No. 7 (Arizona), No. 17 (at Duke) and No. 20 (Purdue) teams in the country, according to the AP polls. One could, in theory, count Indiana as a ranked team. Not in the polls currently, the Hoosiers were once in the top 3. They have a road loss at Ohio State and (effectively) a road loss against Penn State at The Palestra. Road games in conference play are never a gimme, no matter how strong a team is. The only truly ‘bad’ loss they have is at home against Northeastern back in December.
At the same time, it’s a challenge finding quality wins on their resumé – vs. Wichita State in the Bahamas? The perennial mid-major power is 18-4 this year. A sweep against an improved Minnesota club? The Gophers are 15-5 (3-4 Big Ten), and another win for them means doubling their win total from a year ago. And as it stands, the home win against the Gophers is MSU’s only win against a ranked team this season. They do also have a wins at home against Northwestern and Oakland. These are all solid wins, but are they really statement victories in the eyes of the Selection Committee?
When it comes to scheduling, Michigan State is always going to get the benefit of the doubt. Currently, they have the 7th-highest strength of schedule in the country, according to CBS Sports. In terms of bracket projections, a number of the major outlets are struggling to pinpoint the Spartans. CBS Sports’ Bracketology expert Jerry Palm has MSU on the outside looking in, among the ‘First 4 Out’ grouping. That’s updated through Tuesday’s slate of games. Meanwhile, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi tabs MSU as a 7-seed currently, and that is as of this past Monday, January 23.
There’s ten games left in the regular season, plus the Big Ten Tournament. Up next for the Spartans is a date at home against in-state rival Michigan (13-7, 3-4 Big Ten) this Sunday, January 29. They actually play Michigan two times in their next three games, traveling to Ann Arbor on February 7. Sandwiched in between that is a trip to Lincoln to play Nebraska (9-10, 3-4 Big Ten), who, despite having lost four straight overall, has picked up league wins at Indiana and at Maryland earlier in the year. MSU still has games at Purdue (02/18), home vs. No. 15 Wisconsin (02/26) and at Maryland (03/05).
It’s a steep climb for sure. While it’s unfamiliar territory for the Spartans, it’s not completely foreign to them. They entered the dance as a 10-seed back in 2011 after finishing 19-14 on the year, ultimately losing in the first round. And then just two seasons ago, they waltzed to the Final Four as a 7-seed.
The Selection Committee, headed by MSU athletic director Mark Hollis of all people, will surely have their hands full come Selection Sunday on what to do with the Spartans.
**Stats and team information comes courtesy of Big Ten, CBS Sports, ESPN and Sports-Reference