Perhaps the easiest thing to do this college basketball season is to make a list of things that in past years would have bewildered everyone in the sport.
And then there’s the sputtering blue bloods, with Michigan State’s problems perhaps the most perplexing of the bunch.
What? The struggles at Duke and Kentucky should count as bigger puzzles? Not really, for two reasons. Both programs have relied so heavily on freshmen on a nearly annual basis for more than a decade, and with less time on campus before the season coupled with more restrictions on how teams could practice, a lack of cohesion wasn’t stunning.
It was also obvious fairly early that both programs weren’t in their traditional perches. Kentucky (5-11, 4-5 SEC) lost six consecutive games between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day and hasn’t climbed out of its hole. Duke (7-6, 5-4 ACC) was outmatched in December home games against Michigan State and Illinois and is 1-4 in ACC road games.
As for Michigan State, its 75-69 victory in Durham, N.C., on Dec. 1 isn’t quite as valuable as everyone assumed it would be. Yet it was still part of a 6-0 start for the Spartans, who figured to be a good bet to mix it up with the loaded top half of the Big Ten in January and February.
Why? Tom Izzo’s bunch brought back four of the six players who were at least semiregular starters. The Spartans did face two major departures — point guard Cassius Winston and interior presence Xavier Tillman — but were set to add a transfer (Marquette’s Joey Hauser) and get Joshua Langford back from injury. Michigan State appeared well-equipped to avoid an extended dip.
It just hasn’t happened. Michigan State (8-7, 2-7) has dropped four in a row and seven of its past nine. There is no shortage of reasons for the Spartans’ problems.
The pause: Like so many other programs, Michigan State endured a midseason stoppage. There’s no ideal time for one, but the Spartans had recovered from an 0-3 Big Ten start to defeat Nebraska and Rutgers before dropping a one-point decision to Purdue. Sitting at 2-4 wasn’t ideal, but Michigan State was definitely playing better when things were halted. The Spartans would go 20 days between games, having three contests postponed and losing continuity in the process.
The schedule: Michigan State has played six of its nine conference games on the road, and the imbalance developed immediately after its return. The Spartans lost by 30 at Rutgers (the Scarlet Knights’ most lopsided conference victory since 2004) and by 17 at Ohio State before acquitting themselves better in an 84-78 loss at Iowa on Tuesday in a makeup game. The schedule excuse should fade away over the next eight days. Michigan State gets its next three at home, with Nebraska (which visits the Breslin Center on Saturday for its first game since Jan. 10), Penn State and Iowa coming to East Lansing.
Interior defense: This isn’t to let Michigan State’s three-point defense off the hook, because in aggregate it isn’t as sharp as usual. But when you think of Izzo’s tenure, an uncompromising approach to man-to-man defense and a rugged ethos are among the first things to come to mind along with all the Final Four trips and the 2000 national championship. This season’s Spartans do not evoke such thoughts. Opponents are shooting 48.2 percent from two-point range, which would be Michigan State’s worst performance since 2003-04, according to KenPom.com.
The game-by-game numbers are even more sobering. In all seven of its losses, Michigan State allowed opponents to shoot 50 percent or better from inside the arc. Admittedly, things were worse during the 0-3 start (all three foes shot at least 56.7 percent from two) than during the current four-game skid.
The offense: This is an even more lasting problem and easily the toughest fix for Izzo over the next six weeks. The pause didn’t help, but Michigan State already had some shooting woes and a few too many turnovers even before going on hiatus for three weeks. The Spartans are 65th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric; they’ve finished outside the top 40 just four times since 1997-98 — 43rd in 2003 (when they went 22-13), 49th in 2007 (23-12), 73rd in 2011 (19-15) and 58th in 2017 (20-15). Not exactly the Spartans at their best, though the ’03 team made a run to the Elite Eight.
Michigan State is 227th in two-point percentage, which would be its worst in the KenPom era (since 1996-97). It is 178th in three-point shooting percentage, its worst since 2000-01 (a Final Four team with elite abilities on defense and on the offensive glass).
There are some solid pieces. Aaron Henry is averaging a team-best 13.9 points, Hauser is collecting 11.2 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds an outing, and Langford is delivering 9.3 points. But none of them are outrageously efficient.
Michigan State has been left for dead before; just last season, it was 9-6 in the Big Ten and unranked, and it rattled off five consecutive victories to claim a share of the conference regular season title.
But this seems a bit different. While the Spartans could shrug off the past month and make a push, it’s a real possibility they sit out the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997. In good times or bad, that would be a strange development.
Six to watch Saturday
No. 10 Alabama at No. 18 Missouri (noon, ESPN): Alabama (15-4, 10-0 SEC) is on the verge of running away with the regular season conference title. With a victory over the Tigers (12-3, 5-3), the only other SEC team with less than four league losses, the Crimson Tide should probably start clearing space in the trophy case. Both teams are coming off meaningful victories: Alabama completed a sweep of LSU, while Missouri scored a rare victory over Kentucky.
St. Bonaventure at Saint Louis (2 p.m., CBS Sports Network): On the short list of teams most derailed by pandemic pauses, Saint Louis sits near the top of the list. The Billikens were 7-1 when things were halted just before Atlantic 10 play but have dropped back-to-back games to Dayton and La Salle since resuming their season after a nearly five-week break. Now the Atlantic 10-leading Bonnies (9-1, 7-1) arrive to potentially deliver another blow to Saint Louis’s fading NCAA tournament at-large hopes.
No. 19 Wisconsin at No. 12 Illinois (2:30 p.m., Fox): Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Big Ten is deep, but Wisconsin (14-5, 8-4) has been startlingly mediocre of late, going 6-4 over its past 10 games. The Badgers have some useful road victories (at Rutgers and Maryland), but they could stand to pick off an Illinois bunch that has rattled off three victories in a row. Ayo Dosunmu has 10 games of at least 20 points for the Illini (12-5, 8-3), but he was held to a season-low 10 in an overtime triumph at Indiana on Tuesday.
No. 6 Texas at Oklahoma State (3 p.m., ABC): The Longhorns (11-4, 5-3 Big 12) have had their virus issues, and this will be their first week with multiple games since Jan. 13 and 16. They’ve dropped three of four, including a home loss to No. 2 Baylor on Tuesday, and will try to complete a season sweep of the Cowboys (11-5, 4-5). Oklahoma State is coming off its second loss to TCU this season.
North Carolina at Duke (6 p.m., ESPN): Sorry, force of habit here. If ever there was going to be a year when few or no fans could attend Duke-Carolina games, this is probably a good one. North Carolina (11-6, 6-4 ACC) had a three-game winning streak snapped Tuesday at Clemson, and it will make the trip up U.S. 15/501 to deal with a Duke team struggling to remain above .500. The Blue Devils surprisingly stumbled at Miami on Monday.
No. 21 UCLA at Southern California (10 p.m., ESPN): The crosstown rivals are also the top teams in the Pac-12, and they’ll meet for the first time this season in what might be the most interesting matchup of the weekend. The host Trojans (14-3, 8-2) continue to receive superb sibling production from Evan and Isaiah Mobley, and they’ve won nine of 10 since the calendar flipped to 2021. UCLA (13-3, 9-1) is undefeated in nine home games this season.
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