Tom Izzo is college basketball coaching royalty and his Michigan State basketball teams have been one of the best programs in the country for as long as most of us can remember. However, what we’ve witnessed this season could very well be a program in decline.
No Draymond Green-like player, no Mateen Cleaves…basically, it’s a team with some nice parts but no stand out leader who can get them over the hump in the difficult games. MSU has lost five of its seven games after leading or being within one possession in the final minute.
If that doesn’t speak to a lack of killer instinct and pure leadership, I don’t know what does. That’s not to say this team doesn’t have talent, because it does. Both forward Branden Dawson and guard Travis Trice are individually great, but as a team they just can’t get over the final hurdle.
Saturday’s loss is perhaps the most puzzling of them all. Dawson pulled down a crazy 18 rebounds for the second time this season, and for the second time this season his team lost after he did that.
The Spartans also had an incredible 24-5 lead in offensive rebounds against a Nebraska team that actually started some size up front for this contest.
Izzo-coached teams of the past would never have wasted that kind of day on the glass. Rather than a two-point loss, Michigan State teams of the past would’ve mopped the floor with the opposition and likely won by a 20-plus point margin.
That’s not how this team is built though, and it’s been a problem for this team all season. So has been putting together consistent effort during a single game, something Trice admitted to following the game.
“They hit some tough shots and got some of their guys going early,” Trice said, via the AP. “If we play the way we did the last eight, seven minutes of the game, we wouldn’t have had a problem.”
Even more telling is the fact that MSU has gone from winning all four of the first four meetings between these schools as Big Ten institutions, to a two-game losing streak in the series.
What happened on Saturday is somehow the Spartans allowed Nebrasketball to go in to full effect, building a 14-point lead at the half and eventually a 17-point lead early in the second half.
Star Nebraska guard Terran Petteway poured in a game-high 32 points in the win, but that just illustrates how bad things have gotten. However, it isn’t the first time that’s happened, as Michigan State has given up 30 points to an opposing player in each of the last two years (Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark had 32 last season).
With three losses already on the Big Ten season and seven overall before coming out of January this team has some serious work ahead of it to become a contender. The Spartans still have two games against Michigan and single contests with Indiana and Wisconsin on the road left to play. Not to mention two games against a tricky Illinois team and hosting Ohio State too.
Given the schedule ahead and the losses already suffered, one has to ask the question of whether or not this team is in danger of doing the unthinkable at Michigan State — missing the NCAA tournament.
When was the last time that happened, right? Well, the answer is 1997. Yes, this team has made the NCAA tournament every year for 17-straight seasons.
Don’t get me wrong, the Spartans could still well make this year’s tournament and likely will, but with seven losses overall and three in Big Ten competition before even hitting the meat of the schedule there’s a real chance this team could be in some trouble down the road.
In 2014-15 the Spartans’ can point to wins over Marquette and newly hot Indiana as the “big” wins on its schedule. Those wins aren’t exactly going to move the needle when Selection Sunday comes around.
It isn’t just the on-court results either, Michigan State has been declining in the world of recruiting as well.
Sure, the group of Matt Costello, Garry Harris, Kenny Kaminsky and Denzel Valentine gave the Spartans the No. 12-ranked class of the 2012 recruiting cycle, but it’s a group that really hasn’t lived up to the overall hype of such a lofty ranking (outside of Harris who left early for the NBA).
However, each of the two classes following that haul have shot down the rankings, with the 2013 class ranking No. 74 (just two 3-star players signed) and the 2014 class ranking No. 50 nationally.
The problem isn’t totally in the rankings, it is in the fact that Michigan State has suffered big name losses earlier than expected and have been unable to replace them thanks to those lower-regarded recruiting classes.
It’s hard to argue that those lower rankings haven’t come to bare on the court either, as none of the five players in those two classes have become key contributors to a team in need of depth and that extra-something special when the game is on the line.
The good news is that mojo could be back in short order, as the Spartans have the No. 13-ranked class of the 2015 recruiting cycle. It also finally has another 5-star player in the fold, as in-state star Deyonta Davis is committed and he’ll be joined by at least two players within the top 153 of the country according to 247Sports.
While it may be premature to say the Spartans are in some serious trouble, it does feel like something is missing from the program. Between the decline in recruiting rankings and finding ways to lose games this program seemingly always won in the past, it does feel like some of the old Spartan mojo is slipping away.
Can one great class turn this program around? Time will tell, but there’s little question the 2015 recruiting class is going to be make or break for the Spartans hopes of climbing back to the top of the Big Ten mountain.