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Can Michigan State Avoid Its Usual Mid-Season Lull?
Joey Hauser was visibly frustrated Wednesday night. Multiple times he was beaten for rebounds, had to be subbed out with apparent injuries, and seen shaking his head in disgust. However, when Minnesota head coach Ben Johnson decided he was going to close the game out with a small ball lineup, and Tom Izzo followed suit, Hauser remained on the floor. As a result, he scored the two most important points in a Michigan State 71-69 victory over the Golden Gophers.
A rookie head coach almost pulled off the upset inside the raucous Breslin Center for a couple of reasons. Minnesota may have shot 44% from the field, but twelve offensive rebounds and 17 second chance points kept them within striking distance. Not to mention Michigan State continued to turn the ball over in costly moments.
The win was the biggest scare MSU has had since the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament back in November. Especially when it comes to playing in the Big Ten, the Spartans will take them any way they come. But is this team due for a losing streak? Will an opponent see thier top ten ranking and surprise them? The slate of games and recent history of Tom Izzo led teams, point to those predictions coming true.
The facts do hurt sometimes, and in this case they suggest that the Spartans are due to lose a couple games in the near future.
Last years squad was known for closing the season on a miraculous run to squeak into the NCAA Tournament. Fans probably only remember how crazy the final week of conference play was, because the four game losing streak that featured a 21 day layoff due to COVID in early January was something they would like to forget.
Go back to the pre-pandemic days and the late 2019-2020 version of MSU was the hottest team in the country. They had five consecutive wins under their belt before the tournament was canceled, but also went on an early February skid, losing four out of five.
The Final Four team of 2018-2019 lost three straight in late January after rattling off thirteen victories in a row.
The Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson led 2017-2018 group was the first in recent memory to somewhat avoid this trend. Although they closed the season with twelve straight W’s, a couple of L’s show up in the early January portion of their schedule.
Needless to say Tom Izzo’s players have a knack of finding themselves in a rut around this time of year. Turnovers are an issue this team has learned to overcome, but losing isn’t.
After a home date with Northwestern this weekend, Michigan State will endure its toughest stretch of 2022. Road games against Top-25 ranked Wisconsin and Illinois followed by an underestimated Michigan team are on the docket, and could pose as the time where MSU falls into its usual lull.
How To Stop The Trend
The easy fix would of course to limit turnovers, but the Spartans need to capitalize on what they do best. After Wednesday’s win, Tom Izzo said he was not happy with his teams intensity and on top of that they didn’t score a basket for the final 2:20 of the contest leading up to Joey Hauser’s game winner.
Long stretches of little to no scoring result in leads slipping away and would be wins turning into disappointing loses. To combat that, Michigan State needs to identify its go-to basket getters, and without argument they should be Gabe Brown and Max Christie.
Brown scored a respectable 13 points against the Gophers but the box score tells the story. The senior was 1/5 from three point range, yet made eight free throws on eight attempts. As much as Gabe Brown has impressed with his long range shooting ability, he is also very good at driving the lane and making tough layups. Perhaps the last bit of development he needs is adjusting mid-game to what kind of offense he can create against certain opponents.
As for Christie, he quite frankly looks like he is NBA ready and it is only January. The five star recruit is averaging just above eight field goal attempts every time he suits up, but with the shooting form he possesses that number should be well above ten. Tom Izzo should not hesitate to call more pin down screens for his young player. Even if he isn’t open upon catching the basketball, Christie has the smarts to create space or find a teammate.
Adapt To Survive
It will be crucial for Michigan State to sustain as much momentum in games as possible, not just in the coming weeks, but for the rest of conference play. The Spartans thrive on scoring runs to pull away from their opposition.
Tyson Walker appeared to have finally gotten his team rolling after he scored on consecutive possessions halfway through the second half on Wednesday. But Ben Johnson smartly called a timeout and his Gophers capitalized on a couple turnovers on the other side of it. It also appeared that MSU couldn’t get out in the fast break as much as they usually do, because they couldn’t stop Minnesota on the offensive glass.
Changing the game plan on the fly will be key. Tom Izzo may have made the right move by sticking with the same lineup for the final four minutes of the game, but even then Michigan State won by the skin of their teeth.
A couple of losses doesn’t hurt the Spartan’s chances of making the tournament this year, but who is to say if they find themselves in a hole they can dig themselves out of it? This should be an interesting story to follow with this group in the coming weeks, and if they happen to come out unscathed, the month of March should be even more intriguing.
Follow Alex Mayer on Twitter for more Michigan State Content; @almay_99