A COVID Outbreak and Poor Conference Play have put the Spartans in Unfamiliar Territory
With a pandemic sweeping the nation, you could say every college basketball team is having an unprecedented season. For Michigan State however, what makes 2021 even more strange is the fact they are crawling their way to the finish line. Every college hoops fan knows March brings the NCAA tournament, which the Spartans have been a write-in for for years. In fact, Tom Izzo’s team has made the postseason 25 straight years. The veteran coach has been so successful during this time of the year you can buy T-shirts that say “January, February, Izzo, April.”
Michigan State basketball currently has an overall record of 9-7 with all of their losses coming within the Big Ten. Their resume is not one to be proud of. They have lost by 25 at the hands of Minnesota, 30 at Rutgers, and 17 at Ohio State. Throw in a 1-point home loss to Purdue in which they held a 15-point lead at half time, and MSU has one of their worst starts to conference play in recent memory. As a result, the back-to-back-to-back Big Ten regular season champs are on the outside looking in. How did they get here? What could they possibly do to squeak into the tournament?
It Takes More Than One
Previous Michigan State teams have had a pretty simple plan to success; surround a star player with multiple, serviceable role players. The last two seasons the star was Cassius Winston and his sidekick was Xavier Tillman. Winston is now a member of the Washington Wizards and Tillman resides with the Memphis Grizzlies, which leaves junior forward, Aaron Henry to be the leader of this years squad. The Indiana native for the most part has filled that role. Henry can guard an opponents best player and get your team a bucket when it needs it most. The only problem is none of his teammates are helping him.
Sophomore Rocket Watts exploded into the college basketball scene last season as a freshman when he recorded multiple 20-point games in the Spartans run to close out 2020. The guard from Detroit is averaging 2 turnovers per game this year and his field goal percentage is an abysmal 35%. Watts has struggled to find a role on the floor, as he has spent time at point guard and the wing. College basketball players usually see their biggest jump in performance from their freshman to sophomore year, but Rocket has flatlined.
Joey Hauser came into the 2021 campaign with a lot of hype after sitting all last year. The transfer from Marquette brought his talents to East Lansing to provide a scoring punch alongside Aaron Henry and Watts. It seemed like Hauser was going to be that third option at the beginning of the season when he posted a career high 27 points in a Christmas Day game against Wisconsin. Since then however, he has recorded 10 or more points only twice. If Joey isn’t in foul trouble he is struggling with turnovers. If he isn’t struggling with turnovers he is missing shots. The key for winning games down the stretch for Michigan State basketball is going to be finding ways to get Hauser and Watts back to their normal selves.
Turnovers, Turnovers, and More Turnovers
Michigan State basketball leads the Big Ten conference in turnovers by averaging 14 a game. Not much more needs to be said. Tom Izzo coached teams consistently turn the ball over 10 or more times a game and this season it is catching up to them. Aaron Henry averages 3.0 a game and Joey Hauser adds in another 2.0. MSU’s ability to facilitate the ball well does not outweigh their knack for giving away possession to their opponents.
The Spartans are in the bottom tier of their conference when it comes to scoring. Any basketball fan can tell you it is hard to score when you don’t have the ball which is exactly what is happening to MSU. A combination of foul trouble and lack of creativity in Izzo’s offensive plays are all causing this teams turnover epidemic.
With contests against Iowa, Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan still left on the docket, taking care of the basketball should be on the top of their priority list. The Spartans have learned a lot this season that turning the ball over can put a team out of a ball game quickly. To make it to March Madness they need to keep themselves competitive in games all the way through the Big Ten tournament. Winning out the season will be virtually impossible, so MSU has to give the selection committee some alternative’s. The reality for Michigan State is March came early this year. If they approach the rest of their games like a win-or-go-home situation, they may just slip into the big dance.