| The Detroit News
It’s hard to look at Michigan State and wonder what the Spartans have left to play for at this point.
It’s hard because of the seven games remaining, every one of them is against teams in the top 50 in the NET rankings and three of them — Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois — are with teams in the top six.
When you need to win four to five of those games to even begin to think about the NCAA Tournament, it’s daunting, to say the least.
But for a team that’s won four times in the last two months, that hardly seems realistic.
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What’s truly hard is to realize the Spartans are out of it, the 22-year NCAA Tournament streak all but gone, a stunning turnaround over the next couple of weeks needed to change those fortunes. It’s not a position Michigan State has been in often. In fact, most players on the current roster weren’t alive the last time the Spartans failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.
With a little more than two weeks left in the regular season, the Spartans aren’t playing for what’s next, at least not this season. It’s been a different year, to say the least, but seeing Michigan State near the bottom of the Big Ten standings is jarring.
“Things aren’t pretty right now,” junior Aaron Henry admitted after Tuesday’s loss at Purdue. “We’re supposed to win games, but now it’s just how will we respond? We’ll be able to think back about times like this in life when times weren’t good. Did we continue to fight or do we just fold?”
Outside of a couple of times this season — namely, last Saturday in a 30-point loss at home to Iowa — the fight has been there. Even with their shortcomings, the Spartans have gotten after it most nights.
“We battled them,” Izzo said on Tuesday night.
Still, it’s not enough for this team.
There are a lot of reasons why, most of which have been talked about all season.
The Spartans entered the season trying to replace one of the best point guards in program history with a shooting guard that didn’t have a summer to work on it. Rocket Watts has struggled mightily trying to make that transition and was hampered Tuesday by the stomach flu. Junior Foster Loyer has never developed as Izzo and his staff hoped, and now Michigan State is relying on freshman A.J. Hoggard.
That helped lead to Michigan State turning the ball over 11 times in the second half, including three in the final 1:30.
“Part of that was the fault of I just didn’t have a point guard I could get it to,” Izzo said. “I tried to put Aaron in that position and we just haven’t worked as much on it. But I’m telling you, we fought, we did a lot of good things. We had some plays the ball just didn’t bounce our way and give them credit, they found a way to win.”
The center position also continues to torment Izzo and the staff.
Marcus Bingham was in early foul trouble, limiting his playing time, but sophomore Julius Marble had one of his best games and freshman Mady Sissoko had his best stretch in the first half, scoring five points and grabbing four rebounds while making it tough on Purdue big man Trevion Williams.
But with the game on the line in the final six-plus minutes, junior Thomas Kithier was on the court. It didn’t go well, and by the time Marble checked back in, Michigan State was fighting from behind again.
At this point, it would seem giving Marble and Sissoko more minutes would be wise, especially with Sissoko, who has a high ceiling.
“Mady is one of my favorite guys and what he does is he has some energy,” Izzo said. “He’s going to play more, I promise you that, because he did do some good things. He just wasn’t … we were switching some things (on defense), and it was a little more difficult for him.”
But changes at the center spot won’t turn the season around, and improvement at point guard might come, but with two weeks left, it’s also not enough to change this team’s fortunes.
And that brings it all back to what Michigan State (10-9, 4-9 Big Ten) is playing for with seven games left. For Henry, it’s pretty simple.
“Nothing is gonna change with me, it’s not gonna stop with me,” Henry said. “I’m always pushing my guys and no matter who’s having the worst night, I’m always trying to pick their head up and ask them to carry on because these times don’t last forever. Basketball is a game, and this is a small part of our lives and we’re so dedicated to it. So we have to try to learn in moments like these when adversity hits, because we care so much about the game, you gotta look at the big picture.”
That picture isn’t pretty, as Henry described. It’s also not normal at Michigan State.
The Spartans likely won’t be making any tournament runs this season, but the fight Henry talked about will be there.
“I wouldn’t let anybody on the court that still doesn’t want to fight,” Henry said.
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