Michigan State shows signs of life in victory, but ‘wicked stretch’ awaits

After a 78-71 victory over Indiana, the massive weight on the Spartans’ collective…

Michigan State shows signs of life in victory, but 'wicked stretch' awaits 1

Matt Charboneau
| The Detroit News

The smiles came easy on Saturday afternoon in Bloomington.

It’s something that hasn’t happened around Michigan State’s program in what feels like an eternity. That’s probably overstating things just a bit, but when you’re a team that’s been mired in months of the same sort of frustrating play on a game-by-game basis, as the losses pile up, days feel like months and months feel like entire seasons.

But after a 78-71 victory over Indiana, the massive weight on the Spartans’ collective shoulders felt like it melted, if only for just one day.

“Everybody played for each other,” junior Aaron Henry said. “So, everybody was happy, man, no matter how anybody played. So that was exciting.”

Henry had one of his best games, matching his career high with 27 points, playing and winning in his home state for the first time while his mom and dad were in the stands. That, alone, could have had Henry smiling. But he was just as happy for Joshua Langford and Gabe Brown. It was Langford who missed only one shot and scored eight in a row at one point as Michigan State took control of the game. And it was Brown, who nailed four 3-pointers, who looked like he had shed the effects of a COVID shutdown and looked as loose as ever on the court.

“Gabe and Josh for sure,” Henry said smiling, when asked what he enjoyed most about the victory. “Gabe made some shots and that’s my guy, man. To see him happy, it makes me happy.”

There haven’t been too many days around the Spartans lately where everyone was feeling happy. Even with back-to-back wins recently over Nebraska and Penn State, it didn’t feel like much had changed after a blowout loss to Iowa and a familiar defeat at Purdue when Michigan State played well enough to have a chance to win, but routinely shot itself in the foot when it mattered most.

For one day at Assembly Hall, though, there was a different feeling around the team. There were still some of the same issues — a slow start, way too many casual turnovers, another big man wreaking havoc on the low post — but the Spartans made shots, moved the ball on offense and took advantage of their opportunities to the tune of 52 second-half points.

There was energy. There was life. Something felt different.

Michigan State shows signs of life in victory, but 'wicked stretch' awaits 2


MSU’s Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford, Gabe Brown on beating Indiana

Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford and Gabe Brown helped Michigan State rally in the second half to beat Indiana on Saturday.

The Detroit News

“The one thing we wanted to do is play connected,” Brown said. “That’s what Coach (Tom Izzo) instilled in us today and throughout the past week. He wanted us to be connected, and I felt like that’s one of the things we were.

“We were con nected, we were talking to each other, coming into huddles, not arguing, not doing things like that. I felt like everyone was with the team. Everyone felt like they wanted to be here and wanted to win.”

It’s hard to imagine a team not feeling like that all the time, but when you’ve seen a team get blown out multiple times and fail to find much chemistry for the better part of the last two months, it start to make a lot more sense.

That’s what felt different about Michigan State’s win. Of course, the big question is, what does it mean for the Spartans (11-9, 5-9 Big Ten) moving forward. It will still take a minor miracle to get back in the NCAA Tournament picture, especially considering they’ll play six games in the next two weeks and four games are against teams ranked in the top five in the nation.

That rough stretch starts at home on Tuesday with No. 5 Illinois followed by No. 4 Ohio State at home on Thursday. A trip to Maryland comes on Sunday followed by a final week with a rematch at home with Indiana and back-to-back games with No. 3 Michigan.

Izzo described it as a “wicked stretch,” no less wicked considering the Spartans would need to win at least half of those games, and likely one more than that, to start getting their NCAA hopes up.

It’s a tall task, to say the least.

“I mean, we’re not stupid,” Izzo said. “We’ve dug ourselves the hole of all holes.”

They have, indeed. And there’s a better than decent chance Saturday’s win at Indiana serves as nothing more than a good day in a season that has had far too few of them.

What’s worth watching, though, is whether the Spartans tapped into anything. How often will they return to the four-guard lineup of Henry, Langford, Brown and Rocket Watts that helped spark the win Saturday? Will they determine what bigs are playing well and run with them, like they did at Indiana? Is there something left in the tank?

“One game doesn’t make it all better,” Izzo said. “But I’m proud that nobody gave in. I think a lot of people out there are questioning if they’re quitting on anybody. That’s never going to happen here, and that didn’t happen here.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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