Michigan State lost at Nebraska on Saturday.
You might not think that’s too big a deal. After all, Michigan State lost at home to the Huskers a season ago, and not only made the NCAA tournament, but gained a No. 4 seed and eventually progressed to the Elite Eight. This is a Tom Izzo team. The Spartans play in the Big Ten. They’re still a good bet to make the Big Dance, right?
Welllllllllllllll… not exactly.
Michigan State certainly has a legitimate chance to make the NCAA tournament, but participation in America’s favorite bracketed tournament is not the sure thing some might think it is. If you follow a college basketball season in a casual manner before the month of March, you need to know that the Spartans are in real trouble… enough that it should get your attention.
First things first: Michigan State didn’t merely lose to Nebraska on Saturday. The Spartans lost to the Huskers despite the fact that Nebraska had little to offer in the way of low-post defense and rebounding. One starting big man, David Rivers, suffered an injury on Thursday and could not play. NU’s other starting big man, power forward Walter Pitchford, was ejected four minutes into the game for throwing (and landing) an elbow toward Michigan State’s Matt Costello.
A clear-cut NCAA tournament team — not in terms of resume, but in terms of raw quality — would have exposed Nebraska’s relatively thin bench and short rotation. The Huskers — without Rivers and Pitchford — lacked a particularly muscular presence near the rim and in the low post. Nebraska coach Tim Miles made star guard Terran Petteway play all 40 minutes while distributing playing time among only six other players once Pitchford was tossed.
Yet, Michigan State couldn’t parlay that advantage into consistent offense. The Spartans produced a 24-5 advantage on the offensive glass, yet shot only 41 percent for the game. Branden Dawson collected eight offensive rebounds for MSU, yet made only four field goals on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Spartans allowed Nebraska to hit 49 percent of its shots. Michigan State committed six more turnovers and was outshot at the foul line by 12 attempts (37-25) and 14 makes (29 for Nebraska, 15 for MSU).
The game was decided by only two points (79-77, Nebraska), but it really wasn’t that close. Michigan State scrambled late to inject some drama into the proceedings, but it never had a good chance of winning. It intercepted a pass in its own backcourt with under two seconds left, down two, but wasn’t able to get a remotely good look at the basket. This, against a team missing two frontline starters. Michigan State is too limited at too many positions, something it certainly didn’t have to worry about a season ago, when Izzo could put Gary Harris and Adreian Payne on the floor to complement Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine.
The foremost reason the Spartans are in tournament trouble is that they’re just not that good at the moment.
However, that’s not the only reason. MSU is being squeezed for a reason that wasn’t immediately anticipated when last season ended: The Big Ten is not as strong as it has been over the past few seasons.
Michigan is an NIT team right now. Ohio State is currently lower on the food chain (also known as the seed list) than it was last season, though Thad Matta usually makes a run in February to shore up his squad in Columbus. Iowa’s loss to Purdue makes life a little more difficult for the Hawkeyes, relative to the bubble. Nebraska is desperately trying to return to the Dance, but has an uphill climb ahead. Minnesota and Illinois have regressed relative to last season. Purdue has not made the improvements it had hoped to attain.
All of this means that a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big Ten — if not including multiple wins over top teams (Wisconsin, Maryland, Indiana) — is no guarantee of a Dance card.
Here’s the more precise problem for Michigan State: Of the Spartans’ next eight games, only one is against a probable NCAA tournament team (Ohio State on Feb. 14). Rutgers, Michigan twice, Illinois twice, Northwestern, Minnesota — those are primarily the kinds of games a team needs in order to avoid a demerit on the resume, as opposed to adding a high-value scalp to a previous body of achievements. Michigan State needs to beat Ohio State and then win an absolute minimum of five games out of those other seven contests.
Then, in the closing stretch in early March, Michigan State gets its big high-end win opportunity against Wisconsin… but that game is in Madison. A week after playing the Badgers, MSU plays Indiana, another game that could genuinely boost the Spartans’ profile. However, that game is in Bloomington.
The bottom line: Ohio State is the only value-added win opportunity which Michigan State gets at home over the remainder of the regular season. If this team can’t learn to stand on its own two feet in road games, the resume is going to be alarmingly thin heading into the Big Ten tournament. The Spartans would face a must-win situation in their first game (a “bad loss avoidance” situation), and they might need to win their second game to obtain a true resume enhancement.
No, Michigan State didn’t expect the Big Ten to be suspect in basketball this season… most of all, the Spartans didn’t expect to be directly involved in a bubble situation. They have a chance to resolve it, yes, but they also have to become a lot more consistent than they have been. Failing to beat Nebraska without the Huskers’ two starting bigs should create quite a lot of concern in East Lansing. We’ll see if Tom Izzo can rally his players and give them a plan to succeed in February and beyond.
You wouldn’t want to bet against Izzo, but in the same breath, you wouldn’t ordinarily expect Michigan State to be skating on such thin ice during Super Bowl week.