Michigan State’s loss to Duke and the dueling narratives of a team still trying to find itself

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
2 Comments

CHICAGO — Tom Izzo has never been a man to hide the way he feels.

For better or worse, he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that certainly was the case on Tuesday night in the minutes after his No. 2-ranked Michigan State Spartans lost, 88-81, to No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic.

He blew through the handshake line, already making his way down the tunnel by the time the last player on the bench had finished shaking Duke hands. He gruffed his way through his postgame press conference, getting snippy with reporters he doesn’t typically get snippy with. He was not happy, and you couldn’t blame him for it.

With all the hype surrounding what has annually become the best night of non-conference college basketball, his Spartans had handed Duke a win on a silver platter.

That’s how the Spartans see it, at least.

They beat themselves.

“It was all about what we did,” Jackson said. “We fell apart from the game-plan, especially down the stretch. We played our worst.”

They were the ones that gave up 25 offensive rebounds to a Duke team that was missing Marvin Bagley III for the final 30 minutes. They were the ones that turned the ball over 17 times. They were, quite frankly, the team that struggled to do the same things that they struggled to do a season ago, when the Spartans lost 15 games, struggled to find a way to beat ranked teams and got worked by Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“We were right in the game,” Izzo said. “But we should be. We have a great team.”

And therein lies the frustration for Michigan State.

As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, and after Michigan State’s ballyhooed 2016 recruiting class struggled to live up to expectations, the fact that the four most important names on last season’s roster all opted to return to school generated a level of hype for the Spartans that is generally reserved for their three Champions Classic counterparts.

When Miles Bridges announced on April 13th that he will be returning to school, this season became about immediacy. Michigan State doesn’t have the time to let Cassius Winston or Josh Langford grow into the player that they have the potential to be. Tom Izzo needs them to be their best selves this year, this March. That’s when the window for these Spartans as a national title contender closes, when Bridges and Jackson likely head to the NBA.

Which is why Izzo, his team, his coaching staff and his fan base were all so frustrated last night.

Because aside from the addition of Jaren Jackson, Michigan State didn’t look like a team that was all that much different than last year’s team.

Winston finished with 11 assists, but he still found a way to turn the ball over five times and provide all of three points on 1-for-5 shooting. Langford shot 3-for-9 from the floor and tallied nine points.Bridges had four turnovers. Nick Ward had five turnovers and opted not to keep Duke off of the offensive glass and Jackson has never really been a bruiser. These are the same issues that plagued the Spartans last season.

There are still 29 more regular season games and two postseason tournaments left to play, but the early returns are in: There was no sophomore jump.

Now there are two ways to frame this narrative:

1. Michigan State blew a golden opportunity to land a marquee win. Bridges doesn’t quite know how to take over games the way Grayson Allen does, and, as a result, the Spartans just simply have not learned how to “win the big one”. They are, after all, still a young team, one whose core is now 20-16 in their careers whose only wins over ranked opponents came against then-No. 24 Minnesota and then-No. 16 Wisconsin last season.

This was a game they should have won once Marvin Bagley III went out, and they couldn’t get it done. Maybe this is just who they are.

Or …

2. What it required for Duke to get this win is not something that is going to be replicable. Michigan State’s front court did look dominant on the offensive end of the floor, even if they struggled to keep Duke’s big men off the offensive glass. Winston did hand out 11 assists even though the Spartans did not prepare to play against Duke’s 2-3 zone for 40 minutes. Miles Bridges had an off-night and still finished with 19 points, five boards, four assists and four blocks, hitting a handful of big shots down the stretch.

Oh, and should I mention that Duke’s best player put forward the single-best performance of his career and what may end up being the single-most dominant individual performance we see on a big stage this season?

Think about it like this: With three minutes left, Javin DeLaurier grabbed an offensive rebound, kicked the ball out and got Gray Trent Jr. an open look from three. Trent hit the shot, Duke took a 78-75 lead they would never relinquish and the game was lost. But what if the Spartans had been able to corral that rebound and got a three of their own at the other end of the floor?

My point is that that is how fine the margins were in this game.

Against the No. 1 team in the country.

There is no doubt that the Spartans have issues that need fixing.

No one can win with any kind of consistency giving up that many offensive rebounds and turnovers.

But the fact that they were a play or two from winning despite all those mistakes while playing college basketball’s best team is also significant. They’re not that far away.

I say all that to say this: We won’t know how this game fits into the narrative of Michigan State’s season until we see how the rest of the season plays out.

So don’t go burning your season tickets just yet, Spartan fans. All is not lost.