EAST LANSING — “When they are healthy, watch out!” Variations of this propitious quote have been the topic of conversation for many college basketball pundits when discussing Michigan State’s chances of making a national championship run.
Well, with Branden Dawson playing for the first time since Jan. 21 after suffering a broken hand, the Spartans (22-7, 11-5) were at full strength today for their 53-46 loss to the Fighting Illini (17-12, 6-10) at home.
Offensively, the Spartans got off to a lackadaisical start as they turned the ball over six times within the first eight minutes of the game. Illinois broke the game open with 14:35 left to play in the half, as they were leading 10-7, when they began a nine-point scoring run — seven of which came off MSU turnovers — to take a 19-7 lead.
“For the most part, I think our assist-to-turnover ratio has been pretty good and today it was a joke,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “We had some guys revert back and I thought our energy level was at an all-time worst.
“It started with the first shot of the game, we gave up a three. When they have the number of points off of turnovers they had in the game, you aren’t going to win many of those.”
During that stretch, the Fighting Illini did a great job of taking MSU big man Adreian Payne out of the game – holding him to only two points, one rebound and two turnovers in the game’s first 10 minutes — and crippled a Spartans offense that can’t afford to lose its lone post presence.
“They double-teamed me and it was a little difficult getting the ball out,” Payne said. “We had too many turnovers as a team. The best players didn’t play good. I didn’t play good.”
The Spartans began to pick up their urgency offensively about halfway through the first half when sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris began to find his stroke. After the second media timeout, trailing 21-9, MSU went on a 19-7 run in the final 10 minutes led by Harris who had eight of his team-high 19 points and two steals during that stretch to tie the game at 28-all heading into halftime.
Michigan State came out of the locker room and took its one and only lead of the game on the first possession when freshman Gavin Schilling — who made his first career start in place of Matt Costello — scored two of his career-high seven points (scored seven twice this season).
From there, the Spartans relapsed to their lackluster ways as they committed four turnovers in about four minutes, and allowed Illinois to take a 40-32 lead with 15:26 remaining.
MSU was unable to respond after that run by the Illinois, and the Fighting Illini — who have held their last four opponents to under 50 points — held the Spartans to a season-low 46 points.
“It’s different,” Payne said on the current feel of his team. “We finally have everybody back, and it just seems like our roles have changed so much as a team, players’ roles have changed. It just different because we haven’t got back adjusted to what we were use to because we had so many changes.”
And despite having all of its pieces back for the first time in months, the Spartans looked as lethargic offensively as they have all season.
“This team has been through a lot, but I didn’t see this coming,” Izzo said. “There’s no excuse for that. We practiced harder than they played. Like I said, I’ll throw myself under the bus – that’s inexcusable, ridiculous. There are just too many things these guys have had to go through, so maybe a slap in the face is good for us. It reminds me of 2005, maybe that’ll wake us up. They got hit today.”
The Spartans have now dropped two in a row for the first time all year, and they’ve lost six of their past 10 games. If the loss at home to Nebraska on Feb. 16 wasn’t enough to get this team going, maybe this one will do the trick.
“I feel like we’ve had plenty of wake-up calls,” said senior Keith Appling, who had five points, four assists and four turnovers. “I don’t think we need anymore.”
Yet, in the midst of all this madness, it’s the first day of March. A month that many have deemed as “Izzo month” due to his success in the NCAA Tournament. And while the Spartans are as vulnerable now than they have been all season, this stretch of misfortune during this time of the year isn’t something that they haven’t seen before.
“We went through a tough stretch when we lost three in a row last year, towards the end of the season,” Harris said. “We’ve been in stretches like this before, it’s just a matter of how we respond to it moving forward.”