This just hasn't been a good week for Michigan State basketball. (Hello, Captain Obvious.)
Last Thursday, the Spartans lost on their home court to their hated in-state rival for the first time since Bill Clinton was President of the United States. Badly needing a win to end a three-game losing streak, MSU needed overtime to squeak by Indiana -- the second-to-last place team in the Big Ten -- for an 84-83 victory on Sunday.
But what has to be the most disappointing team in the Tom Izzo era of Michigan State basketball probably hit rock bottom Wednesday night in Iowa City. These 2010-11 Spartans may not be Izzo's worst team, but a 72-52 loss to the last-place Hawkeyes could very well be the worst in his 16-year tenure.
Hey, if you don't believe me, ask Izzo himself.
"That was the worst performance of a team that I've coached since I've been at Michigan State," Izzo said. "As you can imagine, we are reeling."
Iowa had only one win in the conference coming into Wednesday's game, and eight overall. Their leading scorer was notching just over 13 points a game. Blizzard conditions (part of 2011's "SNOWtorious B.I.G.") reportedly made for a light crowd in Carver-Hawkeye Arena (prompting the athletic department to give away free tickets to the game), but unless fan interest has changed over the past few years, Iowa basketball typically played before a less-than-full house.
(I'm an Iowa alumnus, and attendance was sporadic when I was there during the Steve Alford era. And those teams made the NCAA Tournament.)
These looked like ideal conditions for MSU to notch another Big Ten and string together two consecutive victories. But maybe the apathy of the environment (along with what was probably a treacherous trip to Iowa City) dragged the Spartans down. Something certainly did, as they played as if they wanted to be anywhere but a basketball court on Wednesday night.
Michigan State shot 34 percent from the field. Kalin Lucas made five of his 16 shots, and six of his 17 points came from the free-throw line. Perhaps the strain of now having to carry the team is weighing him down. And if Keith Appling was supposed to pick up the slack, the freshman showed that might be too much for him right now, playing one of his worst games of the season.
Durrell Summers managed only six points, adding three turnovers. Draymond Green is considered a senior leader, but 11 points, five rebounds and five turnovers surely isn't demonstrating the example Izzo has in mind.
But every team misses shots and has a cold shooting night. That's where defense and rebounding have to make up the difference. Unfortunately, MSU only made Iowa look good on that side of the floor. The Spartans' defense allowed the Hawkeyes to shoot 58 percent from the field. (Iowa shot 66 percent in the first half.) Matt Gatens scored 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 2-of-3 from three-point range. MSU was also outrebounded, 29-27, yet again squandering a frontcourt advantage.
Michigan State was just never in the ballgame. They were down by 21 at halftime. At one point in the second half, they were behind by 26 points. That's the most MSU has trailed in a game all season.
The Spartans have been treading water ever since Big Ten play began. Every game has been a struggle. Before that, MSU struggled in the preseason against a typically tough Izzo schedule, losing to Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse and Texas. Perhaps the effort of trying to meet overly high preseason expectations has just tapped this team out. Right now, they look like they have nothing.
It's not going to get any easier. MSU's next game is at Wisconsin. Do you think the Badgers might want to avenge that 64-61 overtime loss at the Breslin Center three weeks ago? And after a rematch with Penn State (who MSU lost to, 66-62, at State College), the Spartans travel to Ohio State, currently undefeated and No. 1 in the nation. At this point, a .500 conference record looks likely. And a NCAA Tournament bid, let alone a third straight trip to the Final Four, appears nearly unattainable.
After the loss to Iowa, Izzo said that he'll probably make some changes. Does he really have any choice? This clearly isn't working. But the coach also admitted that he's not quite sure what he can do for the rest of the season.
"I usually have answers, I don't have an answer. I just think, like a lot of things in life, sometimes you get into a territory that you've never been in before. I've been close before and worked my way out of it and one way or another we will work our way out of it."
But as ugly as it looks right now for Michigan State, and as much of a grind as this season has been on Izzo, things could be much worse. He could've taken that job offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers. No LeBron, no hope, and pretty much no chance. The Cavs are 8-41, and have lost 22 games in a row. Cleveland is one loss away from tying a a NBA-record losing streak. (And they could tie -- or surpass -- the most consecutive losses in league history. That mark was set over two seasons.)
A disappointing year at MSU looks blissful in comparison.