Spartans lacked trademark toughness in loss to Cornhuskers
FEB 16, 2014 5:41p ET
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State has reached six Final Fours under Tom Izzo, and yet only three of his players over 18 previous seasons have averaged double-figures for their NBA careers.
Izzo has gotten his teams to the top by finding players who are often underrated and getting them to play together on offense and like a buzz saw on defense.
In a word, Izzo's teams are about toughness.
The Spartans are all about "wanting it" more, suffocating you with chest-to-chest and nose-to-nose defense, and taking away your will.
But in an unlikely 60-51 loss to Nebraska on Sunday at Breslin Center, MSU appeared to lose that insatiable will to win that has long been its trademark.
"Today, it was the Spartans that didn't bring it," said Izzo. "Nebraska, they were junkyard dogs. They remind me of some of our old teams. They took it to us. They talked it, they walked it, they played it. I thought they were tough."
Izzo said this matter-of-factly. There was no smoke coming out of his ears, no fire in his eyes. And, remember, this is the same coach who after beating Indiana by 17 points in Bloomington went on a rant about his team's shortcomings.
He began his next postgame press conference, after an overtime win at home against Ohio State, by making light of how happy he was about virtually everything. He wasn't going to rain on any parade after a win. He wasn't going to upset anyone, he said. And since then, Izzo has been uncharacteristically calm in discussing games with reporters.
It's hard to figure out what's going on. And while what a coach brings to practice is much more important than what he brings to the media, it still makes you wonder. Maybe he's decided that the personalities on this team dictate more pats on the back than kicks in the butt. But I don't think that's it, either.
One thing's for sure, though. Izzo knows what he's doing. There's a plan here, and we'll just have to wait to see how it plays out.
The Spartans have played over injuries. But they should've beaten the Cornhuskers at home even without small forward Branden Dawson (broken hand) and point guard Keith Appling (right wrist) returning after three missed games at far less than 100 percent.
But Nebraska guard Terran Petteway (23 points) and forward Walter Pitchford (career-high 18 points) of Grand Rapids destroyed MSU with three-pointers and hustle. Gary Harris led the Spartans with 18 points, but missed 10 of 15 shots. And post man Adreian Payne got into foul trouble settling for 11 points and nine rebounds while blowing a breakaway chance in the final two minutes of play.
The Spartans bickered on the court and couldn't find their focus.
"I think they are frustrated," Izzo said. " ... Not as frustrated as I was."
Payne said: "It was a game we were supposed to win ... There's not enough want. We didn't want it enough."
When asked how that could happen to players in a program known for toughness, Payne said, "I don't know. It's something you can't teach, but we just didn't have it this game."
Payne missed one practice this week, but said it wasn't related to any problem with the sprained foot that caused him to miss seven games before returning 10 days ago.
"I wasn't feeling well," said Payne, adding that he felt like he "let down" his team by getting into foul trouble and fouling out with 17 seconds remaining.
It was Nebraska's first road win over a ranked team in 17 years, and the Cornhuskers were 1-7 on the road this season with double-digit losses at Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State -- which blew them out, 84-53. However, Petteway has sparked Nebraska (14-10, 6-6) to five wins in six games after a 0-4 start in the Big Ten.
Harris can usually win games like this, but he's in a dreadful shooting slump -- making 19 of 64 shots (.297) over the last four games. His shot will come around, but what about the toughness of his team?
"In all the games we've lost, we've been out-toughed," said Harris. "Some people didn't come ready to play ... From the first possession, I could tell some of our heads were not into it."
That's an indictment, for sure.
Appling agreed, saying, "There was a lack of focus."
Maybe Izzo's point in stepping back from reaming this team publicly is to get them to take ownership. And if so, maybe that's beginning to happen. Five games remain before the conference tournament, and despite injuries and a lack of toughness the Spartans are in first place. But the toughest games remain, and Izzo knows what will be required to win those.
The junkyard dogs need to find their bark and bite.