Big Ten Report: Trading Places

BY foxsports • February 4, 2011

By Bruce Hooley
FOX Sports Ohio
Friday, February 4th, 2011

While Ohio State claimed its 23rd consecutive victory last night with a 62-53 win over Michigan, the team expected to dominate the Big Ten this year sat home wondering how the arrival of February could signal the end of its NCAA Tournament dreams.

With OSU sitting unbeaten atop the rankings, a unanimous No. 1 in both polls, Michigan State has parlayed its preseason No. 2 label into a 13-9 overall record and 5-5 mark in the Big Ten that seems destined to sink even lower over the next two weeks.

The Spartans play Sunday at Wisconsin, which hasn't lost to MSU in the Kohl Center since 2001. After that, there's a home game against a resurgent Penn State on Thursday and then a trip to OSU on Feb. 15.

Think of that.

When is the first, last or any time a Penn State game at the Breslin Center would loom as anything but a layup for mighty Michigan State?

That's the reality for MSU, and head coach Tom Izzo knows it.

"There are sharks around right now," Izzo said. "I don't think they fear coming in here as much. I don't think they fear the name on the front of our jerseys as much. That's the funny thing. It takes a lifetime to earn it and it doesn't take very long to lose it."

Obviously not, because MSU hasn't won a game in regulation since Jan. 3.

Since then, it has needed overtime to defeat Wisconsin, Northwestern and Indiana at home and lost in overtime to visiting Michigan last week. On the road, the Spartans have lost all four games they've played in 2011, including a 72-52 hammering at Iowa on Wednesday.

The Hawkeyes sat last in the Big Ten, with one conference win, but treated MSU like some directional school major conference teams play in December for a guaranteed victory.

MSU trailed, 13-2 after six minutes, 30-8 after 12 minutes and never got closer than 18 points in the second half of what Izzo called "the worst performance of a team that I've coached since I've been at Michigan State."

Good teams have the occasional down year, often brought on by unexpected personnel losses, injuries or a combination.

MSU has had all that and more, but there's a shock factor to its collapse because people think so highly of Izzo they believed him immune to the vagaries that befall lesser coaches.

When the Spartans lost back-to-back at Illinois and Purdue in the middle of last month, no one threw dirt on their grave because there's so much respect for Izzo.

After all, he's the guy who pulled a Final Four berth out of his hat last year when the fifth-seeded Spartans lost top scorer Kalin Lucas in the second round to a torn Achilles.

In 16 years on the sideline, Izzo's teams have always been known for defense, rebounding and, above all, 40 minutes of fight every night.

That formula has gotten many an MSU team through on nights when it wasn't functioning at peak efficiency, but it didn't look like Izzo got even 60 seconds of fortitude out of his troops at Iowa.

Couple that with the home loss to Michigan and it appears not even the architect of one national championship, six Final Four berths and 13 straight NCAA appearances has any answers.

All Izzo has is a grasp for the obvious when he says, "As you can imagine, we're reeling."

Analysts who project the NCAA field are skeptical Michigan State will even be among the expanded field of 68 teams.

Lucas hasn't been the explosive player he was before the Achilles injury. He can't get past more of the league's guards easily, so the shots he once sat up for teammates aren't there.

Durrell Summers, who had a terrific NCAA Tournament last year, hasn't shot it well and Korey Lucious, who was huge in the Spartans' drive to the Final Four, shot even worse than Summers before being kicked off the team a week ago.

Until this summer, Izzo had never booked a player from his roster. Now, Lucious is the second, following Kris Allen out the door after his dismissal this summer.

"I don't feel any regrets with anybody," Izzo said. "Anybody who has left this program, I don't feel a regret, because no one ever leaves after one, two or three chances. The regret is, guys didn't grow up and understand what they had to do.