EAST LANSING — Michigan State has lost to North Carolina in football stadiums, the Dean Dome and on an aircraft carrier.
Now they’ve lost to them at the Breslin Center, as well.
The top-ranked Spartans never led in Wednesday night’s 79-65 loss to the unranked Tar Heels, their seventh straight defeat to North Carolina. None of the other six games were in East Lansing, but a fired-up home crowd didn’t help.
“I’m not a better coach than Tom Izzo, I know that,” Roy Williams said. “My guys have just played better than his kids have played on game day. Some of those times we’ve had more talent, but we’ve sure never had a better coach.”
North Carolina lost to Belmont and was coming off a defeat to Alabama-Birmingham, but the Spartans still shouldn’t have overlooked a team that had knocked off No. 3 Louisville on Nov. 24. The Spartans looked lethargic and slow — a bad sign for a game in early December.
“That was one of the most disappointing performances of my career,” Tom Izzo said. “We haven’t been practicing well, and tonight it led to not playing well. That falls solely on me, because I can’t let them get away with that. There are times, like when we’ve played them in the Final Four, where they were just better than us, but that wasn’t the case tonight.
“They were coming into the game off a loss, and they looked hungry. We were coming in with a lot of hype and looked soft.”
The biggest difference in the game, outside of effort, came from North Carolina’s serious size advantage. They have four players in their regular rotation that are 6-foot-9 or taller, something that Michigan State simply can’t match.
With Matt Costello limited by an illness, Izzo gave 6-9 forward Alex Gauna a rare start. Gauna lasted just 69 seconds, managing to commit two fouls, a turnover and a lane violation before getting benched for the rest of the night.
Costello played 17 minutes and put up six points and four rebounds, but with 6-10 Adreian Payne cramping up and spending much of the game on the perimeter, North Carolina dominated inside.
For most of the first half, the Tar Heels were rebounding more of their missed shots than the Spartans could get, and they finished the game having grabbed 39 percent of their misses and 72 percent of Michigan State’s.
“They just overpowered us,” Izzo said. “They used their bulk and their muscle, but we also didn’t play hard. The only guy that you should praise is Costello. We think he might have a slight case of mono, but he went out there and gave us everything he had. He got four rebounds, which is better than a lot of guys that were healthy.”
Williams couldn’t explain how his team went from the UAB loss to beating the No. 1 team in the country in just three days.
“I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know,” he started his press conference. “We’re a young team — we don’t travel with a single senior — and kids do wacky things. All I know is that we were 179 degrees away from where we were against UAB.
“We’ve gotten killed a lot of times during my career, and we’ve blown a lot of teams out, but I can’t imagine the ups and downs have ever been this bad before. I don’t even know what day it is — that’s how bad it is.”
Williams wasn’t kidding — he had to stop to ask his SID if it was Wednesday or not — but his players didn’t share his confusion. They jumped out to an 18-6 lead, thanks to the inside dominance, and fought off every Michigan State rally.
“We were really good tonight, and that is because we were active on both ends of the floor,” he said. “I think it helped that we were up big on Louisville and let them tie it. I told them that night that we were tied without having played a great game, so we had a lot more to give. I said the same thing tonight, and we were able to pull it out both times.”
For Izzo, everything came back to the same topic.
“I know I sound like a broken record, but when you don’t practice well, you don’t play well,” he said. “Hopefully, our guys learned that tonight, because we certainly didn’t play this game like a championship-caliber team.