EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo bowed his head and pressed his palms over his masked face as a simple situation resulted in yet another turnover during a recent game.
Sitting in a chair on the socially distanced sideline, the Hall of Fame coach could be seen reacting the same way more than once as his team carelessly gave the ball away inside a mostly quiet Breslin Center.
It has been nearly a year since the pandemic disrupted college sports and nothing has been normal, yet many figured the Spartans would — as usual — be one of the nation’s better teams, certainly under Izzo’s steady hand. Even in seasons where Michigan States loses a handful of games, the Spartans are often one of those dangerous teams to watch when tournament time comes around.
Not this season, not by a long shot.
The Spartans were No. 13 in the preseason AP Top 25 and jumped to No. 4 in December after beating Notre Dame and then-No. 6 Duke. By January, they plummeted out of the Top 25.
Their biggest problem has been point guard play in an uneven season that might leave them out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.
“It’s a bad year not to have experience there,” Izzo said in a telephone interview.
Like a football team without a solid quarterback, a baseball squad without strong pitching or a hockey team that lacks good goaltending, basketball teams with a weakness at point guard have a hard time winning consistently.
Michiga State’s task was a tall one: Replace star point guard Cassius Winston and do-it-all forward Xavier Tillman. After a promising start, there was a three-game skid, then a four-game sked — including a jaw-dropping, 30-point loss at Rutgers.
As Izzo’s teams have often done during his 26-year run, though, Michigan State might be building momentum in February with a modest, two-game winning streak.
“It doesn’t save us,” Izzo said Tuesday night after a two-point victory over Penn State. “We’re still a work in progress.”
The Spartans (10-7, 4-7 Big Ten) have to figure it out on the fly because they host No. 15 Iowa (14-6, 8-5) on Saturday and they’re running out of time. Still, a string of ranked opponents give the Spartans an opportunity to get on the NCAA Tournament bubble and rally for a spot in college basketball’s showcase.
“The one thing we’ve got in this crazy league of ours is, as hard as it is, you’ve got your opportunities,” Izzo said. “We’ve got Iowa coming in here. If you can win one of those games, now all of a sudden you start getting back into the human race a little bit.”
Like all teams during the pandemic, Michigan State’s offseason opportunities for players to improve were limited. The delayed and shortened season didn’t include many matchups against smaller schools to build experience and confidence.
Izzo has changed his starting point guard many times this season, searching for a solution. He began the year with Foster Loyer, switched to Rocket Watts, went back to Loyer, and gave freshman A.J. Hoggard a chance before reverting to Loyer.
Michigan State barely held on to the Nittany Lions with Loyer starting and Watts closing out a game the team might’ve lost earlier this season.
“This is where we have to take the next step as a team,” forward Aaron Henry said. “We’ve been there before and we’ve been on the other end so many times.”
In the previous game, Loyer started as the Spartans ended that four-game skid with a win over Nebraska. The last-place Cornhuskers, who were playing their first game in nearly a month, forced Watts to turn the ball over five times in just 16 minutes.
Watts wasn’t alone: Hs team combined for a season-high 22 turnovers in a sloppy game that had Izzo covering his face so frequently.
Watts, a dynamic sophomore from Detroit, displayed his potential with 20 points against the Blue Devils, but he is averaging just eight-plus points after scoring slightly more last season at shooting guard. Watts told coaches he wasn’t comfortable playing point guard earlier this season, an admission that is still written all over his face without him saying a word.
“I’ve been struggling,” acknowledged Watts, adding his teammates and coaches have been supportive.
Loyer, meanwhile, is being counted on to direct the team as a junior. Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award winner from 2018 has a great grasp of the offense, but teams tend to take advantage of him defensively.
Hoggard, a sturdy freshman from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, is simply not ready to play more than spot minutes in the highly competitive Big Ten.
“We’ve dug a big hole,” Izzo said. “Some of it our fault. Some of it not our fault.”