I don’t have the emotional energy left to say much about what transpired today, but I will say this: I’m proud of how this Spartan team played today. They played like warriors and played well enough to win. When they left the court, the MSU contingent of fans (which I thought represented the university well both in numbers and rooting intensity) gave the players a well-deserved standing ovation.
Obviously, this one came down to officiating. I’m not going to claim the refs were blatantly incompetent (although Steve Grinczel offers up a pretty good critique). But if this game were called in a more typical manner, MSU wins by at least 10. (Box score is here, in case anyone wants to count up the 30 fouls; sadly there’s no breakdown of how many were called by Mr. Hightower.) The fouls called late in the game were indeed fouls. It’s what happened early in the game that helped determine MSU’s fate.
The ticky tack fouls called on Suton and Naymick in the first few minutes had a snowball effect. They forced Izzo to use Ibok, Gray, and Herzog throughout the game (plus Morgan at power forward more than normal). Ibok picked up his own quick three fouls, helping push Wisconsin into the double bonus midway through the first half. Both Ibok and Gray played poor perimeter defense on Butch, leading directly to at least 6 points I don’t think Suton or Naymick allow–plus there was Ibok’s foul of Bohannon on a made 3-pointer to cut the lead from 12 to 8 and spark the Wisconsin comeback. And if MSU wasn’t forced to play a three-point-guards-plus-Allen/Gray lineup in the closing minutes, I think they hold their lead and win the game.
I’ll give Wisconsin some credit–but not a lot of credit, because they only really did one thing well today. Butch and Landry know how to get the ball down low, hesitate with the ball, pump fake a few times, and get fouled. It worked today, so more power to them, but it’s an ugly way to win a basketball game. The MSU defenders should have adjusted, but that’s what happens when you’re playing awkward 7-footers who normally don’t see the court in key games.
There’s some room for criticism for Izzo slowing down the pace several minutes too early. MSU was at its best pushing the ball and creating transition opportunities. They stopped doing so with roughly 6 minutes left, slowing the pace to run clock in an attempt to protect the lead. That was about 3 minutes too early. Flowers was blanketing Neitzel at that point, and Lucas can’t be expected to consistently convert driving the lane with the shot clock running down. He did well to convert as many shots as he did. Given the balancing act Izzo had to pull today to keep his team on top, though, chalk this up only as relatively mild second-guessing.
Fundamentally, I think this team is playing as well as it has since end of the nonconference season. From that perspective, I’m optimistic about their NCAA Tournament chances. But this loss was simply as crushing as a loss could be from an emotional perspective. You dominate your fiercest rival for 30+ minutes playing at a serious disadvantage, only to have the game slip away from you at the end, costing you a golden opportunity to win a championship. Izzo after the game:
“I’m very disappointed in the outcome,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who was so upset he had to stop several times to compose himself in his postgame news conference. “I don’t plan on getting over this today. I don’t plan on getting over this tomorrow. On Monday I’ll get over it.”
Here’s hoping he and the Spartans really have capacity to get over it on Monday . . .