Michigan State down, not out despite uncharacteristic tough stretch

Michigan State down, not out despite uncharacteristic tough stretch

CHAMPAIGN — Michigan State fumbled away Tuesday night's game at State Farm Center. The Spartans had no answer — none — to Illinois' defensive pressure. The Illini jumped passing lanes and simply bothered Michigan State into careless mistake after careless mistake.

Illinois' 79-74 upset of the ninth-ranked team in the country was Michigan State's third consecutive loss. A rarity in the Tom Izzo era.

The Spartans will try to avoid something even rarer — a fourth consecutive loss that's happened just twice this century — when they host Minnesota at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.

"We're definitely down right now," Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston told reporters after Tuesday's game in Champaign. "It's Michigan State, you're not used to this. Got to watch film, got to get better. We're gonna figure it out. We've got a good group of guys. We've got a lot of veterans. Nothing we haven't seen before."

Which is true. Winston, along with fellow upperclassmen Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid, Kyle Ahrens and Kenny Goins, were all on the 2016-17 team that lost three in a row in Big Ten play. But they were also all on last year's team that didn't lose consecutive games at any point last season.

Three losses in a row, though, is still the exception to the standard Michigan State norm.

"(It's tough) because we lost two games and we were gonna come out differently," Winston told reporters. "On my part, I did a poor job setting the tone for this team (against Illinois). That blew us the game in a way."

"We wanted this one bad," Xavier Tillman added. "The Purdue game we didn't really know what to expect with the crowd and the Indiana game we took for granted because of GameDay. But this game, we wanted it bad coming in. We practiced really well and it just didn't come our way."

Tillman started Tuesday against Illinois. It was the first start of his Michigan State career, as Izzo opted to bring Ward off the bench for the first time since the Spartans' last game against Illinois on Feb. 20, 2018. Ahrens also replaced freshman Aaron Henry on the wing.

"So there's no quarterback controversy, I did not like the way that Nick or Aaron cut out in the last game (against Indiana)," Izzo said. "That's an effort-related thing. I was going to play Nick the same amount of minutes, but back in there he struggled some defensively."

Michigan State's performance against the Illini had Izzo thinking about more changes.

"It wasn't really shuffling that I plan to stay with," he said. "I don't know how long I'll stay with it. I might replace all five of them because I just didn't like the way we started out. It's concerning.

"I'm going to have to watch the film. I've just never seen some of things that I saw (Tuesday) happen. Unexplainable."

Michigan State's three-game losing streak came on the heels of 13 straight wins and a 9-0 start that had the Spartans atop the Big Ten. Now they're tied for third with Wisconsin (winners of six straight) and behind both Purdue and rival Michigan.

Michigan State's loss to Purdue was the Spartans' third game that week and to a Boilermakers' team on the rise. But Izzo said he felt some "fat sassiness" from his team before the Indiana game and that the Spartans weren't ready to play. That didn't play well into the fact Michigan State's status as one of both the Big Ten and the country's elite programs, he added, will make the Spartans the target of every upset-minded team.

"That's what should happen," Izzo said. "People are going to get up for us, and they should get up for us. (Illinois) outplayed us in most aspects. I guess you've got to give us a little credit for the comeback — not easy to do on the road with a very nice, good crowd — but I was just shocked with how some guys played.

"Our turnovers caused us to be in a funk. You can't turn the ball over on junior high plays, and we did. Don't take nothing away from them. Some of it is their pressure, but some of it was ridiculous."