No. 11 Michigan State has some pretty serious issues it needs to work out if it wants to get back to its heights from earlier in the season.
Nebraska upset the Spartans at Breslin Center, 72-71, as Shavon Shields poured in a game-high 28 points to lead the Huskers to their biggest win of the past two seasons under Tim Miles. That’s three straight losses for the Spartans, including two at home and another to an underachieving Wisconsin squad over the weekend.
It nearly didn’t come to pass at the end, though, as star forward Denzel Valentine had an 18-footer to win as time expired. However, the shot just wouldn’t go down. Valentine finished with 24 points, six rebounds and six assists as he took over the point guard spot for Tum Tum Nairn.
In the end, this was a valid result for a sliding Spartan team that has both felt the effect of injury and also had some weaknesses exposed over the course of the last few weeks, particularly on the defensive end.
On one hand, injuries have really knocked Tom Izzo’s team for a loop, forcing younger players into action early after a 13-0 start. Valentine obviously missed some time with a knee injury which really set them back. Now Nairn, their lead ball-handler and best perimeter defender, is out with plantar fasciitis.
But on the other, MSU’s four losses in the last seven games have really opened some questions about the quality of this team’s defense. Teams that have the ability to space the floor and go small against the Spartans have really given them a lot of trouble (i.e. Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska). Michigan State isn’t exactly the most fleet-of-foot team in the country, and it shows up when opposing teams have big men who are comfortable away from the basket. Nebraska really hurt them when they went with lineups featuring Shields, Jack McVeigh and Andrew White at forward spots.
Nebraska’s guards also did an excellent job using their speed to their advantage, particularly in the first half and early in the second. Nebraska had 13 points on the break, as guys like Glynn Watson were able to blow past the first line of defense in transition and pick up some easy baskets. This was the place that Nairn’s presence was most missed, as the Bahamian guard is considered a strong, athletic defender.
The easiest place to see the downturn in Michigan State’s defense is just in a simple points-per-possession metric analysis. Over the last seven games, the Spartans have allowed better than one point-per-possession in five of them. In the first 13 games this season, they only allowed over one point-per-possession three times. That stretch has seen Michigan State’s adjusted defensive efficiency plummet out of the top-50 according to KenPom, which is something that has happened over a full season since 2005-06.
Can the Spartans turn it around? You’d think so, given this team’s penchant for peaking late and getting things turned around under Izzo. But the questions and problems persist. This was a game that the Spartans should have won coming into it, but ultimately didn’t because of an inadequate defensive performance. They’re now four games back in the loss column of Big Ten leaders Iowa and Indiana, and likely out of the conference title picture in a way that no one would have guessed possible even 10 days ago.