Feb. 20, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com on-line columnist
An honorable loss against the nation's No. 1 team would have been acceptable.
But the way No. 4 Michigan State fell short against Indiana, 72-68, Tuesday night in the Breslin Center wasn't any more palatable for the Spartans than it was explainable.
Freshman guard Gary Harris, who needed make three pressure-packed free throws after drawing a foul while taking a 3-point shot to tie the score with four seconds remaining, said MSU came out "flat."
Harris, who finished with a team-high 19 points, might not have been thrust into that unenviable position for the first time in his young career had the Spartans been more effective earlier in the game, suggested coach Tom Izzo.
Junior center Adreian Payne, who at times looked like he was playing at a different speed than his teammates while slashing to the basket or making all three of his 3-pointers en route to 17 points, said the Spartans lacked "energy."
How can that happen in arguably the biggest matchup of the college season before a national television audience?
"I don't know," Payne said.
Junior guard point guard Keith Appling entered the game in search of redemption for his foul-plagued, three-point performance in the five-point loss to the Hoosiers in Bloomington on Jan. 27. Instead, Appling came out of the game with another round of apologies after making just 1 of 8 shots for six points, along with two assists against four turnovers.
Appling also missed the front end of a one-and-one situation that could have restored a three-point lead with 1:08 remaining. That missed opportunity loomed large 64 seconds later.
"I was more upset by it than surprised," Appling said.
Appling was at a loss for words when asked to explain how MSU could possibly fail to answer the bell with so much on the line - the Spartans were tied with Indiana for first place in the Big Ten - when exactly seven days earlier it put on one of its most inspired performances in years while defeating Michigan 75-52?
"I felt like this was even a bigger game than Michigan, so there's really no excuse for why I played the way I did, or why we played the way we did as a team," Appling said. "We just could have played harder, man."
On Monday, Izzo went to great lengths to illustrate what a formidable task beating Indiana, with junior All-America candidate Victor Oladipo serving as a high-energy catalyst for an explosive surrounding cast, would be.
Nevertheless, the Spartans would have a good chance to prevail if they gave the Hoosiers the very best shot they were capable of delivering. And, Izzo carefully pointed out, defeat would only be unacceptable if it was due to a lack of effort.
Izzo's opening postgame statement said it all.
"Well, that was a very disappointing loss," he said, later adding that "there were some things that really disappointed me with the discipline of my team tonight, but it is keeping guys focused, and sometimes you start thinking you're better than you are.
"We didn't play with the same energy, and it was disappointing."
Izzo gave all due respect to the Hoosiers and he acknowledged that they played a major role throwing MSU off stride.
"They outplayed us," Izzo said. "We did not play very well, and they had a lot to do with it."
However, the Spartans forfeited the entire eight-point advantage the home court is said to provide - and members of the Izzone, who waited for hours in line in the freezing cold to get the best seats, had Breslin stoked - in the first 16:36.
"We got off to such a poor start, I kept telling my staff that if we can be within 10 at halftime we'd have a chance," Izzo said. "Then, when we were within six, I was ecstatic."
The effort improved somewhat in the second half as the Spartans battled to take a 67-63 with 1:37 to go.
However, the respective championship efforts given by each team was starkly reflected in the final score, which was tipped in the Hoosiers' favor in spectacular fashion by Oladipo's six points in the final 43 seconds, and Izzo speculated aloud about where his team took a wrong turn.
"We had some distractions and I think that affected some guys," he said without naming names or elaborating on the issues that may have poisoned the well.
Payne shed a little more light on how the Spartans could be in such perfect balance against Michigan, be so out of sync a week later.
"Yeah, there were distractions on the court and off the court," he said. "People's mind wasn't all in the game, I guess, and we weren't focused in so we didn't come out with the win. It's just something we've got to work on.
"We have to do it every day in practice, and we can't have distractions. I couldn't even tell you (what they were) because I can't tell you what everybody's thinking, but obviously, our heads weren't in the game. We didn't know our assignments on the court because we weren't talking on defense, or knowing our scouting reports."
Appling's back-to-back struggles against Indiana were a mystery to Izzo, who said, "I felt bad for him. He just wasn't himself."
Barring a rematch in the Big Ten Tournament, Appling was sick about the prospect of never knowing how the Spartans would have fared against Indiana had they played the way they did against Michigan.
"That's the worst part about it because we feel like we have so much more to give," Appling said. "But, the game's over and there's nothing we can do about it now. We just have to prepare for our next opponent and try not to let these feelings linger."
Faced with perhaps the toughest regular-season finish in the nation - starting at Ohio State on Sunday, followed by a trip to Michigan and home games against Wisconsin and Northwester - eliminating negative influences may be the Spartans' most important chore in the coming days.
"It's very critical," Appling said, "because one loss could easily turn into two, and two can easily turn into three."