Michigan State heads toward NCAA Tournament still searching for its defense

CHICAGO – Nearly a month ago, Michigan State went to Ohio State and turned in its best defensive performance of the season: 41 points given up and 28.3 percent shooting, both season-bests in a 21-point road win.

Now, after a drastically different game against the Buckeyes, the Spartans are wondering where that standout defense has gone.

Michigan State once again played Ohio State in its Friday afternoon Big Ten tournament opener at the United Center. This time, the Buckeyes hit 10-of-19 3-pointers and scored 68 points as it knocked out the Spartans in their first postseason game.

After the latest in a series of defensive letdowns, Michigan State now heads into the NCAA Tournament still searching to regain that mid-February prowess.

“We let them make shots, and that kind of like took our energy away,” Spartans guard Tyson Walker said. “Stuff like that can’t happen, especially when our defense got us back into it. We can’t let missing shots make us not play defense.”

The Spartans’ defensive drop-off in recent weeks has been stark. After that Feb. 12 win at Ohio State, the Spartans had a top-20 defense in the country and led the Big Ten in multiple defensive categories, per Barttorvik.com.

Since then, their defense is ranked No. 215 in the country over its last six games. Opposing defenses are shooting more than 12 percentage points higher from 3-point range against Michigan State in the last three weeks than they were up to that point.

Michigan State still finished the regular season with a 5-2 record in its last seven games as it relied on its shot-making to whitewash some defensive shortcomings. But Izzo was sounding the alarm throughout that stretch that the Spartans weren’t playing a level of defense that would lead to success in the postseason.

On Friday, his team’s loss proved a vindication of sorts.

“I said to our media for three weeks that I didn’t think our defense has been very good and it would get you in a tournament, so I guess my experience kind of gave the answer,” Izzo said on Friday.

On Friday, Michigan State players described playing against a Buckeyes team that got confident behind a few early made 3′s, then got more open looks via its ability to penetrate into the middle of the Spartans’ defense and draw defenders down from the 3-point line.

“You kind of didn’t know if you wanted to help or try to stop the ball when they were driving,” Spartans guard Jaden Akins said. “That led to rotations and led to them making shots.”

Ohio State’s 10-for-19 marked the second-best percentage a team has shot against Michigan State this year. Three of Michigan State’s last four opponents have now shot 44 percent or better from 3-point range.

Other teams, like Nebraska and Michigan, have hurt the Spartans more by getting shots around the basket.

Izzo, for his part, blamed effort and energy for his team’s defense on Saturday. He mentioned that Malik Hall “didn’t look like he was moving very good”. Michigan State may have shot just 3-for-16 from 3-point range, but Izzo was more concerned about how his team guarded.

“It was our defensive effort that those of you who want us to be an offensive team, there aren’t many around,” Izzo said.

As to how Michigan State can find its defensive form once again, Izzo said Michigan State doesn’t have to make any drastic changes. It just has to look back at its game film from a month ago.

“That’s the beauty of it, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Izzo said. “As I said. We’ve been there, done that.”

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