Segal: Michigan State now has zero room for error

NEW YORK — As Michigan and Purdue took to the court on Sunday afternoon to battle for the Big Ten championship, the No. 2 team in the nation and regular season outright conference champions were notably absent.

There were a handful of Michigan State fans in the crowd at Madison Square Garden. Most of them didn’t book their trips home until late Sunday night or Monday morning. They assumed their team would be playing in the title game Sunday.

But they weren’t. Nor should they have been. Because they got beaten by a better team.

The Spartans’ nation-leading 13-game win streak came to a screeching halt at the hands of Michigan, their in-state rival who has taken three in a row from them, including two this season.

Michigan State can’t afford to lose another game. It’s March. If they do, they’re done.

They understand that. After all, this is the team that won 13 straight until that loss. This is the team that won 14 straight from November into January This is the team that won 27 games in the regular season, a school record. This is the team that enters the NCAA tournament with a record of 29-4.

But their 75-64 loss to the Wolverines on Saturday showed that MSU is not invincible. In fact, quite the opposite. There are a number of holes in their game, which Michigan magnified twice this season.

“When we play to win, we play aggressive, we rebound, we do all the little stuff,” sophomore Miles Bridges said following the loss. “When we play to lose, we play like we played today.”

Yes, the Spartans struggled to defend the three. And they couldn’t stop Moritz Wagner inside. And they couldn’t penetrate the lane effectively. Anybody in their right mind would agree that MSU is one of, if not the best team in the country when they’re clicking on all cylinders.

But on Saturday, they weren’t. They weren’t against Michigan in January. Or Ohio State. Or Duke. Those were the losses.

But they weren’t against Iowa, Indiana, Northwestern or Wisconsin either. Those were wins, close ones to unranked opponents away from the Breslin Center.

When was the last time Michigan State played a complete 40 minutes against a tournament-caliber team that showcased the potential this team has?

To be honest, I couldn’t tell you, and it’s the first week of March … That’s not a good sign.

From the get-go this season, the narrative has been “national championship or bust” for Michigan State. And for good reason.

When a player of Bridges’ caliber bucks the trend of going pro to return for his sophomore season, a projected lottery pick in Jaren Jackson Jr. slots into the starting lineup, a point guard starts being compared to Magic Johnson, a big man almost averages a double-double, and a supposed silky-smooth jump shooter averages double digits, a national title isn’t just a possibility.

It’s almost an expectation.

“We gotta figure out how to get better as a team, just more consistent,” Winston said. “We were winning games, but we weren’t winning games pretty. And we should have with as much talent as we have, so we have a lot more improvements to make as a team.”

The Spartans will have more time than almost any other team in the NCAA tournament to make those improvements, as they won’t play another game for almost two weeks. The Big Ten moved their conference tournament up one week to play at Madison Square Garden, forcing some scheduling during the regular season to be condensed.

Even conference commissioner Jim Delaney admitted the condensed schedule wasn’t the best idea. But will a long period off be beneficial or detrimental for MSU?

Head coach Tom izzo admitted, “I don’t know what to do,” in the 12 to 13 days in between matchups. The players said they expect to practice hard, watch film and improve. But again: it’s the first week of March. One more loss and Michigan State will be sent home.

The talk has been talked, but now it’s time for the walk to be walked.

“We have a break right now where we can get better and sharpen up on a lot of things,” sophomore Josh Langford said. “And if we sharpen up on that, this team is a hell of a team and we have a lot of potential that we can put out there. If we just follow what we know we need to follow, we’ll be okay.”

That’s a big “if” though. MSU’s schedule this season hasn’t exposed themselves like in years past against many of college basketball’s blue bloods. Their results this year, albeit wins, were a bit too close for comfort.

As Bridges said, it was too much playing to lose and not enough playing to win.

It would be one thing if it was December or January, where the ensuing months could be used as a training ground to improve the weak points before March Madness. But it’s not.

The clock is about to strike midnight, and it seems like MSU is getting ready for bed.

Unless they wake up, a once-promising season could wind up ending painfully.