Column: For Michigan State to win championships, their defense needs to travel

By Justin Frommer

ROSEMONT, Ill. — In recent weeks, it has been a guessing game for which Michigan State defense shows up. We have seen the good where the Spartans have given up over 65 points just once in the last six games, the lone exception coming at Iowa in a 96-93 win. We have also seen the bad, usually on the road and especially in the first half of games.

Iowa was one of those examples. Michigan State allowed the Hawkeyes to score almost 20 points more than their season average for points in a game.

Through the first 20 minutes against Northwestern on Saturday, the same type of bad defensive performance occured in the first half.

Despite the majority of the fans in Allstate Arena Saturday cheering for the visiting Spartans, (and yes it felt and sounded like a home game for Michigan State), Michigan State’s defense played at an “un-Breslin-like” level.

The Wildcats average just under 70 points a game which is 12th in the Big Ten. Without their leader in senior point guard Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern put up 49 points in the first half and were on pace to annihilate their season average for points in a game.

“For us, our defense let us down,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo following the game. “We were really poor in the first half. We were really poor in ball-screen coverages.”  

The Spartans struggled in every aspect defensively in that half. The forwards, especially Nick Ward got caught switched on screens as Northwestern players including Derrick Pardon made swift cuts to the basket off of screens for easy early buckets.

The guards, especially Joshua Langford, struggled to get over the top of screens as Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law torched Michigan State from behind the arc.

All that changed in the second half when the Spartans held Northwestern to an 11-point half en route to a historic comeback for a 65-60 victory.

After shooting 60 percent from the field through the first 20 minutes, the Wildcats shot under 12 percent in the second half.

Leading the way was Cassius Winston who added to his second half stellar offensive performance by giving fits to Lindsey and Law on outside shots.

“I definitely felt that we played better in the second half,” said Izzo. “We got up on those ball screens I thought we did a better job moving the ball.”

“I don’t know if they got cold or tired,” said Izzo. Northwestern had only three players that came off the bench. “We just kept running different people. That’s one of our pluses is our depth.”   

Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid are examples of how MSU’s depth helped them succeed definitely, not just Saturday but for the past couple weeks. Izzo mentioned how Goins’ length helps him guard smaller players and he has the experience of going against larger forwards from last season.

Time and again this season McQuaid’s been seen going flying across the court picking up ever-important charge calls in key moments of games.

The NCAA tournament is not played in East Lansing. Izzo’s team knows that. For Michigan State to reach their goals of winning a national championship, they will need more consistent defensive efforts on the road. The Spartans have just one more home game left, Tuesday night at Illinois. After that: a trip to Wisconsin, potentially four games in New York City in the Big Ten conference tournament, and then an NCAA destination that is up in the air.

“We talk all the time about how you win championships and how you advance, our defense has to travel both home and on the road,” said Izzo.

It is a stretch where Michigan State needs to figure out their defensive road woes. It is too much to ask for a perfect defensive game. The skill on all other collegiate teams are too good to ask that of Michigan State. However, just 20 minutes of lockdown defense will not save the Spartans forever. It may against a struggling team like Northwestern but not against the competition they will face come the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and potentially beyond.