NEW YORK — Following Michigan State’s first loss in 49 days–not to mention the Spartans’ second in two tries against their hated archrivals–one might expect the MSU men’s basketball team to be down in the dumps.
And they were. It’s no secret that losing to Michigan is inexcusable around East Lansing. The Spartans knew that following Saturday’s 75-64 Big Ten tournament semifinal setback at the hands of the Wolverines.
But Tom Izzo warned after the game not to expect the Big Ten’s outright regular season champions to let this loss define his team going into the NCAA tournament.
“The one thing that I would remind everybody, this team has won  games in a row and won 29 games this season,” the 23rd-year head coach said. “And through some trying times, and I think that I’m going to appreciate a lot.”
He’s right. The Spartans, with national headlines swirling around the program for well over a month now, have handled their business and powered to a 29-4 record. The most recent loss will sting as the team now sits for at least 12 days until their first NCAA tournament game, but those days won’t go unused.
“We have a break right now where we can get better and sharpen up on a lot of things,” sophomore guard Josh Langford said. “We really haven’t had a break like that throughout the season. 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.”
The team’s potential has been widely praised all season, ever since beginning the year with the preseason No. 2 ranking. The Spartans have remained in the top 10 all year, looking to become the second team in program history to ever hold that honor.
That being said, the sky-high potential is also the reason fans and experts cringe when they see the defense allow 49 second-half points to Michigan, a 20-minute period where the Wolverines made two out of every three shots and shot 71 percent from beyond the arc.
But don’t tell the Spartans that there’s worry. They appear focused, even after the jarring second stanza.
“We just don’t want to feel this feeling in the tournament,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “Of course you want to win a national championship. You can’t get games back, so we just got to move on.”
[su_pullquote align=”right”]”It’s not the end of our season. There’s still another big goal that we’re very capable of achieving.”
A national championship. That’s what Bridges returned to not just compete for, but win. That’s what Izzo longs for, too: a second title. And while the Michigan loss–both, really–opens up wounds and exposes the Spartans a bit, the team kept a level head about it following the game.
“It was a big game,” guard Cassius Winston said. “But it’s not the end of our season. There’s still another big goal that we’re very capable of achieving. So we just gotta use this to fuel our fire.
“I think everybody didn’t play their best game today. And we just gotta get back to the shop and become that team we can become.”
That hope was shared by a few in the locker room among the mopey facades put forth by the disappointed Big Ten regular season champs.
“You can’t always look at the negative side of things,” Langford said. “You have to look at the brighter side of things. Hindsight [is] 20/20, we have a great chance at being national champions. We know what we have to do to become that.”
But surely the third straight loss to your nemesis from down the road–dating back to last season–changes your outlook on this team, right, Coach?
“They’ve done the things they’ve needed to do over a long period of time,” Izzo said. “And I’m going to keep that in mind, not panic over a loss when it’s your rival. It’s always a bigger win when it’s playing for a chance to play in the championship game. Of course it’s a bigger one.
“But I’ve got a lot of pride in these guys and what they’ve done and how they’ve worked through some circumstances that had nothing to do with them. And I’m really pleased with that and proud of them, to be honest with you.”
The undisputed emotional leader of the team, Lourawls ”Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., kept his head held high and offered priceless perspective in the losing locker room.
“It sucks,” the native of The Bahamas said of losing to a rival. “But there’s more important things in life than that. Don’t get me wrong, they’re our rival and it sucks. But there’s people in third world countries that don’t have water. I’m not gonna worry about that.”
[su_pullquote align=”left”]”It’s still bigger than basketball. There’s people starving outside and people who don’t know where they can get their next meal.”
Evidently, his perspective from a troubled background disseminated throughout the team, because Langford offered a similar outlook for the Spartans going forward.
“At the end of the day, it’s still bigger than basketball,” he said after shooting 1-for-8 in the loss. “There’s people starving outside and people who don’t know where they can get their next meal. People that are homeless. Sometimes you gotta make sure that you can’t let it take your joy. Because this team is a great team and we have a great chance at winning a national championship.”
The Big Dance is feast or famine for 68 teams. Michigan State will be one of the handful of teams with the biggest target on its back, and that’s a challenge Winston believes the team is up to.
“I think we’re ready,” the wise sophomore said. “If we’re not ready, we got a whole week or two to get ready. By the time we get back out on that floor, it’s gonna be a whole different team. We’re gonna be at a whole different level.”