Three takeaways from Michigan State’s upset loss to Virginia Tech

Julian Mitchell, Men's Basketball Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING — This is why Tom Izzo makes the schedule the way he does. 

Last night, the No. 3 ranked Michigan State Spartans played in the quarterfinals of the Maui Invitational, and were upset by the Virginia Tech Hokies, 71-66. 

It was just another one of the tough early-season matchups the Spartans have on their schedule. Most teams wouldn’t like it that way, but these games help coach Tom Izzo figure out exactly what kind of team he has. For better or worse, this game did just that. 

Here are my takeaways. 

This team needs to find a way to survive without Cassius Winston

Things honestly looked well for Michigan State to start the game, as the team came out and connected on 7-of-11 shots early. But all that changed when star guard Cassius Winston picked up his second foul midway through the first half.

With Winston sitting, the Spartans had to rely on backup point guard Foster Loyer and freshman Rocket Watts to orchestrate the offense. Loyer wasn’t horrible leading the team, but the biggest issue was the Hokie guards, especially junior Wabissa Bede who exploited the mismatch on the offensive end. Watts struggled as well, with four of MSU’s 11 turnovers at halftime.

Scoring was also an issue with Winston on the bench. So far, no one on this team has emerged as a consistent second option. Forward Xavier Tillman has not looked the part at all, being a non-factor in the post. He finished the game with nine points, 12 rebounds and five turnovers on 4-of-10 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 on 3-pointers. 

Winston rises for a floater during the Champions Classic. (Credit: Tommy Massa / RedCedarLog)

Aaron Henry has to be the second option

This game showed that the Spartans are going to need to find a running mate for Winston if the team is going to live up to its lofty expectations. Right now neither of the backup points guards are good enough and Tillman hasn’t been producing, but this game did shed a light on who might fill that role. 

Sophomore Aaron Henry has been one of the most talked-about players for the Spartans since the final buzzer sounded in Minneapolis last season. Many pundits feel that he is the x-factor for this team, and in the second half against the Hokies, he showed exactly why. Henry finished with a team-high 18 points and added five rebounds and three assists on 7-of-12 shooting and 2-of-4 on 3-pointers. 

He still has moments where he’s hesitant and tends to fall back into the mindset of a role player, but when he realizes that he is a key player he can be special. After the Hokies went up 10 in the second half, Izzo used Henry as the primary ball-handler and had Winston off-ball. 

Henry showed confidence and poise driving the lane with quick bursts of speed and athleticism. He even made good passes, including one where he collapsed the defense and kicked to Winston for a 3-pointer. 

If Henry realizes the full breadth of his talents and understands just how big of a role he has on this team, college basketball better watch out. 

Turnovers have to be cleaned up

Turnovers have been an Achilles heel for the Spartans the past few seasons and they reared their ugly head once more against the Hokies. 

This year’s team was supposed to have more cohesion and be better under the helm of Winston, but careless mistakes still took place. MSU turned the ball over 16 times and gave up 20 points off them. Many of them came off of bad passes and traveling violations. 

The Spartans just don’t seem to be in sync early on and if they plan on winning any trophies this year, these mental mistakes have to stop. 

Next Up

The Spartans will have a lot to fix heading into the next game of the Maui Invitational. Fans will get the much-anticipated matchup of Tom Izzo and Georgia’s Tom Crean in the loser’s bracket of the tournament. 

The game tips-off at 2:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcasted on ESPN.

Contact Julian Mitchell at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @j_mitchell25.