It sounded equal parts mea culpa, therapy session and honest assessment.
Tom Izzo covered plenty of topics over 36 minutes Thursday about a Michigan State basketball season gone awry, which could end up as his first losing season in more than a quarter-century as head coach.
One word — frustration — was the theme, particularly when watching his players go through the struggles of six losses in their last eight and the growing pressure of likely being the first group of Spartans since 1997 to miss the NCAA tournament.
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“I mean, do I worry, I’m losing it or losing them? I’m really not worried about that,” Izzo said. “I’m worried that there’s frustration. There’s frustration by everybody.”
A grueling seven-game road to the regular-season finish line starts at noon Saturday at Indiana (ESPN). It is the first of four games over the next eight days, with two more postponements still to be rescheduled after that stretch. And Izzo said he plans to use those games as a chance to start establishing their roles next season — even if there remains a minute mathematical chance to make the NCAAs this year. But the Spartans somehow have to put it all back together in the next few weeks.
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“(Change is) always on the table at this time of year, to be honest, winning or losing,” Izzo said. “More so when you’re losing. … I did say, ‘Hey, guys are up for an audition right now.’ Because you gotta see some progress made, or there’s gotta be changes. And maybe they feel the same way; I mean, that’s the way it is with the world right now.”
At 10-9 overall and 4-9 in the Big Ten with seven games remaining, the Spartans could finish worse than the 16-16 season in 1995-96, Izzo’s first as head coach. They have not had a losing record overall since 1987-88 and haven’t fallen below .500 in conference play since 1992-93, when Izzo was still an assistant for Jud Heathcote and Izzo’s current assistant, Dwayne Stephens, was a senior player.
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Joshua Langford is the only senior on the roster. Junior Aaron Henry, who tested the NBA draft waters last summer, is expected to take the plunge this year. Izzo already has three players signed in guards Jaden Akins, Pierre Brooks II and Max Christie, with the other open scholarship coming back from walk-on Jack Hoiberg.
That doesn’t leave much roster space for an overhaul unless players leave the program. And Izzo was candid about what the future might hold.
“I’m not sitting here writing off the year because I know where I’ve been before, I know how fast it can change,” he said. “But I do want to see and have had a lot of meetings about, ‘The scholarship is a two-way street. We have an obligation to you, and you have an obligation to us.’ And that’s always the way it is.
“They’re trying to not make it that way, give a kid a four-year scholarship, let him do whatever he wants. And that’s kind of the problem, too. That’s a societal problem that I think we’re in. Somewhere in the middle is a happy medium, but I feel very comfortable about what we’ve talked to our players about.”
For now, MSU is flirting with a potentially rare and ugly record if current trends continue. Losing never sits well with Izzo, who is 638-250 all-time with the Spartans.
“So a different year in so many different ways, and probably a bad year to be an average team that needed to get better in the offseason as far as the competition,” Izzo said. “It’s been a balancing act, a juggling act. I probably spent more time with the guys, and that’s why I can appreciate some of what they’re going through. But some of those same mistakes are frustrating.”
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Poor shooting remains a problem. Turnovers, specifically the ones that lead to easy scores for opponents in transition, continue to plague MSU. Rebounding and defense, particularly on the interior and in help situations, are at best inconsistent.
That’s with Game 20 coming Saturday against the Hoosiers (12-9, 7-7). With about a month from an NCAA tournament, the Spartans need perhaps the most miraculous stretch run of Izzo’s career to make.
“Are they frustrated? Of course, they’re frustrated,” Izzo said. “They have so many things they’re trying to deal with, and this is new. It seems like guys are frustrated when you’re watching facial responses. I say it’s the opposite with me. People are calling me and saying, ‘Why aren’t you more angry? Why aren’t you more frustrated?’
“Everybody’s trying to deal with this. And I don’t mean just losing some games, I’m talking about everything else they’re dealing with. It gets magnified, the other things they’re dealing with outside (of basketball), when you’re struggling inside.”
Here is more of Izzo’s frank assessment:
On player development
“Every coach I’ve talked to is concerned about that, because, it’s almost like workout guys are more important than anybody now. Can I do and-one stuff? Can I dribble it every which way and do this and do that? Can I make a Euro step? How about just being able to make a free throw or a good two-hand chest pass? There is a disconnect, and there’s no question about it. And I think coaches all over the country are worried about it.”
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On the lack of a normal offseason
“As I’ve been saying all year, with the lack of May, June, July, August, September, that’s when you kind of make that transition and help things. That’s where you take a guy who’s maybe a 2-guard and you make them into a point guard. You take a guy who’s gotta gain 20 pounds and you’re with him every day. … That offseason is the time when you really develop some things.”
On figuring out what is going wrong
“Every time I talk to you guys, I feel like I’m trying to find answers. It seems like I’m trying to find excuses. … I don’t look at this the same way people do. I kind of have a great understanding of what’s going on. I can’t say that I’ve been able to just stop it. And that includes me — I’ve been through a lot, too, with COVID myself and dealing with all the different personalities and kids and parents and how they handle it.”
On players’ mental well-being
“They always say mental health is important. Well, it’s pretty hard to handle yourself mentally with all the things these kids have had thrown at them this year. And so then you lose a little bit and it gets (exasperating), there’s no question about it.”
On how Izzo has altered his coach-player approach
“If you ask me personally, I’ve been too mellow. And I have been trying to find a balance. And the balance is different with every kid.”
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On the final month of the season
“The roof hasn’t caved in. This is a unique year that is like no other, as Jim Nantz would say. And we’re gonna try to finish it out as strong as we can and see what happens because I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen. There’s a good chance some teams are still gonna get (COVID-19). And when that happens, that could change things for us. It could mean we don’t play as many games, or it could change things for tournament time. There’s so many factors, variables out there right now that it is hard, and it is frustrating.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball: Tom Izzo explains Spartans’ struggles