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Staggering Michigan State Spartans men's basketball team struggles with point guard play

Nebraska guard Trey McGowens, left, knocks the ball from Michigan State guard Rocket Watts in the first half in East Lansing on Saturday. (AP photo)

By LARRY LAGE

AP Sports Writer

EAST LANSING — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo bowed his head and pressed his palms over his masked face as a simple situation resulted in yet another turnover during a recent game.

Sitting in a chair on the socially distanced sideline, the Hall of Fame coach could be seen reacting the same way more than once as his team carelessly gave the ball away inside a mostly quiet Breslin Center.

It has been nearly a year since the pandemic disrupted college sports and nothing has been normal, yet many figured the Spartans would — as usual — be one of the nation’s better teams, certainly under Izzo’s steady hand. Even in seasons where Michigan State

loses a handful of games, the Spartans are often one of those dangerous teams to watch when tournament time comes around.

Not this season, not by a long shot.

The Spartans were No. 13 in the preseason AP Top 25 and jumped to No. 4 in December after beating Notre Dame and then-No. 6 Duke. By January, they plummeted out of the Top 25.

Their biggest problem has been point guard play in an uneven season that might leave them out of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997.

“It’s a bad year not to have experience there,” Izzo said in a telephone interview.

Like a football team without a solid quarterback, a baseball squad without strong pitching or a hockey team that lacks good goaltending, basketball teams with a weakness at point guard have a hard time winning consistently.

Michigan State’s task was a tall one: Replace star point guard Cassius Winston and do-it-all forward Xavier Tillman. After a promising start, there was a three-game skid, then a four-game losing streak — including a jaw-dropping, 30-point loss at Rutgers.

As Izzo’s teams have often done during his 26-year run, though, MSU might be building momentum in February with a modest, two-game winning streak.

“It doesn’t save us,” Izzo said after a two-point win over Penn State. “We’re still a work in progress.”

The Spartans (10-7, 4-7 Big Ten) have to figure it out on the fly because they host No. 15 Iowa (14-6, 8-5) on Saturday and they’re running out of time. But a string of ranked opponents give MSU an opportunity to get on the NCAA Tournament bubble and rally for a spot in college basketball’s showcase.

“The one thing we’ve got in this crazy league of ours is, as hard as it is, you’ve got your opportunities,” Izzo said.