EAST LANSING, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) — No one expected Michigan State to be great in its first game in two months with all of its players available.
Competitive, energetic or remotely competent probably would have helped, though.
March has arrived and Tom Izzo's Spartans may already be longing for February, which saw them go 3-4. Illinois came into Breslin Center on Saturday, led for most of the afternoon and walked away with a stunning 53-46 victory to all but kill MSU's Big Ten title hopes.
"I'll throw myself under the bus – that's inexcusable. Ridiculous," said Izzo, whose No. 18 Spartans (22-7, 11-5 Big Ten) are alive only in mathematical terms in the league race with two games to play.
"Awful. Terrible. Poor," MSU senior point guard Keith Appling said to describe the performance, which was marked by more offensive struggles from him. "I mean, the list goes on. We didn't play well at all today, offensively or defensively."
Gary Harris scored 19 points for the Spartans and Branden Dawson was good defensively in a return from a nine-game absence with a broken hand. But just about everything else was broken for MSU – which fell 60-51 to Nebraska in its last Breslin outing.
Appling continues to be an offensive non-entity and senior Adreian Payne had perhaps his worst game of the season with four points, seven rebounds, four turnovers and more defensive issues.
Izzo's best team in terms of taking care of the ball coughed it up 16 times, leading to 25 Illinois points off turnovers.
"We had too many turnovers as a team and the best players didn't play good," Payne said. "I didn't play that good, and that's the main thing."
The Spartans looked like strangers, and that's not necessarily the way to be with just two games left before the postseason begins.
"My team didn't look like my team today," said Izzo, who mentioned a lack of energy and some outside distractions that found his team during the week.
Tracy Abrams had 12 points to lead three players in double figures for Illinois (17-12, 6-10), which lost 78-62 at home to MSU on Jan. 18 with Payne out of the lineup.
Harris led an MSU charge in the second half, and a 40-32 Illinois lead was down to 42-39 when he appeared to get a steal and breakaway layup, plus the foul – but an official had stopped play for a shot-clock violation.
Illinois instantly got the lead back up to 47-39 with 7:59 left, and Appling and Payne were dismal from the foul line late, negating any chance to get back into it.
"In no way, shape or form will any referee take any credence in why we lost that game," Izzo said of that play. "We lost that game because we didn't play the way a Michigan State team is supposed to play."
And this one looks less and less like it knows what that means.
"We've just got to keep playing," Harris said. "We don't want to lose three in a row, so we've got to find a way to bounce back (Thursday) against Iowa."