EAST LANSING -- Standing under a basket on the Breslin Center floor circled by media members following practice Thursday evening, Tom Izzo delivered the first question.
"How do you think your team is?" the Michigan State coach asked himself.
"I thought we were awful," he responded.
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And off we go.
The No. 9 Spartans (18-5, 9-3 Big Ten) are coming off a 79-74 loss at Illinois Tuesday for their third straight defeat. Izzo pointed out three reasons for the slide -- they're not defending like they should, aren't rebounding as well and, as a result, they can't push the ball in transition.
"It's nothing about shooting, nothing about free throw shooting, nothing about anything else," Izzo said. "It's about defend, rebound and run -- the way that Michigan State's done it, the way that championship teams do it and that's what we've got to get back to and that's what we tried to get after today a little bit."
Michigan State went two months without a loss. A 13-game winning streak and 9-0 start to Big Ten play has been followed by the program's first three-game losing streak since January 2017. Minnesota (16-7, 6-6) visits East Lansing on Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN), which coincides with a reunion of former Spartan players that includes the 1979 national championship team. So, there's an obvious focus on halting the skid as soon as possible.
"You either (put) up or shut up," is a family-friendly version of how forward Kenny Goins described it.
Michigan State's 13-game winning streak was halted in a 73-63 loss at Purdue on Jan. 27. The Spartans trailed by as many as 23 points and cut the deficit to four with five minutes left before falling short while being outrebounded 42-33 -- their largest deficit of the season which included 16 offensive boards for the Boilermakers. They returned home to face an Indiana team that brought a seven-game losing streak to the Breslin Center but shot just 8-for-22 from the free throw line while losing 79-75 in overtime. In Tuesday's loss at Illinois, Michigan State committed a season-high 24 turnovers, including 17 in the first half.
"(The frustration level is) not as high as it was after the second (loss)," sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said. "After the second one, we were pretty mad, we were pretty hungry. But this time, we're like, OK, we're going to go back to the basics where we're going to defend teams and we're going to make sure we rebound and we're going to run the floor. We're going back to foundation, Spartan basketball. Instead of worrying about our offense, we're going to do the hustle plays and all the effort-related plays."
Michigan State is still searching for its footing without a key piece. Junior guard Josh Langford missed eight straight games before the program announced last week he's out for the season due to a stress injury in his left leg that resulted in surgery. Izzo said he spoke to Langford Thursday and was told the surgery was successful but believes it had an impact on the team during the skid.
"I've been through so many injuries I don't think about it, but I think that bothered our team," Izzo said. "I think all of a sudden some freshmen said 'oh boy.' What's the old saying? Watch what you wish for. Everybody wishes to play more and then all of a sudden you have to and the responsibilities -- if you haven't done your homework or you're not ready for it, you've got problems."
Aaron Henry, who has six starts in 23 games, admitted Thursday he has pushed through a couple freshman walls already this season. His focus is on making continual progress but he's roommates with Langford and didn't downplay the news of him being sidelined for the rest of the season.
"It hurt all of us," Henry said. "It hurt all of us from a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint for what he brings to the court."
Izzo anticipated teams adjusting their gameplan with Langford out and said wing Kyle Ahrens is a "shell of himself" while playing through a back injury. That means there's even more focus on point guard Cassius Winston and forward Nick Ward.
"I've got two great players right now," Izzo said. "Nick Ward is a great player and so is Cassius Winston. And great players have to play great. ... You're going to go how your best players go and that's a lot of pressure on them."
Michigan State moves forward with Langford out for the year, Ahrens playing hurt and freshmen who may not be ready for more minutes. Izzo said he's losing sleep about the team's recent lull but not about its ceiling. Winston, a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, was a freshman when the Spartans endured their last three-game losing streak. And, he's not worried either.
"You've seen us at our best and now you've seen us at our worst," Winston said. "We know what it takes to win on this level, and we've got to get back to that."
This article is written by Matt Wenzel from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.