On January 10, Michigan State was 16-1. They had just finished dismantling the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley. The loss to Iowa, their first of the season, seemed to be just an abnormality, a symptom of playing without arguably the best player in the country. The next day, the Spartans moved up in the rankings to No. 4 in both polls, even receiving a first place vote. Safe to say the ship was righted, and MSU was back on track. Then the nightmare week began.

First came a revenge game with the Hawkeyes. With a now-healthy Denzel Valentine and the home crowd behind them, it seemed like a win was certain, maybe even a rout. There’s no way a Tom Izzo team could lose to the same school twice in two weeks, right?

20 minutes later, MSU walked into the locker room at halftime down 22 on their home floor. The biggest and only halftime deficit the Spartans faced at home this year was three points against Louisville. The most MSU has been behind at the break at the Breslin Center in the last two years was seven points against Nebraska in 2014. Needless to say, the Spartans were in trouble.

One main area of concern for Izzo: toughness, or lack thereof.

“It’s kind of funny, a lot of people have laughed at me over the years because I want to be a football team on hardwood,” said Izzo after the Iowa loss. “You saw one, it just wasn’t us.”

This loss was most concerning for Spartan fans because rarely has a Tom Izzo team been out-toughed, especially at home. Iowa looked a lot like the MSU teams of years past, getting to every loose ball, playing tough defense and making threes. But still, it was just one loss, right?

“We’re 16-2 not 2-16,” said Izzo after the game. “We’ve beaten some good people. Basketball is about matchups, and we just didn’t matchup very good with this team.”

Next up for the Spartans was a date with the Wisconsin Badgers, the first time is what seems like forever without Bo Ryan at the other bench. This has been a definite down year for Wisconsin, which lost to Western Illinois on opening night and dropped four of its first five conference games. Seemed like a good opportunity for a bounce back win for MSU.

However, the Kohl Center has never been kind to Tom Izzo teams. The Spartans hadn’t won in Madison since January 2013, but Wisconsin isn’t good this year, right? Well, things got off to a rocky start when the team announced sophomore guard Tum Tum Nairn would be sidelined with plantar fasciitis, an injury he had been fighting through since last season.

Forty minutes later, a Valentine three-pointer rimmed out, a Matt Costello put back was too late, and suddenly the Spartans lost two games in a row.

That’s a lot of doom and gloom. But there is a silver lining, believe it or not.

Remember that team last year that made it to the Final Four as a No. 7 seed? Let’s take a look at how they stacked up against this year’s squad by this point in the season.

As of January 18:

2014-15 2015-2016
W/L: 12-6 16-3
Rank: N/R 10/11
Scoring: 73.8 78.9
Allowed: 61.8 62.7
Win Streak: 4 13
L.g. Loss 16 17
Top 25 W/L: 0-4 2-1
Record Since: 15-6
Finish: Final Four

This is a team built for March, not January. Valentine is finally settling back into the rotation and playing like the Player of the Year candidate he is.

Freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid are developing quicker than expected and are making solid contributions. Both are main parts of the rotation and have cracked the starting lineup.

Senior forward Costello is having the best season of his MSU career, averaging 9.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Frontcourt mate Gavin Schilling is coming along nicely after being sidelined with an injury of his own, shooting 61 percent from the field in eight games.

Bryn Forbes is proving to be one of the best shooters in the nation and even improved on his impressive shooting numbers from a year ago. His three-point percentage is at a career-high and his scoring is up by five, all while his minutes are at a career-low.

Top to bottom, this 2015-16 team has much more talent than last year’s, and look where they ended up.

While it may be tempting to push that panic button and look for another team’s bandwagon to jump onto, I urge you to stop. Just take a breath, look at the stats, watch a game and don’t abandon ship.

March can’t come soon enough.

Originally posted: http://impact89fm.org/sports/16608-2/

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