EAST LANSING – Michigan State took a step toward returning to full health on Sunday.
But it still has a long way to go before it’s once again the team it was over those impressive first two weeks of the season.
And in the meantime, it has to find a way to win games.
Jaden Akins returned from a four-game absence for Michigan State for its Sunday game against Northwestern. But that wasn’t enough to change the Spartans’ fortunes, as they fell to the Wildcats, 70-63 in their second straight loss.
The sophomore guard was still feeling the effects of his time off – both over the last four games and in the preseason, which he missed nearly entirely due to a foot injury. He hit a 3-pointer on Michigan State’s first possession and didn’t make another shot the rest of the night.
Izzo had hoped to play Akins around 15 minutes and played him 22 during which he at times looked fatigued.
And the Spartans will still have multiple more weeks without senior Malik Hall, who also suffered a foot injury and was still seen wearing a boot on the Spartans bench.
Izzo said he’s not allowing himself to play what-if and is focusing on how Michigan State can win with the players it has.
“Those are two pretty important players,” Izzo said. “Hopefully when we get them back we’ll be a better team. But in the meantime, we’ve got to win games. And we’re capable of winning games.”
The two injuries are the biggest reason a promising Michigan State season has been thrown into its biggest crisis yet, with back-to-back losses and a game at a surprisingly strong 6-2 Penn State on Wednesday.
The Spartans started 3-1 with Hall and Akins at full health, with its lone loss by one point to Gonzaga.
It went 2-2 in three games without the two, then lost Akins’ first game back on Sunday.
Before Michigan State took on Northwestern, Izzo took a deep dive into Michigan State’s game film before the two injuries and after the injuries.
His biggest takeaway was a greater appreciation for Hall’s defensive acumen, something he expressed to his senior soon after.
“I said ‘Hey, coaches are just like players. You’re never going to appreciate me until you leave. But maybe I didn’t appreciate you as much until you were gone,’” Izzo said. “And I think that happens.”
Izzo compared Hall to players like Denzel Valentine and Xavier Tillman, who not only perform their assignments well are strong communicators who ensure that their teammates are positioned properly.
Players said they’ve noticed a drop off in communication with Hall on the bench and are working to make up for his absence.
“One guy goes down, you’ve still got to be able to talk and know what’s going on,” Spartans forward Joey Hauser said. “Sometimes when we’re throwing freshmen in there it can be hard but we’ve got to be able to talk them through things and make sure we’re all in the same page.”
Without Hall, Michigan State also doesn’t have the personnel to match a small lineup, with Northwestern went to on Sunday.
And while Akins was on the court, he clearly wasn’t his typical high-flying self. In a game that Northwestern went 21-for-24 from the free-throw line, the Spartans needed a player who could drive to the hoop aggressively and draw fouls.
Akins is typically that player but couldn’t be on Sunday.
“I think he’s still a little gun shy, I’ll be honest with you,” Izzo said. “And rightfully so.”
Izzo is hopeful Akins will improve with each game, and he’s targeted a Christmas return for Hall. But until then, he’ll have to make do with what he has.
“Our problem tonight was a team was more physical than us, and that doesn’t happen to us very often,” Izzo said. “Malik and Jaden are two big parts of that for us. I can’t make excuses and I have to live with reality. The reality is we have to find ways to win games until we have everybody back. And I do think we’ll become a very, very good team. But we’ve got to do a better job than we did tonight.”