Tom Izzo says he hopes Gophers fans continue to stick with Richard Pitino, because he doesn’t know any basketball program in the country that could sustain the loss of as many players as Pitino has and remain competitive.
Michigan State’s Hall of Fame coach didn’t like the criticism he was hearing about his young counterpart at Minnesota during a rough season. But the No. 2 Spartans didn’t take it easy on the Gophers, who saw their losing streak reach eight consecutive games after falling 87-57 on Tuesday night in front of 12,218 at Williams Arena.
“It’s been a shame what’s happened to them,” Izzo said. “If I or anyone else in the league or in the country — Duke, Kentucky, any of them — lost four out of their top six players, we would be in worse shape than these guys are in.”
Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. led Michigan State with a career-high 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the field, including 5-for-8 from three-point range. The Spartans (25-3, 13-2) kept rolling after jumping out to an 18-6 lead on 6-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc. They shot 10-for-12 from long distance (14-for-22 for the game) to lead 43-25 at halftime.
The Gophers (14-14, 3-12) were led by freshman guard Isaiah Washington’s 18 points. Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason also added 16 and 14 points, respectively, but Minnesota lost for the 11th time in the past 12 games.
Injured guards Amir Coffey (shoulder) and Dupree McBrayer (leg) have missed a combined 15 games. Center Reggie Lynch has been suspended for 12 games. The Gophers have won only once shorthanded, when they beat Penn State 95-84 on the road in overtime on Jan. 15.
“I might burn the computer that the video coordinator gives that to,” Pitino said. “I’m not so sure there’s a lot to take from that, to be honest. They’re terrific, but we’re just not very good right now.”
Izzo had the Gophers picked as one of the top sleeper teams in the country before the season. That was with starters Coffey, McBrayer and Lynch, who have combined to average 33.6 points and 14.4 rebounds this season (not to mention Lynch’s once Big Ten-leading 4.0 blocks per game).
Even after losing key reserve forward Eric Curry to a knee injury in August, Minnesota was ranked as high as No. 12 after a 7-0 start with victories over Providence and Alabama. Pitino’s team was supposed to be the biggest threat to Michigan State in the Big Ten title race this year.
Now the Gophers are just fighting to finish the season above. 500. Three regular-season games (at Wisconsin, vs. Iowa and at No. 6 Purdue) remain before the Big Ten tournament.
The Spartans, who have won nine in a row, are in a tight battle with Ohio State and Purdue for the league crown in the final stretch. They showed Tuesday why they arguably have the most talent in the Big Ten, and maybe the country.
All-America candidate Miles Bridges, who had 20 points and the game-winning three-pointer Saturday against Purdue, was held to only five points on 1-for-7 shooting. But Michigan State still hit 14 threes and dominated the paint. Jackson and sophomore forward Nick Ward combined for 40 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks.
The Gophers, who shot only 32.2 percent and were outrebounded 49-22, got to within 43-30 after Murphy’s three and Washington’s layup to open the second half.
After Murphy picked up his fourth foul, Minnesota sank deeper and eventually trailed 69-39 midway into the second half after Jackson hit his fifth three-pointer.
Michigan State was able to be much more physical defensively against Murphy, but even the lack of fouls called was the least of the Gophers’ concerns on a night they were clearly overmatched in every way.
“I don’t think I’ll ever just stop having fun playing,” Murphy said. “It’s just a growing experience. Me, Nate, Dupree, [seniors Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou] have been through this before [during an 8-23 season in 2016]. It’s just something that’s going to make you stronger.”