Michigan State basketball has a knack for playing anyone, anytime, any place. Aircraft carrier? Sure. Air Force Base in Germany? Yep. Scheduling non-conference games against Duke, Kansas, Connecticut, or Kentucky? Why not. How about an asteroid floating around space? Yeah, MSU will probably play someone there too. Tom Izzo used all these games as a chance for his teams to get experience against better teams to use as a base for big games later in the season, however, MSU rarely won.
It was different last night. MSU took down #1 Kentucky 78-74 in the Champions Classic in Chicago in what is being described as a program win. I do agree with the sentiment that MSU needed to get one of these big non-conference wins, but I think our program is pretty good. Regardless, it was an impressive showing (especially in the first half) and now the Spartans should have the number one ranking next week.
How fun is it to watch MSU run the ball like they did? I know that Izzo says every year that MSU is going to run, but it seems like that really is the game plan this year. I was concerned that this would cause sloppy play as we’ve seen in the past, but the Spartans finished with just 7 turnovers. With the stingy defense all over the place, Kentucky was forced into giving the ball away 17 times.
I hadn’t had a chance to see much of this team prior to the game yesterday, but I am impressed with this bunch of grizzled veterans. I mean, seniors, juniors, and sophomores who can contribute to a basketball team’s success? Who knew that was possible! If you listened to any of the broadcast yesterday, it didn’t seem like that was an option! And still, the narrative today seems to be that we learned nothing from the game other than Kentucky is young and good and wouldn’t have lost this game come March.
But I’m with Tom Izzo. Everyone is talking about how Kentucky is going to get better. Well guess what? The Spartans will be playing in March too. And I don’t know about you, but I think we’re going to be better too.
On to the Boat!
Captain: Everyone talks about Gary Harris and Adriean Payne leaving senior Keith Appling largely ignored. A portion of that is his fault with some of the performances from previous seasons, but Appling showed last night why he can be a force to be reckoned with. Keef finished the night an incredible stat line- 22 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals, and only 3 turnovers. If Michigan State is going to stick to this running game plan, then smart play by the guards is crucial. Appling won’t always be our leading scorer, but he certainly impressed last night. When Kentucky tied the game late in the second half, all of Spartan Nation held their breaths to see if we could weather the ferocious storm of the Wildcats. Keith was a huge part of hanging on – sinking a giant three to get the lead right back. We all know that Izzo’s streak of having every four year player make it to a Final Four could end this year and I’m fairly certain Keith would try and take all the blame for that. With his comments at the end of the game, stating MSU wanted to be #1 in April and not in November, I know he’s dialed in. Enjoy the front of the Boat, Keith. You earned it and made people sit up and take notice of a senior in a sea of freshman.
First Mate: Sarah and I went back and forth on this a bit but have ultimately decided that Branden Dawson deserves the award. How much fun is it to watch Dawson play right now? While he only scored 8 points, he had the final basket to keep the Wildcats at bay. Plus he did this: Dunk City! Love me a Dawson dunk. Additionally, in a night when rebounds for MSU were hard to come by (hello +12 rebounds to Kentucky), Dawson finished the night with a solid 9 and was a huge piece of the defense (two steals in the first three minutes) that had Kentucky scrambling at the beginning of the game. I cannot wait to have him for a full season at 100%.
Second Mate: I am firmly on the side of #teamminifro, and the leader of that group is Gary Harris. When the game started, I was certain that we were going to see a Harris game that was one of the best he’s ever had in his young career as a Spartan, especially given the opponent. Unfortunately, it was more of a tale of two halves. Don’t get me wrong, Harris had a good game – 20 points (11 in the first 11 minutes), but he went MIA in the second half, right when we needed him. He was, of course, part two of the key sequence that stopped Kentucky’s run with his steal and lay-up, so we’ll give him some props. But I’m going to need that intensity in both halves. We’ll see it though, I have no doubt.
Bosun: In between telling people that MSU should be up by more, Jay Bilas stated that Denzel Valentine had the best hands on the team. I was a wee bit dubious, but after the performance last night, I agree that Denzel might be the secret weapon. I’d still like to see what Travis Trice has to offer (#medialovestrice), but Denzel solidified himself as a key to this team’s success. It was Denzel’s pass that gave Dawson the opportunity for another stellar dunk. He finished the game with 5 points and 5 assists.
Swab the Deck: Adriean Payne. I love watching AP play because you can tell how much it means to him. He was the guy we needed in the post against Kentucky’s size and athleticism, but his silly fouls lead me to ask him to do a bit more work. I know that college basketball is being called completely different this year (a topic for another day but UGH), but some of Payne’s fouls were just plain silly – especially the last two. He’s a leader on this team, and in a game when we were undersized, we needed Payne on the floor. He held his own against Julius Randle, who is a terrifying beast, but it clearly hurt the Spartans when he had to sit down for extended periods of time in foul trouble. He’ll learn, as many college players are going to be forced to, how to adjust his game, but the off the ball fouls are unacceptable. He’s a senior leader on the team, and we need him on the floor. He did finish the game with a solid 15 points, and I will take that. But fewer fouls next time would be ideal.
Iceberg: I know it seems harsh to have an iceberg so early in the season, but this team has a high ceiling and I’d like to hold them to that. Bundle up, Matt Costello and Alex Guana, you’re headed for the ‘berg. Look, the expectations for these two would have been much lower had Payne stayed out of foul trouble, but once he went out, we needed someone on Randle…and it clearly was not these two. They were severely undersized to guard him, but that’s what we had. We need to know there is another option if we have a situation like that again. Two bright spots: I’m not sure we’ll see a team that big again for awhile (maybe Michigan with McGary?) and no one needs to tell Costello that he was a one man struggle fest last night. He’s well aware.
So there you have it. MSU takes down the number one team and will move into that spot when the new rankings come out Monday, which would be an incredible birthday present for me. While there is work to be done – free throws, maintaining intensity, the foul issue, REBOUNDS – I think we’ve got a pretty good team here, folks. And it will only get better!
What’s next? The Spartans face Columbia on Friday in East Lansing as the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic gets underway. Should be a much easier game (in theory).
Go Green! Beat Columbia!