First off, that's an excellent Gonzaga team--a team that's only going to get better as the season goes on. I was skeptical that their new starters up front could be major offensive threats. I was wrong. Robert Sacre and Elias Harris combined for 34 points on 28 FG attempts. I had hoped the MSU big men could play the Gonzaga big guys even, but it wasn't even close. Green/Roe/Nix/Sherman combined for just 14 points.
And Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray are playmakers. As fantastic as the plays Durrell Summers made on offense late in this game were, the defense he and Allen played on Bouldin and Gray throughout the game may have actually been the key factor in escaping with the win. Bouldin/Gray combined to shoot just 8 of 29 from the floor. If one or both of those guys is allowed to get hot, MSU probably has no chance to come back and win this game.
As it was, it took every ounce of moxie the Spartans had to come back from the early hole they dug for themselves. The hope had been that a young Gonzaga team would come out and be overwhelmed by the Bresin Center atmosphere. But quite the opposite scenario played out in the early minutes. MSU turned the ball over 10 times in the first 11 minutes of the game en route to falling behind by double digits.
They scrapped their way back to within 5 points at the half, struggled to get over the hump in the second half as the Bulldogs seemingly had an answer for everything the Spartans threw at them, and finally landed the big punch in the final four minutes, closing the game on a 10-4 run.
Three players accounted for 56 of MSU's 75 points (official box score is here):
- I expected almost nothing from Raymar Morgan tonight, after how poorly he played in the opener. Thankfully, my expectations were way off. He showed up big tonight, playing with an aggressiveness and composure the rest of the team was sorely lacking early in the game. He finished with 16 points on 10-11 FT shooting and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes, shaking off a pretty significant-looking sprain to his right (previously healthy) ankle late in the second half. Also: He got absolutely hosed on that 5th foul--and the 4th one was pretty questionable, too.
- Kalin Lucas didn't have his A game tonight--a lot of floaters in the lane that didn't have much chance to go in. Yet he still posted a decently-efficient offensive line: 19 points (on 16 FG attempts), 5 assists, 3 turnovers. And this was nice:
GOOD! LAYUP by Lucas, Kalin [PNT] 00:39 73-70 H 3
- Durrell Summers. The human highlight reel: Multiple twisting mid-range makes, stupendous-vertical-leap blocked shot, huge 3-pointer to take the lead with 3 minutes to go, two absolutely pure free throws to seal the deal. 21 points on 8-9 (!) FG shooting, 11 rebounds. Player. Of the game.
The contributions were much less consistent among the other seven Spartans who saw the floor. Positive spin: Imagine how good we'll be if we can get 5-6 guys to contribute offensively.
- Chris Allen: Limited offensive contributions (5 points on 7 FG attempts; 2 three-point attempts blocked). Stayed on the floor for 30 minutes, though, because his defense was so solid.
- Korie Lucious: Didn't score; missed all 3 shots he took from beyond the arc. Didn't make any mistakes with the ball, though: 2 assists, zero turnovers. Only played 16 minutes--I think because Izzo didn't want both him and Lucas on the floor defensively due to the Bouldin/Gray big guard combo.
- Draymond Green: 6 points, 10 rebounds. Played big down the stretch defensively in the hyper-small Lucas/Allen/Summers/Morgan/Green lineup. But needs to let things come to him offensively. Forced some bad passes: 1 assist vs. 4 turnovers.
- Derrick Nix: Played better defensively than offensively. Three blocked shots; impressed with how well he moves his feet away from the basket. Grabbed 4 offensive rebounds, but couldn't turn them into points (0-4 from the FT line).
- Garrick Sherman: Did I miss an injury here? Scored 4 points early on, 2 on a very nifty post move. Did not play after the 18-minute mark of the second half.
- Delvon Roe: Another horrific performance. Fouled out and turned the ball over 4 times in 12 minutes. He's too talented/smart not to pull it together at some point. Hopefully, this is just the after effects of the concussion. Looked lost on defense when he was on the floor, which is out of character.
- Isaiah Dahlman: Only played 1 minute, but it was an important one--the last one. Apparently, Tom Izzo wanted to stay small after Morgan fouled out. I don't think he touched ball, which is probably a good thing given that he was coming in cold.
This was a very up-tempo game: 77 possessions. (Tonight: MSU defense > MSU offense.) So MSU's 20 turnovers weren't quite as bad as you might think. But they were still pretty bad: TO% of 26.0%. Given that Gonzaga only turned it over 11 times and almost rebounded MSU to a draw (OffReb% of 32.6% vs. MSU's 36.1%), MSU had a lot of ground to make up in the shooting categories. Luckily, Gonzaga made only 4 of 18 three-point attempts, contributing to their poor eFG% of 38.6%. And MSU managed to get to the line 31 times (FT rate=54.4%)--led by Morgan--making 22 of those attempts.
Even with the early injury issues, it would have been pretty disappointing to drop this game at home. The Bulldogs did everything in their power to make that happen, and the inability of the MSU players--the guards, in particular--to keep things under control early on is perplexing. But ultimately, three guys who need to make plays for this team to be successful made a series of enormous plays. All things considered, you have to chalk this game up as a positive early-season experience.
(Note that I managed to get all the way through this recap without using that TV-announcer-friendly word that rhymes with "sad versity.")
Next Up: A hopefully-much-less-blood-pressure-raising match-up against the Toledo Rockets in the first round (but not the first round in the sense that losing means you don't advance to the second round or even means you don't get to play Florida in the third round) of the Legends Classic. 6:30, Friday night. The Breslin Center. Big Ten Network.
P.S. We're not alone in the "Expected National Championship Contenders Who Struggled to Beat an Unranked-but-Tradtionally-Nationally-Elite, Non-BCS-Conference Team" club.