With 8:26 remaining in the second half, Michigan State had cut Illinois' lead to only two points, and with the score at 59-57, looked poised to pull ahead and take control of the game. Instead, the Spartans failed to score at all for the next four minutes, and ultimately only scored 5 more points until the final buzzer on their way to a massively disheartening loss.
The obvious complaint is that MSU was far too happy to settle for jumpers early in the shot clock, and not assertive enough in getting the ball into the paint. It's not necessarily that simple, however, as Joe Rexrode noted in his post-mortem:
Keep in mind, though, that Illinois was sagging -- and doubling Green when he caught it in the post, which must have taken him by surprise at first. But hey, the last time Illinois saw Green here, he was carving them up around the basket. I've never seen an Illinois team play with less aggression on the perimeter, but this team has to play that way because it so lacks muscle inside. When you throw in another dismal shooting night for MSU, well...
"If you're not shooting well, it's hard to get it in there," Izzo said.
Color me somewhat skeptical about how much Illinois had to do with this, because we've seen this story over and over from MSU this season. The blueprint is obvious on how to defend MSU: limit their opportunities inside, and force them to hit jump shots. Down the stretch in this game, the Spartans simply couldn't do that. And for the same reasons, it's probably time to permanently re-adjust our expectations for this season. Unless Kalin Lucas finds his form of old, and Durrell Summers starts playing more assertively, good teams are going to force MSU to hit jump shots to win. Sadly, MSU is simply not a team blessed with many good pure jump shooters.
And yet, it's difficult to get too down on the team because, even considering the horrific second half cold spell, MSU was in the game until for 39 of the 40 minutes against a very good Illinois team, in a tough road environment. The four factors graph clearly illustrates the reasons why this was so:
MSU turned the ball over 15% of the time (which is not phenomenal, but better than we're used to), and cleaned up on the offensive boards (45% OR%). MSU also limited Illinois' second opportunities by seizing more than 70% of the defensive rebound opportunities. The Spartans parleyed those three facets into 17 more field goal attempts than Illinois had. That fact explains how MSU stayed close to a team that 1) had an eFG% more than 18 points higher than MSU's, and 2) shot 10 more free throws than MSU did.
Consequently, I think any derogatory comments about the "hustle," "desire," and "toughness" of this team are misplaced. MSU played very, very hard tonight, and lost because 1) it's becoming clear that this season, they don't have the athletes or the interior players you need for a strong interior game, and 2) the shots just weren't falling tonight. These games happen for second-tier teams, and it's probably time to realize that MSU is one of those teams this season.
All that said, MSU has to try harder [to get the ball inside]. Yes, the Spartans missed a lot of good shots tonight, but when that's happening I think you have to step back, be patient, force it in there and try to get Green or Roe or Nix (who played his best game of the season, by the way) to the foul line if nothing else. Green got MSU back into the game with his driving 3-point play, and the more he does in that region, the better off this team will be.
I really wonder if this is actually going to happen at this point, however. Izzo famously called the team a "pretty boy jump shooting team" after the Syracuse game, and that bit of #realtalk hasn't seemed to have brought a substantial change in the month since. So, the frustration: get used to it.
Player bullets after the jump.
- Kalin Lucas hit several long-ish jump shots early in the game, and looked to be on his way toward a big game. But, just like everyone else, the shots stopped falling, and while he still led the team in scoring, he did so with a relatively middling 15 point effort. He still shows flashes of brilliance (including one gorgeous drive for a layup) but clearly had difficulties when being guarded by the bigger, more physical McCamey.
- Durrell Summers did nearly all of his damage on the perimeter: he went 3-for-7 from 3, and only 1-for-5 from inside the line. The problem was that Summers did little else besides hitting a few jump shots: no assists, and more distressingly, no rebounds. KJ was hoping that Summers would contribute on the boards, and that obviously didn't materialize. Still, his jump shooting kept MSU close while Illinois was on fire in the first half, and Izzo apparently "liked his demeanor a little bit better" tonight. So there's that.
- Draymond Green had 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Many of his problems tonight can be attributed to the fact that, as Rexrode said, Illinois was really keying on him. Still, he had quite a bit of success when he decided to take the ball to the hole; one only wishes he did so more often. He added six rebounds and four assists before fouling out.
- Delvon Roe was fantastic on the offensive boards: he grabbed 7, and was able to get several second-chance points as a result. On defense, he had his hands full with Mike Davis but nonetheless acquitted himself reasonably well. It wasn't the lights-out performance we saw him give against Jon Leuer, but a decent night nonetheless.
Keith Appling continues to earn a bigger role on the team. He clearly struggled with his shot tonight -- 3 points on 1-for-5 shooting -- but, to my eye, at least, made several excellent hustle plays, and again played very strong defense. So many of Illinois' jump shots were strongly contested but went in anyway -- and Appling seemed to be defending many of those. There's only so much you can do against a team shooting the lights out like that. He also didn't turn the ball over at all.
- It was a game best forgotten for Korie Lucious. 1-for-5 from 3, 0-for-3 from 2. One of those misses was a wide, wide, wide open 3 near the end which could have put MSU back in the game -- and the shot wasn't even close. As commenter IsItMarchYet said, Lucious is now 11-42 from the field (26%) and 6-24 (25%) from 3 in Big Ten play. But I can't help but think that he'll probably do something brilliant soon. As KJ has written, Lucious defies analysis. At least he didn't turn the ball over.
- Derrick Nix continues to improve on the offensive end; he was the most assertive of the low post players. While he continues to play out-of-control on occasion (1 offensive foul that I can remember, and there might have been a second), given the state of the offense, Izzo probably doesn't want to discourage aggression on the offensive end. In total, he had 6 points and grabbed 6 boards in only 11 minutes of play and, like clockwork, shot 50% from the line. If he continues to play like this his minutes will continue to increase.
- Adreian Payne played 10 fairly anonymous minutes, scoring 2 points and grabbing 4 boards. I remember very little about anything else he did, honestly.
- Mike Kebler, Austin Thornton, and Garrick Sherman all played sparingly.
Up next: Saturday at Purdue. Hooray!