NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 15: Austin Thornton #13 of the Michigan State Spartans drives the ball against Andre Dawkins #20 of the Duke Blue Devils during the 2011 State Farms Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Michigan State has evened its record at 2-2 with an uninspiring 69-47 win over UALR at the Breslin Center Sunday night. In contrast to the two losses (to North Carolina and Duke), when Tom Izzo was pleased with the team's effort despite the result, he had little good to say about this 22-point win. Rexrode quotes him as saying "I'm gonna write a book called 'Good to Bad'. That's what we did tonight, we went from good to bad." His mood is understandable, but it's hard to get too upset over a sparsely attended Sunday night snoozer against an overmatched opponent, so I went with "good to meh".
The Spartans started quickly in both halves, going up 18-5 to start the game and pushing a 10-point halftime lead to 19 less than 5 minutes into the second session. It was all the other time that was kind of a problem, as MSU played with less focus and energy than they had in any of the three previous contests. UALR had a chance to cut the lead to 9 with 13 minutes left but Courtney Jackson missed a three-pointer and MSU ran off 5 straight points to keep the Trojans at bay. The final margin of 22 was pretty close to the largest spread of the game (24) and thus a bit misleading, perhaps. There's not much else to say about the flow of the game, so I'll go right to the four factors analysis.
The Spartans didn't shoot very well (46.8 eFG%), didn't take care of the ball very well (21.6 TO%), didn't get many of their own misses (19.4 OReb%) and, although they effectively won the game by getting to the line, still only shot 61% once they got there. Despite all that they came out ahead in each of the categories.
Much of the credit for that can go to the defense. Though they may not have looked particularly impressive, they did hold the Trojans to a stifling 0.64 points per possession, continuing their run of not allowing a point per trip in a game yet this season. Their defensive prowess has included rebounding, as they have not allowed an opponent to get back as many as 1 out of 4 of their misses. So while the offense has been cringe-worthy at times, Izzo has to like at least some of what he sees at the other end, particularly with such a young team.
It seems somehow appropriate in a game like this that the leading scorer was Austin Thornton, who put up a career high 13 points, despite missing all three of his 3-point attempts. He did add 6 boards, 2 assists and 3 steals and stood out for his effort and energy. Keith Appling finally had a game with points and assists (12 and 3) and Travis Trice continued to look good at the point: the two played together again in stretches. They also continue to rebound surprisingly well for their size, each grabbing 2 defensive boards and Appling getting another on the offensive end. There can't be too many teams out there getting 12% defensive rebounding from the point guard spot, as MSU is doing this year. Draymond Green had a workmanlike 9-point/10-rebound performance, but did seem out of sorts or frustrated at times.
On the other side of the ledger, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix only took 4 shots between them in 39 combined minutes, though Payne did get to the line 4 times. Russell Byrd missed all 5 of his 3-pointers after both Appling and Izzo appeared annoyed with him for passing one up early. It's clear he's still finding his stroke. Brandon Wood failed to score in the second half after putting up 9 in the first.
So, this game is over and will fade from memory until all that remains is the W in the win column. The key for Izzo will be to ensure that the team doesn't lose focus and continues to play with energy, regardless of the opponent. Next up is Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which is likely to provide more of a challenge - they just beat Texas Southern by the same margin as MSU did.