Draymond Green was a one-man wrecking crew as he led Michigan State to an impressive road victory in one of the toughest places to win in college basketball. After leading for much of the game, including all of the last 18:30, MSU held off a late rally to become only the seventh team to record a win over Gonzaga in the McCarthey Center.
To the surprise of many, including me, MSU won this game by completely dominating inside. The Spartans front line of Green, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne frustrated Gonzaga's attempts to get the ball down low to their big men, center Robert Sacre and Elias Harris. Nix and Payne did a terrific job denying Sacre the ball and the help defense did the rest, creating numerous turnovers by doubling or tripling the post and clogging up the passing lanes. Gonzaga committed 13 turnovers in the first half, some of them on attempts to force the ball inside and others due to simply not being able to generate any consistent offense.
The Gonzaga offense divided pretty neatly into three phases. Freshman Gary Bell did some early damage creating for himself. He finished with 13 points on only 6 shots. For most of the latter part of the first half their scoring consisted of Robert Sacre free throws. Much of the rest was courtesy of 5'11" 150LB guard David Stockton being his own one-man band, draining three-pointers and getting to the line. He finished with a team-high 19 points. But in all cases it was one guy trying to do it himself and this is reflected in the assist numbers. Gonzaga came into the game averaging an assist on 56% of their field goals. The MSU defense held them to only 9 assists on 19 scores (47%).
After weathering the Gary Bell-led storm to start the game MSU went into halftime with a one-point lead. In the second half they steadily pulled away, pushing their lead to as high as 14, always able to answer when Gonzaga made a push. They closed the game out in a manner uncomfortably reminiscent of UCLA in last year's tournament game, but managed to hit enough late free throws to keep the Zags at arm's length.
But the big story of the game was Green, who finished with a career high 34 points on a brilliant shooting line of 7-8 on twos, 4-5 on threes and 8-9 from the line. In a comment that captured Green's night perfectly, and incidentally warmed the heart of this tempo-free stats guy, Izzo noted that "Draymond Green was a man tonight. He probably took the least amount of shots he took all year tonight, or close to it, but he was very efficient." Frankly, Green was terrific at both ends of the court. Green completely eliminated Gonzaga star and NBA prospect Elias Harris from this game. Green had the primary assignment on Harris most of the night and Harris finished with only 6 points on 2-11 shooting and seemed invisible most of the game. Green played confidently, stayed within the flow of the offense, led and facilitated masterfully and overall turned in perhaps his best game as a Spartan. As tweeted by Joe Rexrode, Green noted that the key to his game was "definitely patience, the most I've had all year."
A look at the four factors and some notes on the game after the jump.
This was a 69 possession game, meaning the Spartans kept the Zags at under a point per possession, marking the 9th time in 10 games they've held opponents below that mark. Gonzaga didn't shoot horribly, but the Spartans, thanks to their commitment to getting the ball down low, were excellent, with a team eFG% of 60.4. I consider 60% to be something of a benchmark for highly effective shooting, and the Spartans have only been north of that figure three other times dating back to last year. Their shooting line was 20-35 from two, 6-13 from three and *cough* 16-25 from the line.
It was important that they shot that well, as Gonzaga owned the glass and the charity stripe in this one. They didn't win the rebounding battle by a lot, though, and the Spartans did hold them well under their season average of 36.3% on the offensive glass. It was free throws that really kept Gonzaga in this one, as a third of their points came at the line.
The other important factor was turnovers. Gonzaga committed 20 turnovers in this game, many of them the result of carelessness, meaning that in 30% of their possessions they didn't even get a shot opportunity. This game pushed MSU's opposition TO% to 23.2%, an extremely high figure for a Tom Izzo team. The last time MSU finished a season with a figure that high was 2002, though this should be expected to drop in the B1G schedule, when ball security is a priority for almost everyone but Minnesota.
Draymond Green — See above. Green was the model of offensive efficiency and defensive effectiveness. Some might quibble with the lack of rebounds (only 2 on the game) but since he also contributed 3 assists and 3 steals I don't think you can complain too hard.
Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne — It wasn't just Green. Both Nix and Payne seemed to take big steps forward right before our eyes. Both were extremely impressive in shutting down Sacre, Nix by forcing him away from the rim and Payne by denying him the ball. Payne especially worked tirelessly to move his feet and stay in front of Sacre while still having the energy to run the floor and make athletic plays on offense. Nix was very effective scoring inside against the taller Sacre, showing some nice touch in the lane. The two were a combined 8-10 with 9 boards, 2 steals and 3 blocks. Very, very good signs for the future.
Keith Appling — Though he only scored 8 points, Appling seemed much more of a presence in this game than that. He is visibly and statistically getting more and more comfortable in the point guard role and he had a career high 7 assists against only 2 turnovers in 33 minutes. He also showed flashes of his tremendous finishing skills at the rim and helped salt the game way by hitting 6 of 8 free throws.
Defense — In addition to the excellent individual play of the bigs, the Spartans, for the most part, did an effective job switching, helping in the post and fighting through screens. The guards did lose their men for layups or open shots on several occasions, but a very solid defensive effort overall against a team that had not been held to under a point per trip all year.
Guard play — As good as the frontcourt played, the backcourt had its issues. This game was a bit of a reality check for Travis Trice who made a couple of bad decisions on offense, a couple of bad gambles on defense and ended up shooting only 1-6, 1-4 from the line, and coughing the ball up 4 times in 20 minutes. The guards as a whole were 5-20 and looked uneven and a bit unprepared when Gonzaga went to a trapping press at the end of the game.
Free throw shooting — Though the Spartans shot a not-completely-awful 16-25 from the line they missed a cringe-inducing 7 free throws in the final 1:38 when they could have put the game away. This could definitely prove to be a problem in close games as nobody but Appling seems at all reliable at the stripe right now. Nix clearly has some more work to do before Izzo will be entirely comfortable keeping him on the floor late in the game.
The Spartans now have a week off before resuming the back half of their non-conference schedule. Forgive me if I'm looking forward at this point, as the B1G looks like it's going to be a real free-for-all. With only Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska looking out of it - and OSU, Wisconsin and Michigan all showing vulnerabilities - it should be a really tight race. OSU is still the solid favorite but the next eight teams could finish in any order. MSU will open the conference schedule against surprising Indiana, which just knocked off number one Kentucky to move to 9-0. Next up: Bowling Green.