In a game that looked a lot like what it was, the first exhibition of the season, Michigan State got 2012-13 underway with an 85-57 victory over the Division II Seahawks of Northwood. After a sluggish start which saw them leading by only six points at the half, the Spartans pulled away in a game that, while it answered no big questions, also revealed no big issues.
Perhaps one question was answered, however. Reports of Branden Dawson's accelerated recovery have not been exaggerated. The sophomore forward was the best player on the court, making his knee brace look like an amusing precaution with a team-high 16 points, including 3 thunderous dunks (that you can watch here).
Tom Izzo elected to spend most of the first half playing two self-contained units of 5. The starters were Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix while the second unit consisted of Travis Trice, Brandan Kearney, Denzel Valentine, Russell Byrd and Alex Gauna (freshman Matt Costello was unavailable due to a bruised tailbone suffered in practice earlier in the week).
The first unit, led by Dawson, was choppy but effective while the second unit was, well, choppy. It wasn't until almost 6 minutes left in the first half that Izzo began to try various floor combinations and the Spartans pulled away to an easy win in the second half.
It was clear that Izzo was looking for an up-tempo game as Appling and Trice pushed the ball at every opportunity, resulting in a lot of highlight reel dunks and layups but also some turnovers (the Spartans finished with 17). Izzo even gave us a tantalizing glimpse of the full-court press, a scheme that is likely to vanish along with the exhibition season. One thing is clear, though: this is one of the most athletic teams he has ever put on the court, and it should be a fun brand of basketball to watch.
Also impressive was freshman Gary Harris, who was fairly quiet in the first half but got hot early in the second and finished with 14 points. He had a nice transition dunk and showed a nice stroke on a couple of long jumpers. He was also very active, both on defense and playing without the ball.
The hottest shooter of the night was Travis Trice, who played the point not only on the second unit but when he and Appling were in the game together. He had 12 points on 5-6 shooting, including 2 3-pointers in the second half, and dished out 4 assists.
Keith Appling looked strong as well, with 7 points, 7 assists and 6 boards. Though he hit only 1 of his 4 three-point attempts, his shot seemed to look better than last year's line drive.
Once the two-unit rotation went away, we didn't see a lot of Nix and Payne on the court together. When we did they seemed to mesh fairly well. Izzo tried out a lot of lineups with either Payne or Nix at the 5 and a number of guys, including Byrd and Valentine, at the 4. I would expect to see this same starting lineup for most of the season, barring injury or poor performance, but the jury is still out on how much we'll see both big men on the court together.
Nix had an odd game, showing occasional flashes of dominance and other stretches of unfocused play. He scored 13 points but committed 6 turnovers, several of them from shuffling his feet in the post. He was also only 1-5 from the free-throw line.
Payne played fairly well, with 6 points and 8 rebounds in 20 minutes, but didn't seem to be looking to press his significant advantages in size and athleticism over the Northwood players. His most impressive hoop was a baseline turnaround fadeaway.
Alex Gauna scored 10 points, showing a nice ability to flash to the hoop and make himself available for passes. His defensive problems were also evident, however, as he got beat a couple of times by Northwood drives.
Denzel Valentine looked like a talented freshman, making a couple of beautiful passes and also committing 4 turnovers. He missed a couple of wide open threes but drained another. He was long and active on defense, including an interesting stint on Northwood's 5-foot 2-inch point guard Tyrone Davis.
The odd men out appeared to be Byrd, Kearney and Gauna, who all played fewer than 17 minutes. Byrd had an especially quiet night, missing all three of his shots, including one three-pointer.
All in all, a fairly workmanlike performance from MSU. They looked about like the team they were supposed to be: fast, athletic and perhaps prone to the occasional scoring drought. Though they had trouble matching up with Northwood's combo forward Masse Doumbe, who had a game high 20 points, they didn't reveal any other glaring defensive problems either. The next and final exhibition game, featuring more experimental lineup combinations and defensive schemes, no doubt, is this Friday against St. Cloud State.