Recap: How 'bout them Apples?

Kevin C. Cox

Admit it. When the Champions Classic was announced and you saw Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, a little part of you wondered if MSU belonged.

Tom Izzo's record in March speaks for itself, but something that has separated MSU from the other blue-bloods of college basketball is winning a lot of high-profile matchups in the nonconference season. MSU has often lost those games, and improved the rest of the season, contending for a Big Ten championship and a Final Four. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

That's why Tuesday's 67-64 win over Kansas felt so sweet.

The plan is still the same: break the team down and build them back up. But the fact that a team relying on a couple freshmen and other players working on new roles was able to top the No. 7 team in the country on a neutral court was a great thing to see. MSU still has a lot of work to do, but after a dud in the opener, the Spartans looked like they belonged to be taken seriously at this point in the year. They belong to be at the Champions Classic. (By the way, Kansas is 0-2 in this event and will face Duke next year).

When MSU wasn't turning the ball over, the offense was very effective. MSU shot 55.2 percent on 2s and 40 percent on 3s for a eFG% of 56.2.

The rebounding was, again, very good — this time against one of the better rebounding teams in the country. MSU had a 31-25 total rebound edge, including a 10-7 edge in offensive boards. The Spartans finished with a 35.7 OR% and 75.0 DR%.

Now, about those turnovers... After recording 15 against UConn in Germany, the Spartans had 17 against Kansas. The majority of them were just lazy passes, so hopefully it's something that can be solved easily. But given this is an Izzo team, it may take some time. On the other hand, it was balanced out by Kansas' 16 turnovers, even if the ESPN announcers only focused on the Spartans'. MSU's TO% was 26.6, while KU's was 25.0%.

Player bullets

  • 19 points for Keith Appling on 6-for-9 from the floor, including 3-for-3 from long range. He's got the arc on that shot back. He also had three assists, three steals and two turnovers. Sixteen of his 19 came in the second half, including MSU's final two buckets to ice the game.

Yeah, he used my hashtag.

  • 18 points for Gary Harris on 7-for-12 shooting. Seven of Harris' 13 shots against UConn were three-pointers (with one make). On Tuesday, Harris took three 3s, making one. Instead, he found a lot of success driving to the hoop and finishing against one of the best shot-blocking team in college hoops. When Kansas went up five with five minutes left and the Spartans reeling offensively, Harris made back-to-back hoops to spark the comeback. He also had a dunk prevented on a pretty sick swat.

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  • Branden Dawson had 12 points on an efficient 5-for-6 shooting. He recorded four rebounds (two offensive), but was very active in other parts of the game, finishing with two assists and three steals. He was doing a bit too much dribbling and not enough driving at times, recording five turnovers.
  • Derrick Nix had eight points, but went 2-for-8 from the floor in a career-high 31 minutes. He again struggled to finish, and had two turnovers, but grabbed eight rebounds. He really looked like he's getting off the floor well, grabbing rebounds he didn't come close to the previous three years.
  • Adreian Payne battled foul trouble, but played with a lot more energy (which resulted in some of those fouls). He finished with four points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Joe Rexrode made a great point that Payne is an even better shot-blocker with his help defense as the power forward. He made another jump shot and took a three (a miss), but that type of aggressiveness from Payne needs to be more consistent.
  • Denzel Valentine had some more impressive dishes. He missed the two shots he took, but had four assists, two rebounds, two blocks and a steal. With Travis Trice out (and it sounds like he's out at least another week), Valentine filled in for Appling just fine, even when Kansas turned up the pressure on him. This freshman sees the floor better than anyone on the team and helped set up some open shots and easy buckets for Harris.
  • After being ripped apart by fans following the UConn game, Alex Gauna again got first-half minutes and made the most of them this time. He finished with six points on 3-for-5 shooting in 12 minutes. He's still a bit of a liability on defense, but showed some flashes of Goran Suton with ability to hit the baseline jumper.

Overall, a lot to like from individuals. The collective group as a whole still has a lot to work on.

After traveling from East Lansing to Germany to East Lansing to Atlanta, the Spartans get a break before hosting Texas Southern on Sunday. Texas Southern was trailing Northwestern 40-9 at one point on Tuesday.

Now, back to football mode.

P.S. Men's soccer hosts an NCAA Tournament game against Cleveland State on Thursday at 1 p.m. Any of you in the area who can go should go.

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