If Keith Appling gets caught in foul trouble in the next week or so, things could get really bad.
Tom Izzo teams always have turnover problems early in the season. Take away Travis Trice and Gary Harris, and you get Friday's performance: 20 turnovers, but enough defense and timely buckets to pull away for a 70-52 win over Oakland (or as it used to be known: Michigan State University-Oakland) at the Breslin Center.
It was an ugly start. MSU couldn't hold onto the ball, while Oakland couldn't make a shot (6-for-29 in the first half). But the Spartans took care of the ball down the stretch of the half and took a 34-21 lead at the break.
MSU stretched the lead to 15 early in the second, but Oakland switched to zone — MSU's arch nemisis. The turnover moster returned, and Oakland used some hot shooting from Duke Mondy to cut it to as close as four points. But the fouls racked up, MSU made free throws (15-for-18), locked down on defense, held onto the ball and pulled away thanks to some late buckets from Keith Appling and Derrick Nix. KenPom predicted a 20-point win.
It's pretty simple: If they don't turn the ball over, things generally go well.
MSU finished 26-for-49 from the field (53 percent), while holding Oakland to 16-for-58 (27 percent). The Spartans had a 43-28 total rebounding edge, and Oakland did have 13 offensive rebounds, but that's going to happen with so many misses. More impressively, MSU had 10 offensive boards, compared to 15 defensive for Oakland.
Some player notes:
--Appling was his normal self, turning in 20 points on 7-for-15 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, one steal and one turnover. He also played terrific defense in holding Oakland's top scorer (and Okemos native) Travis Bader to 2-for-13 from the field.
--Denzel Valentine, perhaps motivated by playing against his older brother, scored a double-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three turnovers and two steals. When Oakland went to the zone, MSU had to have him in there to drive and dish. Valentine shot 2-for-4 and went 6-for-6 at the line. He also had a wild putback dunk, showing off all his skills in this one.
--Adreian Payne had 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. He played with a lot of energy, and mixed things up with a few dunks and a few jump shots. He's starting to become a bit of a weapon with that baseline jumper.
--Derrick Nix started slow, but finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
--On the other hand, Branden Dawson started strong, but became a turnover machine (finishing with five) and ended up with six points and six rebounds.
--The other player with major struggles was Russell Byrd. He had five points on 2-for-7 shooting. He also had four turnovers, some problems on defense and could not feed the post to save his life. That didn't stop BTN from naming him sixth man of the game. He has become the whipping boy from fans, which I understand. He looks like pre-senior year Austin Thornton, but he's going to need to shoot himself out of this slump to start the year. The playing time is going to be there, given the injuries, so MSU needs him to figure things out.
Next up is Louisiana-Lafayette on Sunday, but first, there's a football game that need to be won Saturday. Beat the Gophers.