Recap: Watch out for that first step

US Presswire

Michigan State drops its season opener to Connecticut 66-62

Before we proceed, let me stipulate to two things. First, regardless of the game outcome this was a great event. When players are handing their jerseys to injured military personnel after the game, it's not hard to find the larger perspective. (Also, with neither carrier game scheduled for tonight making it to a conclusion, playing inside a military facility is probably the more prudent way to go for college basketball teams doing these kinds of events in future seasons.)

Second, yes, this always happens, and Tom Izzo usually finds a way to get the team in position to succeed by March. This isn't football. There's no sense panicking over a single bad performance.

Still, losing in November is not a prerequisite for winning in March. In fact, establishing a higher baseline level of performance in November might actually lead to more success in March if the team can improve by the same amount from the higher baseline. It was disappointing to see the team come out in another high-profile nonconference game and get knocked completely on its heels. A win against a similarly-young team with lesser levels of overall talent wasn't an unreasonable expectation.

It's pretty clear that the book on MSU is that, early in the season, you can simply overplay them on the perimeter to start the game and they won't know how to react. MSU had turned ball over 4 times and was down 20-6 before they even got to the second media timeout. Izzo's rep for detailed gameplanning is unmatched, but some generic strategies against intense man-to-man pressure would seem to be in order. Eventually, the other team tires out from playing extended defense and you get to run your sets. It'd be nice not to be down double digits at that point.

Now, this is indeed a young team. So it probably deserves a little more slack than previous Spartan squads that have stumbled in early contests. The fact they were able to scrap back into the game speaks well of the team's psychological make-up. And the Trice injury didn't help, as it forced Izzo to go with two freshmen on the floor in the final minutes.

StatSheet doesn't appear to be geared up for the new season yet, so no four factors graph for you. Instead, you get a less-elegant-but-still-effective four factors Excel clipping (official box):

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Given the start the Huskies got off to--making 14 of their first 17 field goal attempts--the final defensive numbers are actually fairly impressive. MSU held UConn to 5-18 shooting on two-pointers in the second half (but 3-7 on three-pointers). The halfcourt defense wasn't perfect, as the team lost track of good three-point shooters several times, but it was fairly solid when it wasn't facing uncontested layups off Ryan Boatright steals. Shabazz Napier was the killer, scoring 25 points on just 16 field goal attempts.

Rebounding kept MSU in the game on the other end, as Branden Dawson and Derrick Nix combined for a whopping 15 offensive rebounds. Ultimately, they couldn't turn enough of those second chances into points, though. The team shot just 42.6% on two-point attempts and 23.5% on three-point attempts. MSU's final turnover percentage figure was just bad, not hideous, but too many of them led to easy baskets on the other end.

Player bullets:

  • 17 points on 17 field goal attempts for Keith Appling, to go with 4 assists and 1 turnover. He wasn't aggressive enough early in running the offense, but he did find ways to score as the game went on and his outside stroke looked good. Didn't live up to his lockdown defender rep on the other end.
  • How athletic would Dawson look right now if he hadn't torn his ACL? 10 rebounds (8 on offense) and 5 steals to go with 15 points. It took him 17 field goal attempts to get those points, but without his efforts the team would have been down 20 early. He did get caught a step behind on defense a few times in the first half.
  • Gary Harris showed some flashes of his immense talent and didn't shy away from taking big shots late, but his overall numbers were unimpressive: 11 points on 4-13 shooting. His defense looked solid for a freshman playing 30 minutes in the season debut.
  • Derrick Nix was fantastic on the boards, grabbing 7 on offense and 4 on defense, but displayed continuing inconsistency with the ball in his hands in the post: 6 points on 5 FGA, 4 turnovers. He has to start making decisions more quickly.
  • Denzel Valentine played a surprising 24 minutes, some of them due to Travis Trice being unavailable late. Overall, he played with confidence on both ends, scoring 4 points, grabbing 8 defensive rebounds, and dropping a gorgeous dime on the fast break. But he also had a bad turnover and an ill-advised shot with more than 10 seconds still left on shot clock late in the game. The plan seems to be to let him handle the ball up top in the halfcourt offense on occasion, with Appling running off the ball, which should eventually pay dividends.
  • Trice's statistical production was limited--3 points, 1 assist, 1 turnover--but the offense looked quite a bit better when he was in there. Izzo sent him out to start the second half with the smaller lineup. Needless to say, picking up the concussion was a bad break. The preliminary indications aren't promising for Tuesday night.
  • Adreian Payne was good when he looked to score, making all 3 of his shots, but was limited to 15 minutes by foul trouble and turned the ball over 3 times.
  • Russell Byrd played 10 minutes. He was never involved in the offense, posting a rebound, a foul, and a turnover. He was beaten badly both inside and outside by Deandre Daniels on his first shift of the game. Playing him a the 4-spot is only going to work against certain opponents.
  • Brandan Kearney played 6 minutes with similar statistical results. He gets a bit of a pass given that he's been dealing with a minor injury.
  • Putting Alex Gauna in this game in the first half the way things were going was a highly questionable decision (albeit a decision forced by Payne's foul trouble and Matt Costello's injury). One minute, two turnovers.

Given the perspective of my season preview piece, perhaps as big a concern as any is how little production the team got past its first 6 or 7 players. Getting Costello into the rotation may help some, although it sure looks like we're going to see Dawson much more at the 4-spot than the 3-spot.

The good news is that there's not a lot of time for the team to dwell on this loss. The bad news is that the next contest isn't going to be any easier. The team won't be able to afford falling behind by 16 again. Tuesday night vs. Kansas; 7:00 on ESPN.

P.S. You know what's fun? Soccer! That's what's fun. Sunday at 1:00. BTN. Beat Michigan.

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