USA TODAY Sports
Michigan State goes inside to post a 67-56 win over Texas
In his first 31 appearances as a Spartan, Derrick Nix put 10 free throw attempts through the hoop. Today, he made 11 free throws in a single game. In total, Nix posted 25 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals, 1 assist, and zero turnovers. A career day, needless to say. Nix was in the middle of all the action, including a couple officiating-related controversies.
Throw in 13 points and 7 rebounds for Adreian Payne, including a couple key scores late in the game with the shot clock running down, and MSU was able to scrape together enough points on the inside against a very good Texas defense to offset minimal output from its perimeter players. For once, MSU looked like it had something of an offensive identity, even if that identity was interrupted by stretches of more frustrating turnovers.
StatSheet had this game at 68 possessions, meaning MSU nearly became the second Longhorns foe to get to a point per possession. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. The Spartans shot just 2-11 on threes, but did make 50% of their two-point attempts and got to the free throw line a whopping 30 times.
Texas, meanwhile, made MSU's offense look like a artistic masterpiece. The Longhorns were able to grab a 5-point halftime lead by hitting some tough looks on jumpers and forcing a series of fouls by MSU guards on curl screens around the lane. But the lack of a good go-to scoring option caught up to them eventually. They turned the ball over at an even higher rate than MSU and made just 38,4% of their two-point attempts. Julien Lewis did the most damage, scoring 16 points on 12 field goal attempts. More impressively, point guard Javan Felix personally posted an assist on 11 of Texas' 19 made field goals.
The fact that the rebounding battle was basically even is mildly discouraging. But 6 of Texas' 12 offensive rebounds were of the "team" variety (balls knocked out of bounds off MSU, etc.), so it's not like MSU rebounders were giving up a lot of clean second chance scoring opportunities.
Overall, the game played to form, giving MSU a second win against a KenPom top-50 opponent. After the long slog of home games against uninspiring nonconference opponents, it was great to be part of a capacity Breslin Center crowd, led by a raucous Alumni Izzone (led in their raucousness by our own LVS, no doubt).
The fact that Nix showed the clear ability to be a go-to option in the half-court offense is obviously the big positive takeaway today. The caveat: It was curious that Rick Barnes didn't have his players double-team Nix more as soon as he touched the ball, as he's struggled to deal with that in the past. Expect the coaches of future MSU opponents to be more aggressive with that approach.
On the negative side, Tom Izzo basically had to cut it down to a six-man rotation in the second half to pull out the win. Denzel Valentine, Brandan Kearney, and Gary Harris all picked up two fouls in the first half. Valentine eventually fouled out and was limited to just 9 minutes total. In fact, only five players even scored for MSU: Nix, Payne, Keith Appling (14 points, limited by 3-7 free throw shooting), Harris (9 points on 3-10 field goal shooting), and Branden Dawson (6 points to go with 10 rebounds). I continue to worry about the dearth of scoring options off the bench, but it's a little more understanding against a team that defends as well as Texas does.
Next up: Eight full days off going into the Big Ten opener at Minnesota on New Year's Eve day (2:00, ESPN2). Plenty of time for Mr. Nix to recover from logging a career-high 32 minutes of highly energetic and effective play.