For much of the second half on Monday, it looked like MSU would be able to leave Minnesota pulling another win out of its ass.
But poor defense, free-throw shooting and and struggling to finish at the rim led to a 12-0 blitz by the Gophers in the final three minutes, as MSU lost its Big Ten opener 76-63.
If MSU wants to win the Big Ten title, that would have been huge, but a number of conference contenders will lose in Minneapolis in 2013.
The biggest contributor to the loss was the defense. The Gophers had an eFG% of 59.4 percent, including shooting 60 percent on 2s (compared to 44 percent by MSU). Minnesota was a solid offensive rebounding team entering the game, but a 46.7 recovery rate for the Gophers was also discouraging.
It was impressive to see MSU answer numerous runs by the Gophers (except the end, of course). When Minnesota went on an 8-0 run to open up a 12-point lead in the first, MSU answered with a 10-0 run. A buzzer-beating three by Travis Trice sent MSU into the locker room down just one. Despite numerous struggles, MSU was in the game thanks to a 5-for-6 performance from beyond the arc. The Spartans would go 0-for-5 from there in the second half.
A terrible start to the second half found MSU down by seven, but that was answered by an 11-0 run for MSU to take its first lead of the night. But then the well went dry, and MSU just couldn't do anything offensively down the stretch. The Spartans had just four turnovers in the first half, but recorded 10 in the second half, including a number in crunch time by big men at the end.
The Spartans looked gassed by the end, and a big reason was because they basically had a seven-man rotation: Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine (who finished with 22 minutes, and I didn't notice him at all in the second half). When MSU doesn't have depth, it's usually a problem, and the departure of Brandan Kearney has magnified that.
The Spartans went a putrid 2-for-10 from the free-throw line, with seven of those attempts coming from guards, but you can cancel that out with the three-point shooting, even if it all came in the first half. I'm sure many of you are upset about the foul differential (21 for MSU compared to 12 from Minnesota). From my view, it seemed pretty fair. MSU was always a step slow on defense, and it resulted in a lot of fouls. Was it perfect? No. But the Gophers shot better than 56 percent (first MSU opponent over 50) and were the first opponent to grab more boards than MSU. That's why the Spartans lost.
Player bullets: (Note that MSU was credited with eight team rebounds, so the individual numbers might be a little low)
--We thought Nix might have had a coming out party against Texas. Think again. Nix finished with 10 points and four rebounds while shooting 5-for-15 in 30 minutes. He had a number of easy looks at the basket that he missed — something that has always plagued him.
--The other part of that duo, Payne had four points on 2-for-6 shooting. He had seven rebounds, but three turnovers. Both Nix and Payne had trouble with the help defense and allowed far too many layups. After swearing off using the pair together, it looks like Tom Izzo has it back as part of his plan, likely due to the aforementioned reliable depth problem.
-- Appling was by far the best Spartan on the floor, finishing with 15 points on 7-for-16 shooting, with five assists, three turnovers and six steals.
-- Dawson had a forgettable day. Although he had eight points on 4-for-7 shooting, the box score has him with just two rebounds. Now, that might be attributed to the team rebounding numbers, but MSU needed him to grab more offensive boards. He also fell asleep and had some defensive lapses that resulted in easy buckets at the rim.
--Harris was efficient with 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting, but he was 1-for-5 from three.
--On the other side, Trice went 3-for-4 from 3, but 0-for-4 on 2s. He seemed to work really well with Valentine late in the first half, as MSU made a run with Appling on the bench with two fouls.
--As for Valentine, I didn't notice him at all, but he finished with five assists and three turnovers. He made both his field goal attempts (including a three) and had six rebounds (three offensive). Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure he didn't play at all down the stretch of the game.
As for moving forward, MSU has its easiest stretch of the conference schedule coming up: vs. Purdue, at Iowa (who took Indiana to the end), vs. Nebraska, at Penn State. If you want to win the Big Ten, you're going to have to win all four of those.
What did we learn about MSU from the opener? When things are clicking, they can compete with the best, but when the offense goes dry, the defense can't. So, basically what we expected coming into the season. Monday was by no means a bad loss, but it certainly was frustrating to come so close to stealing one and falter so badly down the stretch.
Happy New Year.