Michigan State rode a career-high 20-point performance from freshman Gary Harris and a double-double from Adreian Payne to a 12-point win over the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago. It was not a game that is going to allay many fears about the Spartans' halting start this year as Loyola actually led by 2 at halftime and stayed within hailing distance for nearly the entire game.
The key sequence came in the middle of the second half, after the Ramblers had again pulled themselves to within 2. Gary Harris hit three consecutive 3-pointers to push that lead to 11 and Loyola was never able to regain the lead, though they again got within 3 and kept it close enough that Tom Izzo needed to play his starters until the final minute.
Loyola and coach Porter Moser executed their game plan very effectively, especially in the first half. On defense they played aggressive man-to-man on the perimeter but double-teamed and rotated when the ball went into the post, challenging MSU's big men to find the open shooter. In the first half this worked well, with MSU going 2-9 on threes. Thanks to Harris (5-7 on three-poiners), it wasn't quite as successful in the second half.
On offense the Ramblers slowed the pace way down, walking the ball up the court and going into an offense based on the pick-and-pop or the drive-and-kick. MSU never did come up with a good answer here, as senior forward Ben Averkamp shredded them with a game-high 25 points, including 4-8 from three. Derrick Nix spent much of the game on Averkamp and it was not a good matchup for MSU. Nix hedged hard on the screens but just did not have the quickness to recover in time to contest Averkamp's shots.
The Ramblers were one of the slowest-paced teams in Division I coming in and they were able to make this a 60-possession game (Statsheet.com has it at 62). As a point of reference, Wisconsin has averaged an unadjusted tempo of 64.7 possessions per game this year. As you can see from the four-factors chart below, Loyola was able to stay close in several key areas, and the free-throw disparity was magnified by the usual end-of-game fouling combined with MSU hitting 9-10 in the waning minutes. The big difference is this game was that Loyola managed to make only 10 two-point baskets on 30 attempts. When they weren't getting the open look from three their offense was largely stymied. This despite the fact that they were somewhat surprisingly able to rebound 13 of their own misses for a solid OR% of 34%. In fact, the Ramblers won the battle of the glass at both ends, despite having nobody taller than 6-foot-8 on the floor.
The fact that the Spartans only committed 12 turnovers in this game is a little misleading as well, since at this slow pace it was still a rate of 20%. An improvement, certainly, but nothing dramatic.
The bright spot in this game for MSU besides Harris was Adreian Payne, who played like a man possessed for much of the game, flying into the lane for rebounds, hitting 5-7 on a combination of jumpers and shots at the rim, and going 4-4 from the line, pushing his team-leading free-throw percentage to 89% (OK, Gauna is 2-2). Payne even lost one to a lane violation - by Gauna. He added 10 boards and 2 steals, on one of which he went coast-to-coast for the layup and one. It was the kind of game that makes you wonder why he isn't dominating every night.
Travis Trice kicked in 11 points on just 5 shots, going 6-6 at the line. Derrick Nix grabbed 8 rebounds, but only scored 4, and Branden Dawson had an uneven game, scoring 7 points but blocking 4 shots, most of them spectacular, and being a general disruption on the defensive end while he was in there. It was a quiet game for Keith Appling, who didn't seem to be looking for his shot and finished with 8 points, but had 7 assists and no turnovers. Brandan Kearney didn't score but added 5 assists, also without a turnover.
As he had indicated following Wednesday's game with Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Izzo definitely shortened his bench in this one. The upshot seems to be: In - Nix, Payne, Dawson, Harris, Denzel Valentine, Appling, Trice and Kearney; Out - Alex Gauna, Russell Byrd and Matt Costello (though Gauna did get some run in the first half). With the outcome uncertain most of the way, Costello and Byrd didn't even enter the game until the final minute.