Recap - When it matters: MSU 62, Iowa 59

USA TODAY Sports

Any road win in the Big Ten is a good win, or so we're telling ourselves after an inconclusive performance by Michigan State in Iowa City.

Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are two of Michigan State's best NBA prospects and they both played like it tonight to steal a victory in Iowa City 62-59. The headline refers to the fact that the Spartans came back from a terrible early free throw shooting performance (4-14) to make their final seven including Gary Harris with three after being fouled while shooting from long distance tying the game at 56 with one minute to play. Then, Keith Appling preserved the MSU lead with four more to hold off a wild finish by Iowa.

As in the Minnesota game, the Spartans showed good resolve in staying close in a game that started in the wrong direction. Aaron White picked-off a Travis Trice pass and broke away for a dunk to double up the lead 24-12 with 9:13 to go in the first. After that, MSU turned on an impressive defensive display and only allowed two more baskets for the Hawkeyes during the rest of the half. The second half was a tight grinder until Iowa pushed their lead to eight twice around the 13-minute mark. Gary Harris answered immediately with a contested three and MSU was on their way back into the game. That started the 16-4 run that really swung things to the Spartans and led to the win.

MSU found themselves needing that run because of an inability to finish defensive possessions and keep track of their assignments. Though it was strong in segments, team defense appears to be a reoccurring problem on this team at this stage. The necessary communication and awareness to make sure defenders are all headed in the correct direction is not happening. If you want to have DVR fun, watch the MSU huddle after the transition breakdown that resulted in another Zach McCabe three at 4:21. Immediately before the program cuts to the Iowa student section, you'll see Evil Izzo snarl his way towards Denzel Valentine. This wasn't the only example and on another play Adreian Payne was directing traffic only to be distracted as his own man scored. It's difficult to always know who to pin the blame on for these plays and only the MSU coaches would be able to tell you consistently. For my money, Denzel is a problem on this front. He's far from the only one but overall defensive cohesion appears to suffer when he's out there. Going into the season, there was concern about Valentine as a man-to-man perimeter defender but if he isn't in the right spot that ability is less relevant.

The Four Factors graph is beautifully indicative of a closely contested, Big Ten conference beater. Almost everything is close to even. MSU got a break by playing a team who was as turnover-prone as they are and the Hawkeyes flipped over 18 to MSU's 12.

One more thought: I'm a narrative guy and one of the stories of tonight's game was Coach Izzo's continued pursuit of a 8th man in the rotation. It's clear that the staff doesn't believe in Costello for this spot and I'm done flogging that horse for now. In a familiar pattern, the team gave both Alex Gauna and Russell Byrd a chance in the first half but neither did enough to distinguish himself to warrant a reappearance in the second. Byrd was overmatched attempting to guard Zach McCabe in the post and was quickly pulled to give #2 a try. Alex looked more composed but later had a bad turnover on an inbounds play and didn't return after that. Byrd was given one more try and appeared gun shy to shoot after missing his first open look. I dwell on this because I don't know how much playing Matta-ball will hamper this team's potential. The clear message is that Coach Izzo currently only has seven players who he trusts to be out there in the second half. The team appeared to wear down against Minnesota but were stronger down the stretch to hold on tonight. It's hard to imagine the rotation or minute allocation changing drastically at this stage.

Speaking of NBA, let’s talk about the good in terms of player bullets:

  • Adreian Payne had the highlight of the night with a Sportscenter worthy drive and dunk What’s amazing if you watch closely is that AP actually loses the bally momentarily but gathers it to complete the play. Aside from that highlight, he did a lot of damage tonight. The statline is fine – 10 and 6 – but Payne scored on both of his offensive rebounds and disrupted attempts at the basket. He was a big factor on a night when Derrick Nix seemed too slow and out of step to be effective scoring against or stopping the Iowa frontline.
  • Articles have been pouring out about Branden Dawson lately and tonight was affirmation of why. Much of the team’s potential revolves around Dawson’s ability to score around the basket, work in transition, as well as switch and man-up effectively. Lately, Coach Izzo, Dawson, and the media have been speculating that he’s turned a corner from both his injury and mental lapses of focus. Tonight, Dawson led MSU with 17 points and more than held his own against the Iowa forwards White, Basabe, and McCabe. Let's hope this type of game keeps on rolling for BJ.
  • Gary Harris was the most important Spartan for getting a bucket when it was needed and his 14pts (3-5 3pt), 5 rebs, and 3 steals were more impressive when it was revealed that he had another problem with his left shoulder during the first half. This means the return of a brace but there doesn’t appear to be much concern coming out of MSU about anything more serious.
  • Keith Appling and Travis Trice, the point guards – off night for MSU point guard play. Though his late free throws were vital, this was not a strong game from Keith Applng. He struggled greatly to attack the rim. He was forced on multiple occasions to abandon his shot at the last minute leaving the ball well short of the rim. Michigan State has to get more out of Appling early in the game to sustain success, including making plays on his own, scoring in transition, organizing the offense, and hitting open threes, basically MSU point guard play 101. If this is to be Appling's team, it has to look like it on regular basis. Next, after some excellent performances, Trice struggled as well. Iowa did a great job of closing out on him to prevent open shots from deep and he had no luck to get a solid shot in traffic.
  • Derrick Nix – what a rough night for Nixer. Seven and seven and 50% from the field isn’t awful by any stretch but that doesn’t tell the full story. Normally reliable, Nix looked like a one-on-one defensive liability on many occasions and seemed slow in general.
  • Brandan Kearney - Oh, wait...
  • Matt Costello - Awh, hamburgers...
  • The radio conversation between Gus Ganakas and Tom Izzo was short and rushed but they touched on the key contradiction of this game that is hard to reconcile. On one hand, the team played poorly and did so against an Iowa team missing its best player. There is absolutely no way to sugarcoat that. Still, they got a Big Ten road win against a scrappy Iowa team who played opportunistic is not slightly loose basketball. Those games are going to happen and it's good just to get the win. With so much made about the "must win" importance of this game, I'd call it inconclusive. You can give Iowa a pass for the loss because they played without Roy Devyn Marble. MSU got the W but instilled no confidence that they'll be consistently competitive against the Big Ten's best. This currently looks like a team that might get swept by Indiana and Michigan and may struggle even in the Breslin against OSU, Illinois, and Minnesota. The games come fast now and they have two should-be-wins (Nebraska, @PSU) and nine days before the 19th when they can prove me wrong and make a statement against Ohio State.

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