Recap: Coming up big

USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State unveils its new starting lineup, edges out Ohio State 59-56

Tom Izzo ran out the lineup he intended to use Wednesday, with Adreian Payne joining Derrick Nix as the bigs and Branden Dawson sliding over to small forward. The commitment to going big lasted throughout the game, as Payne played a career-high 32 minutes, with Matt Costello playing during the 5 minutes of rest Nix was afforded. (Raise your hand if you ever thought before this season that "Derrick Nix" and "35 minutes" would eventually appear in the same sentence.)

The results were acceptable. MSU outscored Ohio State 34-14 in the paint, and outrebounded the Buckeyes 34.4% to 20.0%. The worst stretch for MSU was in the middle the second half, when they blew an early 13-2 lead by failing to get the ball inside--something Izzo took the blame for in his postgame comments. They adjusted in the second half by finding more ways to attack the rim when they weren't in transition off turnovers. For the game, 15 of MSU's 22 made field goals were unassisted, as they used OSU's pressure against them.

Defensively, Payne was forced to guard Deshaun Thomas--or try to guard him, at least. Thomas was going to be a tough match-up for MSU regardless. He plays the 4-spot (power forward) in OSU's lineup, and the MSU orthodoxy it to always switch picks between the two opposing bigs. OSU took advantage of this to get Thomas open for a number of good 3-point looks.

Overall, though, MSU forced Thomas to make some pretty tough shots. He came through, scoring 28 points on just 20 FGA, with 2 FTA and just 1 turnover. (This man's offensive game belongs in the NBA. Now.) But the rest of the Buckeye lineup didn't do much to support him. The rest of the team scored the same number of points (28), but took 27 FGA, 11 FTA, and 13 turnovers to score them. It's not often you see a team shoot 10-25 on 3-pointers but fail to get to a point per possession (this was about a 60-possession game).

MSU got just 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 41 minutes out of its three-man bench tonight. For better or worse, this team is going to go as far as its starters can go. Depth is key--but if you don't have it, you can't create it.

The good news is that each of the five starters is showing signs of progress in one part of his game or another. Most prominently, Payne joined Keith Appling as a go-to option at the end. Payne came up with a 3-point play once and turned it over once. Appling scored one of his trademark clutch floaters and hit two huge free throws to get the final margin to three. Thankfully, Thomas didn't get another crack at it at that point. Izzo was actually going to foul him if he touched the ball--which Izzo never does. That's how good Thomas is.

More on individual performances:

  • Appling was more effective going to the basket than he has been of late (5-8 on twos), although he struggled from beyond the arc (1-5) and was hounded into 4 turnovers by Aaron Craft. He made the plays he needed to, obviously, and finished with a team-high 15 points and 3 assists. (Going the other way, Craft had a pretty rough night offensively: 2-8 from the field, 6 assists, 4 turnovers.)
  • Payne wasn't quite as assertive as you'd like--he struggles to consistently establish post position--but he came through with 14 points on just 6 FGA. He hit a 3-pointer for the third straight game, after having made just one of them in his first two and a half seasons as a Spartan. If he can continue to stay on the floor for 30 minutes per game (despite the small lung capacity thing), he makes this team much more dangerous.
  • Dawson put up 9 points and 10 rebounds. He's still making some bad decisions (3 turnovers), but he's making fewer of them. And he's making more big plays to compensate. He got UP for that offensive rebound and putback to put MSU up 6 with 13 minutes to go.
  • Gary Harris struggled in the first half, partly due to some very physical defense by the OSU guards, but he bounded back to score 4 two-pointers going toward the basket in the second half. Had a key defensive rebound late when he ended up guarding Thomas. (I don't think it was by design, as it was only for one possession.)
  • Derrick Nix scored 8 points on perfect 6-6 free throw shooting (!). He's passing the ball better out of double-teams: 2 assists, zero turnovers.
  • Denzel Valentine had a quiet stat line by his standards: 3 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 1 turnover in 18 minutes. That's OK. Against a defense like Ohio State's, a more assertive offensive game probably wouldn't have turned out well for him.
  • Travis Trice struggled against the aggressive defense of Craft and Shannon Scott: 2 points, zero assists, and 2 turnovers in 18 minutes. Got called for one 5-second count and was in danger of getting called for a couple others. Scored the 2-points on a beautiful fake out of Craft, who thought he was going to pass the ball off on the fast break.
  • Costello played in this one because Alex Gauna has the flu. It wasn't very pretty: 1 rebound, 2 fouls, and 1 turnover in 5 minutes. He did extend one possession with a hustle play. And reportedly he was playing on an ankle he sprained yesterday. Overall, a definite hit to the #FreeMattCostello movement. But he and/or Gauna are going to have to play at least a few minutes per game if the big lineup is going to stick.
  • Zero Russell Byrd. He got a second shot when Kearney transferred, but I think the next shot's not coming until next season.
You don't want to read too much into close wins. Arguably, the difference tonight was simply free throw shooting: 12-14 for MSU, 8-13 for OSU. But they sure beat close losses. (And if ever a crowd was a factor in a close game, tonight's crowd was it.)

MSU stands at 5-1, technically in first place in the Big Ten by themselves. Trips to Madison (Tuesday, 7:00, ESPN) and Bloomington will put that status in distinct jeopardy, but, as nervous as I've been about this team for the past few weeks, you could't really ask for better results than we've gotten to date.
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