Another game, another perplexing struggle with a mid-major opponent. The Portland Pilots, 11-21 last year and projected to be near the bottom of the West Coast Conference this year, gave Michigan State all they wanted for 27 minutes before fading at the finish. After the Spartans secured the #1 national ranking despite struggling with Ivy League Columbia last Friday, this was the last thing Michigan State fans were hoping for.
Michigan State did not look like the number one team in the land for most of the first two thirds of this game. Despite leading for much of the first half, MSU could not put any distance between them and the Pilots and only led by 4 at the break. Portland did nothing spectacular to keep this one close. The troubling thing for MSU fans was that the Pilots just kept answering, matching MSU's production and not looking obviously over-matched.
The four-factors graph gives a better sense of this.
The numbers reflect a solid but not overwhelming performance by Michigan State. In fact, they wouldn't have looked even this good if not for a 36-21 finish after Portland pulled back into a tie with just over 12 minutes left. The difference in shooting, as reflected in the eFG% marks, was largely due to MSU hitting 13 threes to only 5 for Portland, led by a stellar 5 of 5 from Keith Appling. Portland made up some of that ground at the foul line, shooting 22 free throws to MSU's 13, but the Spartans hit 11 of those 13, limiting Portland to only 5 more points.
The strong finish boosted MSU's efficiency in this 68-possession game to a very respectable 1.21 points per trip, but it was only 1.03 at the half. Portland finished just short of a point per trip, a very decent number and certainly more than Izzo could be happy allowing to a team that had the 292nd most efficient offense in the country last year. In fact, the lack of intensity on defense was one of the more visible problems in this game. Defensive rebounding was also a bit lackluster as the Pilots were able to get back 30% of their misses, better than the 26% they had managed in their two previous games against UC Davis and Oregon State.
A surprising positive for MSU continues to be turnovers. The Spartans have yet to be over 20% in a game and tonight's was the best effort to date at 14.7%, including only 4 total turnovers in the second half. Keith Appling continues to impress, with 7 assists against one turnover, making him 25 and 8 for the season.
Keith Appling - Appling was easily the best player in this game and MSU would have been in a world of hurt without his quietly spectacular performance. Even Izzo, normally not given to hyperbole, especially after a subpar team effort, called Appling's effort "One of the greatest point guard performances in many, many, many, many years." I might not go that far, but his 25 points on a mere 13 shots and the aforementioned 7 assists against 1 TO were indispensable in MSU's avoiding an embarrassing home loss.
Adreian Payne - Payne turned in another solid performance, this time primarily from outside. He got 19 points but needed 17 shots to do it, including hoisting 8 3-pointers, of which he hit 3. He also picked up 7 boards.
Branden Dawson - Dawson had another Dawson-like game, scoring most of his 8 points on putbacks and second chances and pulling down 10 boards, 5 on each end. He seemed a little less focused on defense, taking some risks to pick up blocks or steals, resulting in getting beat several times and picking up an uncharacteristic 4 fouls.
Gary Harris - I guess we're getting spoiled by Gary Harris, as his 15-point effort seemed fairly ho-hum. He also committed 3 turnovers and seemed less energetic than usual fighting through screens on defense. We'll give him a pass for one night.
The big red flag from this game, other than the overall defensive effort, was the glaring lack of depth in the front court. Guys not named Adreian Payne played a total of 24 minutes with 4 points and 6 boards. Almost all of that was the work of Matt Costello, who played with energy off the bench after being held out of the starting lineup. As a group, however, there seems to be cause for concern.
It's not going to get easier for a bit, with the finals of the Coaches vs Cancer event coming up, featuring a game against Virginia Tech followed by a meeting with either Seton Hall or Oklahoma. If you have TruTV, get ready to stay up late as the first tip will be Friday at 9:30.