As fans, we've felt it. We've heard Tom Izzo say it: we haven't seen the best from this team yet. Well, we just did. In a stunning display of energy, determination and skill, Michigan State destroyed Michigan Tuesday night at the Breslin Center 75-52. And it wasn't nearly as close as the score.
The Spartans went wire-to-wire in this one and the closest Michigan got was 1 point at 8-7. After a reasonably competitive first 10 minutes MSU started to pull away and went into halftime up 14. But when Tim Hardaway, Jr. drove the lane for the first points of the second half - and his first points of the game - I'm sure many feared a Wolverine run like the one that overcame a 21-point deficit and brought them to near-victory in Columbus. In fact, it never came, and those were Hardaway's only points of the game. The Spartans played with tremendous intensity on defense, Michigan couldn't buy a basket and the lead ballooned as high as 31, before a late Michigan flurry in garbage time produced the final margin.
It was a 64-possession game, making it three of the past four that Michigan's seemingly improved defense has given up over 1.15 points per possession. The Spartans meanwhile held the Wolverines to their lowest point total and, by far, their worst offensive efficiency of the season at 0.81 points per possession. And keep in mind that Michigan scored 9 of the games final 10 points in garbage time.
Michigan State dominated in every phase, outshooting the Wolverines (54% eFG% to 45%), owning the offensive glass (37% to 18% OR%), securing the ball better (12.5% to 25% TO%) and getting to the line more (0.27 to 0.11 FTA/FGA). It was as complete a win as you are likely to see.
It's hard to single out individual players when the real star of the night was MSU's team defense. Fueled by the loudest crowd most commentators could remember in a long time, it completely reduced Michigan's vaunted offense to Trey Burke hitting tough shots and the Spartans cleaned up all the misses.
Keith Appling played with a ferocity I've seldom seen. He hounded Trey Burke into foul trouble and, when Burke had to sit, devoured his replacement, Spike Albrecht. Combine this with the Ohio State game and his matchup with Aaron Craft and it's pretty clear that Appling has a lot of pride and pays some attention to the media talk about the top point guards in the Big Ten. He could easily have been the game's MVP despite a frankly dreadful offensive game in which it took him 14 shots to get his 11 points and he tallied only 1 assist. Izzo has been looking to Appling for leadership and it was in clear evidence on this night.
From an offensive standpoint, Gary Harris and Derrick Nix were the primary contributors, though when Trevor Bohnhoff's free-throw smacked hard off the glass and into the net he became the 9th different Spartan to score. Nix set the tone early, calling for the ball in the paint and scoring over the succession of big men John Beilein sent out to guard him, though Jordan Morgan had the most success. Nix finished with 14 points and 5 boards in 29 minutes
Gary Harris' smooth-as-butter stroke from outside was on prominent display again, as he swished 5-9 3-point attempts to finish as MSU's leading scorer with 17 points. Also worthy of note was a stat sheet-stuffing performance by Denzel Valentine, who spelled Appling at the point and finished with 7 points, 9(!) boards, a steal, a block, 4 assists and 3 turnovers. Matt Costello got into the act with 8 points on 3-3 shooting.
For the most part, however, it was a total team effort on both ends of the court. It was one of those moments when everything was in alignment for the Spartans and nothing went right for the Wolverines. I don't expect the game in Ann Arbor to resemble this one, but there's time to worry about that later. As a side note, Branden Dawson was accidentally hit in the face by Mitch McGary late in the second half and left the game for the locker room. Fortunately preliminary indications are no concussion. Next up is a trip to Lincoln before an absolutely horrific 4-game stretch against the conference's best. It's that kind of year in the B1G.