We needed that. After a string of three close wins surrounding the narrow loss to Indiana, followed by the injury-fest that was the win vs. Minnesota, MSU looked ripe for a struggle against a Purdue team with a chip on its shoulder over its native sons gone abroad.
Thankfully, those two Indiana natives came out scoring early, Derrick Nix dominated the middle portion of the game, and Keith Appling found his groove, shoulder brace and all, late. Add it all up, and MSU scored 78 points in just 65 possessions, for a whopping 1.20 points per possession. The Spartans held on to the basketball (13.8 TO%), created good looks around the basket (53.5% on twos), grabbed a few offensive rebounds (34.5%), and made their free throws (20-24).
If you want to pick nits, the defense wasn't spectacular, as Purdue ended up right a point per possession. MSU absolutely shut down D.J. Byrd (nightmarish line: 0-1 shooting, 4 turnovers, fouled out) and they contained A.J. Hammons for the most of the game (3-8 from the field but did hit 7 of 9 free throws), but they allowed Purdue various Johnsons to get too many good looks around the rim. For the game, the Boilermakers shot 51.3% on two-point attempts and got to the free throw line a whopping 34 times (despite the home crowd expressing their dismay over the officiating throughout the game). The defense did display admirable aggressiveness, however, posting 13 steals on 14 Purdue turnovers.
The only real bump along the way was foul trouble for three starters: Appling, Harris, and Adreian Payne. But that was something of an accidental positive, as it allowed Tom Izzo to use his bench liberally, which will hopefully leave a banged up team a little fresher for Tuesday night's tilt vs.
#1 #4-ish Michigan. No Spartan was on the court for more than 32 minutes (unlikely ironest man Nix), and the Byrd/Gauna/Costello trio saw a total of 36 minutes on the court.
Overall it was a workmanlike performance for a team whose starters appear to be finding their respective sweetspots in terms of when and where they assert themselves on offense. Player bullets:
- 20 points on just 9 FGA for Branden Dawson. When life gave him hate, he made haterade. He's still not a good jumpshooter, but he's learning when to pull up and sink the 6-footers. The only issue was fumbling a few passes where he could have scored some more easy baskets.
- 17 points on 11 FGA for Nix. Two assists, too. He's gotten so much better in the last couple weeks at knowing when to hold 'em and knowing when to pass 'em on double teams. Poor Sandi Marcius fouled out in just 7 minutes of trying to guard him.
- 17 points on 10 FGA for Appling. He looked a little hesitant in the first half wearing the shoulder brace. But he showed no signs of restraint scoring the ball in the second half (although he didn't get all the way to the rim much).
- 12 points and 6 rebounds for Payne. Forced a couple shots, but that's the cost of him being more assertive.
- 8 points on 2-3 three-point shooting for Gary Harris. Looked to be moving a little more naturally with the back issue. Good that he was able to take it relatively easy in this one. (Of course, after I write those words, I read this: "Gary Harris did not practice yesterday and got hit on his back today." Recommence worrying.)
- Only 2 points for Denzel Valentine (on 1-5 shooting), but he chipped in 4 assists and 6 rebounds and only turned it over twice despite playing 13 minutes as the primary ball-handler with Appling on the bench. He had a couple shaky moments, but overall he was able to direct the offense and get the ball to the places it needed to be.
- Russell Byrd put up another 3 beautiful looking three-point misses, but he also played solid defense and made some textbook entry passes to the low post in his 14 minutes.
- Alex Gauna and Matt Costello combined for 2 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 personal fouls in 22 minutes. Nothing to write home about, but more than they'd been able to muster in previous games.
The win leaves MSU alone in first place, with the possibility of being a full game up on the rest of the league if Ohio State were to be beat Indiana tomorrow. This team is, somewhat inexplicably, 9-2 in the toughest league in all the land. Even Tom Izzo can't figure it out.
It's been a strange, puzzling, and positively successful ride to date. And it's got the potential to get even more exciting. The next stop: 9:00, Tuesday night (ESPN) at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Make like a bride and wear white. Beat Michigan.