Toughness. That was the narrative running throughout the Spartan fanbase since the unexpected loss to Nebraska on Sunday. Were these Spartans tough enough to be national champions, let alone Big Ten champions? How could a team, look so lackadaisical, at home no less, against a traditionally poor basketball school? Did they have enough grit, desire, and every other intangible one could list?
Turns out the Spartans were just fine. They proved their title bonafides tonight not by great defense nor great rebounding - they just shot the everliving heck out of the ball. MSU made 17 threes out of 32 attempts, setting a new school record and tying a Big Ten single game record.
In retrospect, it was ridiculous that this team's toughness was ever questioned -- the effort, sure, but toughness? You mean the team that had blew leads against Ohio State and Minnesota, yet came back to win in overtime? The team that had two of their top four players injured, but somehow pulled out a win against Iowa in Carver-Hawkeye Arena?
It's basketball. Weird results happen. The 2008-2009 team lost to Penn State AND Northwestern at home, yet went on to the National title game. That team was led by Travis Walton, one of the prototypical "tough" Spartans. When a basketball team plays 35-40 games a season, anomalies will happen, and the Nebraska game was just that -- an anomaly.
Let's take a look at the four factors:
Look at that eFG% for Michigan State. Brave men and women died summiting that bar graph to bring it to you. Not just hot, extremely hot shooting saved MSU's behind today, because Purdue went to the free throw line 40 times in this game, and shot well of their own volition. In fact, MSU's defense hasn't been up to snuff lately:
This looks likely to be the 7th game in the last 8 where MSU's defense gives up more than 1 point per trip. Major issues.— Tim Conner (@connertp) February 21, 2014
And sure enough it was, as MSU gave up 1.18 points per possession to the 8th best offense in Big Ten play. If you want to rail against MSU's supposed lack of "toughness", there's your smoking gun. The Spartans got their way out of a possible upset by having a historic shooting night, but that defense won't cut it in Ann Arbor on Sunday.
Here's your player bullets:
- Gary Harris - 25 points on 7-11 shooting (6-9 from three), 3 assists, 3 steals. Harris's shot had been erratic to the point where I started to wonder if he caught the same bug Chris Hill did his senior year. However, when in Indiana Harris tends to deliver, and did he ever tonight. Good Gary is what the Spartans need in the final Big Ten push.
- Adreian Payne - 23 points on 8-14 shooting (4-8 from three), 4 rebounds. Payne made three shots from behind the three point arc early, and Purdue's defense on him made me wonder if their scouting report was simply "is tall, so plays in paint". He didn't have many rebounds, but he also sat during a good portion of the first half with foul trouble.
- Denzel Valentine - 16 points on 4-7 shooting (1-2 from three, 7-7 free throws), 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 turnovers. Yet another night where Denzel was not only a great distributor (and led (led!) the Spartans in rebounds to boot - even though 5 is a low number to have the lead in rebounds, unless you play for Northwestern), but also shot efficiently. I'm starting to believe he can be an All-Big Ten player next season.
- Travis Trice - 14 points on 5-8 shooting (4-6 from three), 6 assists, 1 turnover. Had the record breaking 17th three, and once again was great when Purdue keyed on Harris and Payne. He can't really drive towards the basket, and will be a bit outmuscled against taller guards on defense, but those are the only two criticisms I have of him at this point.
- Keith Appling - 1 point, 9 assists, 4 turnovers. I think it's obvious his wrist is still bothering him, as evidenced by the 1 point on 1-3 free throws and his one missed three attempt. Still, 9 assists is a great shift on the comeback trail, even accounting for the four turnovers.