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Grinding It Out: Michigan State 60, Minnesota 53

So much for the KenPom forecast of 74 possessions in this game.  The Spartans and Gophers managed to squeeze just 60 possessions out of the 40 minutes allotted to them tonight.  This was a contest between two teams that hunkered down and dared each other to find a way to score against solid half-court defense.

Somewhat surprisingly, Tubby Smith decided not to pressure MSU in the back court with any frequency, springing the full court press only a half dozen times or so during the game.  He must have reached the conclusion that--as several commenters have pointed out in the last couple days--MSU's turnover issues generally crop up against aggressive man-to-man defense, not against full-court pressing.  Minnesota did deploy the zone defense for a couple stretches, but MSU hit enough 3-point shots to keep them honest.

Given how successful the Gopher defense was both in breaking the rhythm of Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious in setting up the MSU offense and in blocking or altering shots when MSU got the ball near the rhythm, getting to (exactly) 1.0 point per possession counts as a minor accomplishment for the Spartans.  And they did it by, of all things, limiting their turnovers.

MSU turned the ball over just 10 times in the game, for a TO% of 16.7%--and 2 of the turnovers were shot clock violations, which are problematic but not the kind of brain-freeze-mistake turnovers that have been most flummoxing for this team.  Combined with solid offensive rebounding and a superior level of offensive aggressiveness that resulted in 21 trips to the free throw line, MSU was able to overcome shooting just 40.0% from 2-point range and 27.8% from 3-point range.

Minnesota, meanwhile, didn't perform proficiently in any of the offensive areas outside of offensive rebounding.  A handful of MSU defensive lapses led to some easy baskets for Damian Johnson (14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals) and a couple open looks for Lawrence Westbrook (15 points on 3-5 three-point shooting).  But they also completely shut down Blake Hoffarber by denying him open looks beyond the arc (4 points on 0-3 three-point shooting) and flustered Westbrook into some bad decisions (5 of Minnesota's 15 turnovers).

It'd have been nice for MSU to put together a run in the second half to win this game by a more comfortable margin (which they seemed to be just on the verge of at several points), but if I had to pick, I'd take a single-digit win in a defensive struggle over a close win in an offensive shoot-out at this point.  We knew this team could score; now we're seeing that they can buckle down on defense, too.

Just a quartet of player bullets (official box score is here):

  • Great game for Durrell Summers: 13 points on 9 FGA.  Collected 8 rebounds in among (or, rather, above) the Gopher trees.  And, FWIW, I thought the flagrant foul call on his fast break layup was entirely justified.  Any foul from behind where the defender comes nowhere near the ball should be called as a flagrant foul.
  • Odd night for Kalin Lucas: Perfect on 6 free throw attempts and 2-4 from 3-point range, but shot just 1-10 on 2-pointers.  Al Nolen made life tough for him on the perimeter and Ralph Sampson III and Damian Johnson were waiting for him in the lane.  Despite all that, he posted a 5-1 assist-turnover ratio, though.
  • Give Chris Allen credit for not losing his confidence after coming out shooting blanks tonight.  He was just 2-9 from the field, but the two baskets (a 3-pointer and a score in the lane) both came late when Minnesota had closed the lead to within striking distance.  5 assists for Allen; he's making good decisions with the ball, which is the key.
  • Nice game for Derrick Nix, despite missing a couple easy looks near the basket (edit: and getting hit in the jaw by a Colton Iverson elbow hard enough to cause him to black out for a few seconds - HT: wifeofaspartan).  6 rebounds in 10 minutes of play and some solid defense on Sampson.  And he made another free throw!  Free throw percentage is all the way up to 14.7% 16.7%.

As LVS mentioned in the game thread, I had the opportunity to sit down close to the action again tonight.  Major impression: Draymond Green is THE leader of this team.  He carries himself with such a great combination of poise and enthusiasm (flashing a big smile at the fans in our section as he entered the game in the second half).  He directs traffic on the court (at one point getting Korie Lucious to back the ball out and settle down when Lucious was looking to force something into traffic).  And he's the one guy Tom Izzo never seems to express any frustration with (ot at least didn't tonight). For as productive as Green has been statistically this season, he heaps a big scoop of intangibles on top of that.

More concretely: Green is a one-man defensive stop.  He posted 4 blocks and 3 steals tonight.  (Weird stat: MSU had as many blocked shots as Minnesota did tonight: 6.)  One each of those defensive disruptions came in consecutive possessions in the final 90 seconds of the game to seal the deal for MSU.

Draymond Green is less than 50% of the way into his Spartan career.  And what's left to say about him at this point?  Eventually, we'll have to resort to composing epic poems and erecting statues of him to express our praise.

Final Green note: I noticed that he and Tubby Smith had a particularly warm exchange during the postgame handshakes.  Thank goodness the University of Kentucky saw fit to force Smith out as their coach.  If not for that, it'd be Wildcat bloggers paying him homage for his on-court brilliance.

Next up: A Saturday afternoon (3:30) CBS-broadcast home game vs. the Fighting Illini, with the outright Big Ten lead on the line.