Yes, I know: Tom Izzo teams peak in March, not November. We've been through this routine almost annually: gruesome early loss(es), gradual improvement over the course of the season, many great successes four months later.
I am not consoled. This team returned 9 of its top 11 players, including a game-winning-shot-specializing point guard, an NCAA-Tournament-run-carrying shooting guard, and a heart/skills-know-no-bounds power forward. It seems like that ought to be enough to play some decent basketball right out of the gate.
And, for 32 minutes or so, I guess MSU did play some decent basketball. They kept things even with UConn in the first half despite not being able to find the bottom of the net (10-25 on 2-pointers, 2-9 on 3-pointers). With 14 minutes to go in the game, MSU trailed 46-44. Then Draymond Green took matters into his own hands. In a four minute span, Green grabbed 2 offense rebounds, scored 10 points, assisted a basket, and blocked a shot. It was epic.
Or it would have been, at least. Unfortunately, Green ended his night by missing 4 free throws in the final minutes. Those missed free throws came after MSU gave up its hard-fought lead during a 5-minute field goal drought. The one free throw Green made out of his final five attempt would be the only point the team scored in the game's final three and a half minutes.
Kalin Lucas contributed another costly free throw miss, on the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. He also took a hurried, contested 3-pointer on the team's second-to-last possession and threw the ball away on the final possession (not counting Green's final-second halfcourt heave). It was not Lucas' night: 10 points on 4-12 shooting, just 1 assist, and a whopping 5 turnovers. The demands of playing 30 minutes on back-to-back days may have been more than his body was ready for; I worry about him tomorrow night.
As great as Draymond was for most of the night (22 points on 13 FGA, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 3 blocks, 4 TOs), there just weren't enough contributions elsewhere. Durrell Summers showed good assertiveness early (13 points on 5-12 shooting) but faded late and had some bad defensive moments, as well. Korie Lucious was competent for most of the night (3 assists vs. 2 turnovers) but also took a rushed 3-pointer late. Keith Appling flashed his talent at moments but didn't score from the field. Delvon Roe's only field goal make came on a (very smooth) transition score. Garrick Sherman was probably your top all-around performer after Green, converting 3 nice looking shots around the basket and pulling down 4 defensive rebounds in 23 minutes.
On the other side, we're left once again to marvel at the brilliance of an opposing scorer. Kemba Walker put up 30 points on just 19 FGA, converting some spectacular circus shots in the process. Walker may well end up being an All-American caliber performer, but the fact that quicker, smaller guards keep giving a team with its own quicker, smaller guards such large problems is perplexing.
And, at the other end of the size spectrum, another interior player gave MSU fits, too. Alex Oriakhi nearly got to double-digit rebounds just on the offensive end, pulling down 9 offensive boards and turning them into 15 points. Also perplexing.
This was a 65-possession game, so nothing to write home about on either end of the court for MSU. Both teams hauled in a good portion of their missed shots. (Considering Oriakhi's numbers, holding UConn to an offensive rebounding percentage of 40.9% almost seems like an achievement.) MSU's turnover issues ballooned in the second half, as they turned it over 9 times in roughly 31 possessions.
The field goal defense was very good against Huskie players not aforementioned. Con-T noted that UConn took a higher percentage of their FGA from 3-point range in this game than they have since 2008 and only made 25% of them; that's one positive indicator to take out of this thing. (For that matter, the defense on Walker was actually quite good in the closing minutes.)
What have I skipped over? Just a typically-maddening and unending string of calls from an Ed Hightower-led officiating crew (with the net disadvantage probably netting out for the two teams) and a giant, circular logo at center court intent on pulling down any MSU player who dared attempt to plant a foot within it. Maui: The Magic Isle!
Big finish: If this is indeed just a small bump on the road on the way to another Spartan squad eventually picking up and mastering Tom Izzo's complex offensive schemes and nuanced defensive principles, then, yes, I won't care about the loss four months from now. But, at this particular moment, I kind of think that putting a trophy with a giant surfboard, or some similarly-goofy emblem, on top of it in the Breslin Center trophy case would be something worth doing once or twice per decade.
More importantly, achieving the goal this team has set for itself--a national title--will likely require a more rapid ascent up the efficiency charts than past precedent would allow. There's still plenty of season left, but the 160 minutes of season we've seen to date are far from encouraging.
Moving forward, a win tomorrow night against Washington--an experienced team that's been much more efficient against subpar competition--would go quite a ways in convincing us that tonight's collapse doesn't have much predictive value. But that'll be no small task: Playing a third game in three days, against a very up-tempo team that specializes in turnover differential. Nerves will be wracked. 5:00. ESPN2.