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Devil of a Time: Duke 84, Michigan State 79

[Better almost 24 hours late than never.  Most of this has already been covered by all of you.  But, hey, there was a game, we must recap it.]

Based on the standard I set in the game preview, I am obligated to call the result of the game a moral victory.  Michigan State went down to play a team that appears to be the best in the country by a healthy margin at this point in the season and kept the deficit to single digits for most of the night.  Relative to a KenPom-projected 13-point differential and a Vegas line of 10, MSU beat expectations.

The flip side to that statement, though, is that MSU was agonizingly close to grabbing the lead and the momentum on several occasions but repeatedly killed its own chances of pulling out the win.  It was better than losing badly.  But it was still losing.

MSU's performance was a pretty starkly dichotomous amalgam of the surprisingly good and the disappointingly lacking, both in terms of individual players and four factor components.  The most disappointing statistical component was, of course, the turnovers--all those blasted turnovers.  MSU turned it over 20 times in 74 possessions (27.0%).  Spartan players--particularly the big men, who combined for 14 of the 20 turnovers--repeatedly made bad passes against the Duke halfcourt pressure.  It was not unexpected, but it was nonetheless maddening--and it cost MSU the chance to make a run at a lead when Duke's shots weren't falling.

Those stretches of missed shots for Duke didn't last long.  MSU was able to frustrate Kyle Singler for much of the game (5-14 from the field), but Kyrie Irving more than compensated (31 points on just 12 shots).    For the second consecutive week, MSU faced a point guard who appeared to be unguardable.  As a team, the Duke players converted a reasonable 48.6% of their 2-point attempts and a very healthy 43.8% of their 3-point attempts (which totaled only 16, as Duke didn't settle for a lot of contested jumpshots).

On the upside, MSU's rebounding was resurgent.  The team had a 10-percentage-point edge on the boards, grabbing 44.4% of available offensive rebounds.  Five different Spartans grabbed at least 2 offensive boards.

MSU's excellent early-season field goal shooting numbers continued: 47.8% on 2-pointers, 52.9% on 3-pointers.  When MSU didn't give the ball away before getting a shot off, the team was very efficient offensively, averaging 1.46 points per "effective possession."  Therein lies the frustration: MSU probably did as good a job as reasonably could be expected on defense against a team with a superstar point guard who was fully locked in.  But they showed the potential to actually outscore that team if they could just avoid bad turnovers.


(Final four-factor note: The free throw rate bars look way out of whack, but some of that's a function of all the intentional fouling in the final two minutes.  11 of Duke's 38 free throw attempts came in the final minute.  And, if you subtract the 6 fouls MSU committed in those final two minutes, MSU was only called for 3 more fouls than Duke [19 to 16]--not bad for an appearance at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  The Duke big men picked up a number of fouls early.  The remaining Blue Devil edge in free throw attempts was a function of the Duke players being more aggressive in attacking the basket.)

On an individual-player basis, the guys we thought would come out and assert themselves to keep MSU in the game early did quite the opposite.  Draymond Green, Kalin Lucas, and Durrell Summers were just 2-12 from the field at halftime.

Tom Izzo not only followed my advice by starting Green, he basically started him at point guard, putting the ball in his hands to make plays against a bigger Duke defender on the perimeter.  This was presumably an attempt to avoid the kind of early turnovers that often result from MSU trying to run its set plays against an amped-up man-to-man defense.  Unfortunately, Green was a little too aggressive with the ball and committed several early turnovers.  That seemed to put his entire offensive game out of whack until the final minutes of the game.  He ended up with a very uncharacteristic 1-to-5 assist-turnover ratio.  He did score 16 points, but most of that came in a final-minute flurry (also: 3 steals, 3 blocks).

Lucas and Summers, meanwhile, just couldn't find their rhythm.  Lucas was, for once, matched-up against opposing guards of equivalent quickness/strength (having Nolan Smith as your second most talented point guard really shouldn't be legal).  And the perimeter looks Summers needs just weren't there; credit him, though, for being the one Spartan to play more than just a few minutes and not turn the ball over.  The two of them combined to get just 5 three-point attempts off and were a mediocre 8-19 on 2-point attempts.

Thankfully, the supporting cast stepped up and filled the void.  Korie Lucious almost single-handedly kept MSU in the game in the first half.  He finished the game with 20 points on 12 FGA and 8 assists--putting together his best overall game as a Spartan.  There were a couple lapses in focus that led to 3 turnovers (and a tongue-lashing from Tom Izzo when Lucious didn't get back on defense quickly enough after one giveaway), but Lucious clearly showed just how dangerous can be when he's making good (but aggressive) decisions with the ball.  Put this version of Lucious in the same backcourt with Lucas on a more standard night, and you'll have something almost as tough to guard as the Irving/Smith combo.

Garrick Sherman didn't shrink back against Mason Plumlee and company, continuing his string of games scoring a handful of baskets on nifty moves in the lane.  He finished the game with 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals in 21 minutes.  Adreian Payne was also a factor early on, scoring 5 points and 6 rebounds in just 9 minutes.  He struggled to score in traffic, fumbling a great pass in the lane from Lucious at one point, but he helped offset the Duke size advantage on the inside.

Quickly: Austin Thornton chased down 4 offensive rebounds, but failed to convert 4 scoring opportunities going toward the basket that a more athletic player would probably have done something with; 16 minutes was maybe a few too many.  Delvon Roe struggled, turning it over 4 times and only grabbing 3 rebounds.  Derrick Nix . . . committed a dumb, dumb foul; he simply has to be able to play through mistakes if he's going to play significant minutes this season.   Mike Kebler was Mike Kebler, briefly.  Keith Appling, for whatever reason, was also only briefly on the court.

In the end, the encouraging signs outweighed the discouraging ones.  The individual players have, almost without exception, each flashed their full potential in one or more games against quality opposition.  If more than 2-3 players can come together in any given game, that will likely go a long way toward fixing the turnover issues.  The Green-at-the-point thing didn't work, but I give credit to Izzo for trying something different against an aggressive, athletic opponent.  Ultimately, it's a matter of finding the right balance between the conventional offense and individual playmaking. 

I've been fairly down about the team's performance over the last week or so, but stepping back, you've got a team coming off a multitude of offseason injuries that's played two (now-) top-ten teams to within a few points and beaten a top-25 team.  It hasn't been a perfect start--the kind you'd like to see for a team with aspirations that will require beating at least a couple top-ten teams in March/April--but it's a start that can definitely be built on.

Next up: Back home for another tune-up game, vs. Bowling Green on Saturday (1:30, BTN make that BigTenNetwork.COM ), before heading to the Big Apple to play the next top-ten opponent (Syracuse) next Tuesday night.