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The Tank Runs Dry

Just out of reach.
Just out of reach.

So, as far as ways of dealing with season-ending Michigan State basketball losses, I highly recommend spending a gorgeous spring day in Indianapolis as the way to go.  White River State Park, the NCAA's Final Four Dribble event for kids, Bracket Town, Buca Di Beppo.  Life was good today.

Then I sat down in front of my laptop for the first time in 72 hours.  And, you know, I really don't feel that much worse.  Let's dive into this thing.

First off, I'm going to skip right past the part about the various officiating-related events that might have been the difference in the Spartans advancing instead of going home.  Those were covered by all of you in sufficient detail last night.  Many of us are statistical types.  Statistics say that winning big against bad teams is a better predictor of success than winning close against good teams.  MSU came into this game having won four straight close games against good teams.  It's hard to get a coin to flip the same way 5 straight times.  MSU benefited from some officiating breaks in a fair number of games this year.  I'm glad the game in which the breaks went against us was this one and not one of the earlier ones.

The cumulative results of the two teams' performances in the context of how the game was officiated looked like this:


On offense, the equation was the one I was worried about: too many turnovers, not enough offensive rebounds.  In the first half, I was relieved that Butler's man-to-man defense didn't look quite as ferocious as had been advertised.  They seemed content to stay back and let MSU run its offense on the perimeter.  Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers hit some jumpshots, and MSU looked like they might win fairly comfortably.  After closing back to a tie with a late first-half run, though, the Bulldogs turned on the defensive intensity in the second half.  Open jumpshots were denied, and the defense collapsed on any Spartan who tried to penetrate into the defense, creating a flurry of MSU turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Butler rebounders were able to hold off the MSU big men on the offensive glass, holding the Spartans to their second lowest offensive rebounding percentage of the season.  (The lowest percentage was against Northern Iowa, in another game that featured a very good defensive rebounding foe.  A key factor in all four of the most recent games has been Draymond Green's increased role as an offensive playmaker in Kalin Lucas' absence; Green has not recorded a single offensive rebound in any of the four games, as he's been drawn outside on offense more and been less free to crash the glass when other players shoot the ball.)  Gordon Hayward pulled down 9 rebounds, all on the defensive end, to lead the Bulldog defensive rebounding bulwark.

Despite shooting reasonably well from the field (45.1% on 2-pointers and 36.4% on 3-pointers), MSU was only able to get to 50 points in 59 possessions.  A much less efficient 50.0% shooting performance from the free throw line explains 3-4 points in that gap between points and possessions.

Meanwhile, the winning team prevailed with a grotesque-looking .357/.238/.708 shooting line, taking advantage of 7 additional field goal attempts and 10 additional free throw attempts.  The Spartan defense was fantastic down the stretch (10+ minute FG-less drought for Butler).  Hayward and Shelvin Mack were the only two Bulldogs to exceed 6 points.  Those two guys made enough individual plays (with Butler only recording 5 assists on 15 made field goals) to keep Butler just ahead of MSU throughout the second half.  (It is me, or was that the biggest 4-point deficit MSU has ever faced?).

Going into the game, I said that at least 3 of MSU's 4 remaining healthy offensive options had to play well.  And, for the most part, that happened.  Durrell Summers scored 14 points on 12 FGA and pulled down 10 rebounds.  Korie Lucious had 12 points on 3-6 three point shooting to go with 4 assists.  Draymond Green put up 12 points and 6 rebounds and nearly willed the team to the win at the end despite having his jumpshot go missing.

But each of those guys also had one major weakness crop up as the game went on: Summers' inability to get open late in the game, Lucious' 5 turnovers, Green's 4 missed free throws.  And the fourth major option, Raymar Morgan, had just about everything go wrong.  In his final game as a Spartan, Morgan was limited to 4 points on 2-7 FG shooting in just 23 minutes.  Morgan's second foul, which came less than 6 minutes into the game was a key moment; he (understandably) went after a loose ball on what looked like a 50/50 opportunity but was just a fraction of a second late and got called for it.

That's probably my #1 disappointment with the game--that Morgan's Michigan State career ended in that fashion.  Let's not forget that, if Morgan doesn't play the way he's played over the last 5 weeks, there'd be no new banners hanging from the Breslin rafters come this November.

Butler also did a very good job denying scoring opportunities to Tom Izzo's cast of role players.  Outside of the four players referenced above and Delvon Roe (4 points on 2-5 shooting), there were exactly three field goal attempts by Spartan players in the game.  Chris Allen (zero points, zero assists, 3 turnovers) was unable to play the wild card role I'd hoped for, as his arch problem continued to prevent him from finding a rhythm.  Austin Thornton and Mike Kebler played great defense, but couldn't knock down the single open look each of them saw on offense.  This was not a Derrick Nix-friendly match-up.  Garrick Sherman (4 points) was the lone supporting player to score in the game for MSU.

In the end, there just wasn't quite enough left In Tom Izzo's arsenal to pull this one out.  With only one win in the last four MSU Final Four appearances, there's a certain level of angst, I think, about not getting closer to winning that third Spartan national championship.  I share it.  But I really think this is much more a case of being happy with how far you came than being upset about coming up short.

In 5 NCAA Tournament games, MSU scored just 11 more points than its opponents.  That's made for a gutsy, thrilling, and memorable run.  But it's not the stuff national championships are made of.  Pulling out last night's game and taking a shot at the Blue Devils would have been fantastic, but it would also have been a completely different animal than the 5 games that preceded it--going up against a #1 seed that's very tough to game plan for (smart offensive decision makers; aggressive man-to-man defense).

I'm not saying there are any guarantees about the future.  And I'm not saying we should rest contently on the past.  I'm saying enjoy the moments.  And there were some great Spartan moments these past few weeks.

P.S. I don't care what all of you say, I'll be rooting for Butler tomorrow night from the 500-level of Lucas Oil Stadium.  Three reasons:

1) I have a genetic disposition toward rooting for underdogs (that can't even be overcome by the underdogs throwing out over-the-top, good-vs.-evil-type proclamations about a particular game's outcome).

2) To a person, every Butler fan I've met this weekend has been insanely nice.  And I don't really care about the bandwagon-fan phenomenon.  That happens everywhere--a lot of green and white paraphernalia springs up in the greater Lansing area every March.

3) I feel compelled to root against any team still ahead of us in the all-time-great-college-basketball-program pecking order.

Go, Dawgs!