For Michigan State purposes, the focus on Friday's Class A high school basketball semifinal between Detroit Southeastern and Bay City Western was all about watching two future Spartans: Southeastern senior and Mr. Basketball finalist Brandan Kearney and Western junior Matt Costello, who might be the best player in the state right now regardless of age.
The game didn't disappoint. Both players showed an array of skills that should have MSU fans really excited when they are eventually teammates in East Lansing. After the jump, a look at what each showed in the game.
The biggest knock on Kearney's game has always been that he lacks aggression. I've always felt that was an unfair criticism, for a couple of reasons.
First, he's really unselfish. I think most coaches, particularly Tom Izzo, who isn't necessarily looking for Kearney to come in and be a superstar, would much rather have an unselfish player on the wing with good court vision than a guy who constantly looks for his own shot.
Secondly, his role at Detroit Southeastern sometimes saps him of his aggressiveness. Because Kearney is an excellent passer and rarely plays out of control, he was frequently out at the top, setting up or initiating the offense. Now, he's certainly bigger and more athletic than any of the wings on Bay City Western. I have no doubt Kearney could've dominated had Southeastern chose to run more plays that called for him to shoot.
Instead, they ran their offense to set up opportunities for bruising big man Percy Gibson, a Dayton commit. It's hard to argue with the results. Gibson made Costello and Brandon Havercamp work on defense, got both into foul trouble and helped wear down that opposing frontcourt. Southeastern also only turned the ball over five times, largely because Kearney helped the team play under control most of the game. Here were some other things that really stood out about Kearney:
His speed. On the opening tip, Kearney streaked up the wing in what seemed like only a couple of strides from halfcourt, caught the ball and finished before anyone on the Western defense could adjust.
The ease of the game for him. Another reason people sometimes question Kearney's motor is because he simply makes really difficult things look easy. On a fast break at about halfcourt, going full speed with the ball, Kearney dribbled behind his back and went around a Western guard all in one motion, without ever even changing speeds. He set up a shot for a teammate that was missed, but if you were just watching the game in regular motion, it was hard to appreciate how complex the move was. In slow motion, it was sick. Not many guys his height can do that in high school.
Battling on defense. Kearney guarded the bigger Costello in the fourth, and had some nice possessions against him despite Costello's great post-up ability and size advantage. In fact, the game-sealing steal came about when Costello turned, tried to bump Kearney off of him to create space and put the ball on the floor. Kearney held his ground, causing Costello to mishandle and Southeastern came up with a steal.
What needs to improve? A couple areas were Kearney could use some work: he needs to get better at selling contact and he took a couple of ill-advised shots. He makes nice post moves and often draws contact, but two times replays showed he was clearly hit on the arm on shot attempts inside and didn't get the call. High school referees often call games inconsistently, but when you compare Kearney with Costello, who flails himself around at any hint of contact, and it's easy to see why Costello gets calls and Kearney doesn't always.
The worst shot he took was with Southeastern trying to hold for the last shot in the first half with about a minute left. Kearney took a deep three that wasn't a good look and missed badly, giving Western another chance.
Overall, the best thing to like about Kearney's performance was the fact that you didn't notice him much, and I don't say that as a knock at all. He was content to run the offense, content to defer to Gibson, who had it going inside, and did things like run the floor, play defense and make the right pass. Those are things that I think could get him on the court as a freshman at MSU.
There's not much that hasn't been written about Costello that I can expound on. He's simply the best all-around high school player in the state right now.
Unfortunately, he hurt his ankle late in the first half of this game, and although he still came back and played fairly effectively after the injury, it clearly hurt his mobility some. Before the injury, he was unstoppable. Southeastern's bigs were too slow to guard him because he'd simply face up and beat them off the dribble or pull them out of the paint, creating space for teammates to operate, because of his range out to the 3-point line that must be accounted for. Here were the standout elements of Costello's game today:
Screen-setting. You don't expect a team's best offensive player to also be the best screen-setter. After all, with the ball in his hands a lot, how often can he really be expected to work on setting screens? But Western has a handful of good shooters who were getting open looks partially because Costello really finishes off his screens. He gets in good position, makes himself wide and holds his ground, often delivering the blow even as the defender goes barreling into him.
He passes a lot. Western had never even won a regional title before this season, so he's certainly had a major impact on a team that plays in one of the toughest high school leagues in the country in the Saginaw Valley. But Western is far from a one-man show because Costello often looks to pass. They need him to score a lot of points, but they had weapons all over the court, and he usually found them when they were open, either out of the post or off the dribble.
It doesn't matter if you push him off the block. Early on, part of Southeastern's strategy seemed to be pushing Costello out of the post as tried to establish position. They scrapped it eventually, basically because it didn't work. Traditional post players who get pushed off the block often struggle to get the ball or get shots. Costello simply set up further away from the basket, immediately turned and faced, and took most any defender thrown at him, big or small, off the dribble.
What needs to improve? He's a little too aggressive sometimes. It's not a bad trait, don't get me wrong. But playing with four fouls and less than two minutes to go in a close game, he nearly picked up his fifth by needlessly switching out on a guard and reaching in to try and get a steal. There was contact, but luckily the officials let it go. I love big men unafraid to step out and take on a guard (think Ben Wallace in his prime), but when you're in foul trouble, and when your team is dependent on you, you have to play a tad more reeled in than that.
He also went a little too quickly on offense a couple times. Southeastern was sending doubles at him from all over the court. Costello, if he would've waited a bit when catching, could've better surveyed where the double would be coming from on a couple of possessions that led to turnovers.
As with Kearney, any downsides to Costello's game are simply nit-picking. Both guys are clearly winners who are highly intelligent and will help restore the toughness to Michigan State basketball that we all love.