Fun fact: MSU won the championship of an NCAA-approved multi-team event today! The last four games have technically been part of something called the "Spartan Showcase"--a fact that I was not aware of until after I had attended two Showcase games in person. MSU, Boise State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Oakland, and Texas Southern are all playing a round robin against each other, qualifying the games as an "MTE" and allowing each team to play two more games than they otherwise would have.
Somehow, I don't think the Spartan players were playing "We are the champions" on the locker room sound system after the game. The combination of the four rapid-fire games MSU has played over the last eight days, the continued absence of two of the team's three most reliable guards, and an opponent not interested in going quietly into the night led to the ugliest Spartan win in recent memory this afternoon.
The key weakness for MSU was, of course, turnovers. All four of MSU's perimeter-based players turned the ball over four-plus times in the game:
- Keith Appling was a marked man and turned the ball over four times against constant hounding on the perimeter. He did, however, more than make up for that with 19 points (10-12 at the line), 5 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 steals.
- Brandan Kearney showed some nice offensive confidence in the first half, hitting two three-pointers as part of his 10 points, but made some bad decisions later in the game, leading to 4 turnovers.
- Outside of a key three-pointer late, Denzel Valentine had an outright brutal game, turning it over 5 times while scoring just 4 points and posting only 1 assist. Tom Izzo called him out after the game (those are Izzo's own words). Consider the honeymoon period over.
- Passing has officially surpassed shooting as the main concern regarding Russell Byrd's game. He hit a three-pointer in the first half after both the crowd and Tom Izzo expressed concern he was passing up open shots. But his poor passing decisions continued, as he finished with 4 turnovers. Izzo left him on the floor late in the game, to try to boost his confidence I think. That move backfired, to say the least.
Add it all up, and MSU's turnover percentage finished right at the dreaded 30% mark. They did just enough on the offensive glass (37.5%) and getting to the line (53.2% free throw rate) to squeeze out the win.
On the other side of the game, give a lot of credit to Louisiana. Their coach used a smart strategy in using his timeouts throughout the second half to prevent his team from getting worn out or overwhelmed by MSU's superior size and athleticism. And they had clearly scouted MSU's previous games from this week well, focusing on the fact that the ball had to be in Appling's hands late and coming away with enough easy turnovers to make it a one-possession game at the end. It's hard to second-guess funneling the ball to Appling, but I do wonder if a simple reverse cut or two against the perimeter pressure might have made things quite a bit easier at the end.
When Louisiana wasn't getting easy layups going the other way, MSU's defense was quite good. The Cajuns converted just 14 of 34 two-point attempts. They did get some impressive scoring from big man Shawn Long early against Derrick Nix (3-5 on threes), perfect three-point shooting (3-3) from Kevin Brown off the bench, and 20 points and 7 steals from point guard Elfrid Payton. The 10 free throws they missed (in 21 attempts) came back to haunt them.
If there's a positive to take from the game for MSU, it's probably Derrick Nix. His statline (9 points, 1 assist, 2 TOs) belies the fact that his decision making with the ball was quite a bit better this game than it has been. Branden Dawson also did a number of good things (12 points, 3 assists, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals), and Adreian Payne was strong on the glass (10 rebounds). Alex Gauna and Matt Costello looked quite competent in a combined 14 minutes, as Costello played a key role in cooling Long off late in the first half.
This is a team stretched to its limit right now. Izzo is using 9 guys, but it's not a classic Izzo rotation. MSU's depth ratio today was 4.92 today (> 3.00 = bad), as Appling went 38+ minutes for the third straight game. So I guess there is a bit of an alibi.
Next up is a trip to Miami as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge (7:30, ESPN). This looked like a pretty favorable match-up when the pairings were announced, but nothing is coming easy for MSU right now. There's a possibility that Travis Trice will be available to play in the game (more tests Monday), but I don't think we can expect too much from him in his first game back from what's turned out to be a very serious concussion. Tom Izzo will earn his paycheck over the next three days. as he tries to stop the bottom from falling out any further before the team starts the climb back up the hill.