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Tuning Up: Michigan State 98, McNeese State 56

Branden Dawson was everywhere against McNeese State
Branden Dawson was everywhere against McNeese State
Gregory Shamus

In the first regular season game of the year, and the last before facing #1 Kentucky on Tuesday in the Champions Classic, Michigan State overwhelmed McNeese State and won going away. After the Cowboys' Adrian Fields hit a 3-pointer early in the first half to put McNeese up 13-12 the Spartans scored the next 10 points and closed out the half on an 18-2 run, putting the game out of reach. Any hopes the Cowboys may have had of coming back were snuffed out by an ice cold start to the second half, which found them down 43 barely 5 minutes in. That was more or less the final margin, as the rest of the half trailed off in sloppy play, with Izzo imploring his team to try and focus and finish the game strong.

This was a fast-paced game. In fact, at an estimated pace of 76 possessions this was faster than any game they played against a D1 opponent last year, when their season high in points in any game was 92. The 98 the Spartans put up Friday night translates to a scorching 1.29 points per trip, a mark they matched only once, against Northwestern on Senior Day last March. No doubt McNeese State, projected as team in the high 200s by Ken Pomeroy, is not a great barometer. But there's a reason that margin of victory improves the predictive value of ratings systems. Good teams obliterate lesser ones and this Spartan team, even at this early point, looks like it could have even more offensive firepower than many suspected.

The first half belonged to Gary Harris, with 15 of his game-high 20 points, including 3 threes. Even more encouraging, perhaps (though his shooting stroke is very sweet), was the other half of his double-double, a career-high 10 rebounds. This was a part of his game that was largely absent last year when his shoulder problems kept him from attacking the glass with much aggression and he finished with the lowest defensive rebounding percentage among the rotation players. Early signs certainly point to the possibility of a special year for Harris.

The other player who stood out, to me and apparently to Izzo as well, was Branden Dawson. And while his much-scrutinized jump-shot didn't look any different than usual, he played at a high energy level, picking up points on putbacks, keeping possessions alive and getting out in transition for some impressive finishes. He used the motivation of having to come off the bench (he was late to a team meeting) to produce a statsheet-stuffing kind of night with 12 rebounds, 6 at each end, 12 points on 12 shots, 5 assists, a steal a block and 3 turnovers. Dane Fife has said that Dawson's real value, as nice as it would be to improve his shot, is in just doing what he does best and playing with energy. Tonight illustrated his point well.

Four other Spartans also scored in double figures in this one, including Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice. Payne also managed the double-double, pulling down 10 boards. So three players had double-doubles, which apparently hasn't happened for MSU since 1988. Yes, things got a little sloppy, but the 15 turnovers MSU committed still works out to just under 20%. Not great, but fairly familiar. Of course we're about to get a much better read on just how good this team is in Chicago on Tuesday. But early signs are all positive and that next matchup, the earliest 1 vs 2 meeting I can remember, has the makings of a good one.