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A Crash of Expectations Against Reality

A flubbed chance at grabbing a hold of the Big Ten's top spot.

Duane Burleson

The expectation: A comfortable home win.

MSU doesn't lose at home against teams that, to choose a measure of quality, don't make the NCAA tournament. The last time it happened was on January 3rd, 2009, over 5 years ago against Northwestern.  Marquise Gray and Idong Ibok played in that game for MSU. A freshman by the name of Draymond Green played 1 minute. It was a long time ago.

The expectation: the Nebraska stays the Nebraska.

Nebraska basketball's Wikipedia page has a table of contents entry labeled 'NIT Tournament Success'. They do not have a table of contents entry labeled 'NCAA tournament success', because they last made that field in 1998, and, some would say, because a crucial prerequisite to such an entry would be winning an NCAA tournament game, which they have never done.

The expectation: A nice opportunity for Gary Harris to turn the corner and for Denzel Valentine to accelerate past the corner.

Harris had shot just 14-49 (28.6%) from the field in his prior three games. Nebraska fielded a fine, but by no means stifling defense (KP #59),and you had to expect that Harris would be able to get his shots inside and out.

Meanwhile, Valentine had been rebounding at a prodigious rate all big ten season (6 or more rebounds in 10 out of 13 Big Ten games), distributing well (3 or more assists in 11 of 13), and had begun to start scoring as well (10 or more points in 6 of his last 8), to the point where he was flirting with triple doubles on two recent occasions.

The expectation: No one would go Full Coble, but even if they did, it wouldn't matter.

Every time a player on an opposing team hits like, a 26 foot three as the shot clock winds down, or some circus lay-up, every MSU fan's instinctive flashback is to Kevin Coble, or if the player is a little guy, Taylor Battle. "Here we go again, this guy can't miss." But usually, they do miss. Or, usually, they can't pump in enough points to keep their teammates afloat. I'd imagine over the past four years, MSU has seen its fair share of hot hands on plucky underdogs score 20+ points at the Breslin Center. Those teams have all lost anyways.

The Reality: A complete loss.

Four Factors Nebraska Michigan State
44.3% 39.0%
Ball Handling
8.8% 19.3%
Off Rebounding
25.0% 25.7%
Shooting FTs
39.6% 28.0%

No solace in the Four Factors here, unless you count a slight edge on the offensive boards to be a win for MSU against a team lacking much inside height (I do not). A slow, and I mean slowwwww, game (57 possessions by my source) meant you could be empathized with if you thought the red and white team was Bo Ryan and his crew hopping through a demonic portal to play a double-header.

At just .9 points per possession, MSU's issues on the day were mostly on the offensive end, where a painful shooting night of missed layups and clanked threes was comboed with an uncharacteristically shoddy job of retaining the ball. Defense was okay (Nebraska had 1.05 PPP), but not good enough to pick up the slack.

48% of MSU's attempts came from behind the arc, compared to 56.6% for Nebraska. MSU lost the free throw rate battle again (thanks in part to some late fouls to lengthen the game, it's worth noting), the 6th time that's happened in their 7 Big Ten home games. So much for home cooking :(

The Reality: The Nebraska does not stay the Nebraska?

The Huskers (14-10, 6-6), now winners of 6-of-8, finish their season with PSU, Pur, @ILL, NW, @Ind, Wis. That's about as gentle as the Big Ten will give you this year, and is, what, 3 wins? Maybe even like, 5 wins, depending on how much you buy in to their run of success? Nebraska finds itself in a very similar situation to that 2008-2009 Northwestern team, in that they have a handful of good wins, some bad losses, and a razor thin margin for error when it comes to NCAA vs NIT. But the schedule lines up right for a hot finish.

Petteway and Pitchford are talented players, Miles is a talented coach, and they ran the underdog blueprint of slowing the game down, holding onto the ball, taking a bunch of threes, and generally increasing variance as much as possible. It worked. Maybe this won't be a loss to a team who misses the NCAA tournament after all.

The Reality: Harris and Valentine are what they are this year.

Harris scores a ton of points, takes a ton of shots, a ton of threes, too many long twos, and every once in a while will slice to the basket so effortlessly and fluidly you wonder why he doesn't just do that every time. The team clearly feeds him the ball and when you're Gary Harris, taking a semi contested three or a open mid-range jumper probably doesn't feel like a bad shot, right up until it clangs off the iron. He was alright+ today by his own lofty standards (18 points on 15 FGAs, 7 rebounds, 6 of them defensive, 4 assists to 3 turnovers) but in the absence of key starters, he really needs to be more efficient. I suspect a key to getting Harris out of this slump is getting Dawson and Appling back healthy and taking some of the offensive weight off his shoulders.

Valentine is still a young player who is close to being so good but needs to A. be smarter about the shots he takes and B. keep improving his jump-shot in the off-season. Lots of teams are handing Valentine open threes and open two point jumpers and he takes them as if he hits them 50% of the time, when he actually hits them more like 30% of the time. A 2-8 shooting night, and 1 assist to 4 turnovers is b-a-d. 8 rebounds (two offensive) was a saving grace.

Right now Valentine is the de facto number three option behind Harris and Payne and he's not ready for that game in and game out.

The Reality: Petteway went Full Coble.

There were two shots in particular, and I'll grab screens of them at some point tonight, where this man took two contested, beyond NBA-range, threes with the shot clock winding down and scored six points. This is the best possible outcome for an underdog, you've shortened the game, hit the most valuable shot, and intangibly done so in a way that fires up your team and demoralizes your opponent. Twice. Tip o' the cap Mr. Petteway, you went Full Coble and may no man take that from you.

Player bullets

-Payne. Is going to make a bunch of money in the NBA and deservedly so. The difference in rebounding when he was in and when he was benched with foul trouble was startling. A missed fast break layup late was costly.

-Costello. He's bizzarro Harris in a way: super efficient, frustratingly low usage. Sort of got worked on the boards by a 6'8 and 6'7 dude, so that's not great.

-Trice. Welp. Rough shooting night (1-6), just one assist, no steals, and his turnover free streak of Big Ten play ended.

-Kaminski. Maybe his best game as a Spartan? 3-6 from three, 2 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks in 23 minutes of work. Sparked MSU offensively, and played surprisingly good defense.

-Appling. Clearly not 100% today. Played 19 minutes anyways because, well, read the Trice bullet.

The Big Picture

With Michigan's loss earlier today, MSU remains in a first place tie atop the Big Ten. The game @ Ann Arbor in 6 days, following the Spartan's midweek contest at Purdue is still probably for all (or at least a guaranteed share) of the Devyn marbles. If the Georgetown loss didn't knock MSU off the 1 seed line, this might have done it. MSU dropped from being the favorite to hoist the Big Ten title to right back to being a co-favorite in a couple of hours. Not a good day, but I saw the words Wright State tweeted a few times, which, mayyybe is a little extreme, huh?

I'd expect MSU to grind out a win in West Lafeyette, setting up the title fight rematch everyone's basically been waiting a month for. But then, I expected us to win this one too.