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Free throw woes, turnovers kill Michigan State in Champions Classic loss to Kansas

The Spartans’ 18 turnovers were too much to overcome against the top-ranked Jayhawks.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Kansas at Michigan State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State got an early wakeup call in its 92-87 season-opening loss to Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic.

“Give Kansas credit. They played better than us,” head coach Tom Izzo said after the loss. “We just didn’t play good enough to beat a good team and they’re a good team.”

It wasn't a great night offensively for the Spartans, but one could attribute much of the loss to free throw struggles (23-for-35) and turnovers (18), something which plagued the team much of last season. The Jayhawks made the Spartans pay for their miscues, turning those giveaways into 20 points of their own.

“If we can improve on those two things (free throws and turnovers), from here on out, and if those are our only downfalls that we can work on the rest of the season, then we should be fine. I know we’ll be fine,” sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said after the game.

On the defensive end, Michigan State struggled most of the night, letting the Jayhawks impose their will offensively. The Kansas front court of Udoka Azubuike, Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson combined for 58 of its 92 points.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Kansas at Michigan State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

“We let their bigs catch it deep inside a lot and that really hurt us,” Tillman said of the problems Kansas’ bigs presented. “Lawson hit a lot of free throws too, so defending without fouling was something that kind’ve slipped our minds.”

Kansas was stout defensively, holding MSU to 44 percent from the floor. Junior guard Cassius Winston had a rough outing, finishing the game with just 13 points on a measly 3-of-10 night. Winston was heavily outplayed by Kansas’ true freshman guard Quentin Grimes. The 6-foot-5 McDonald’s All-American dazzled in his Jayhawk debut, pouring in a game-high 21 points, with 18 of those coming from beyond-the-arc.

After testing professional waters in the offseason, Nick Ward’s junior campaign didn’t get off to the best start. The Spartan big man notched just nine points, finishing 3-for-8, with five of those points coming from the charity stripe.

“Nick Ward has been so good, so good,” Izzo said of his junior forward, despite a bland statistical showing. “Nick will be okay, he just got out of character a bit and reverted back, but we’ll get that straightened out.”

Defensively, Ward had a long night. His foul troubles from a season ago reared its ugly head again, finishing the night with four as Azubuike pummeled him inside, capping the night with 17 points.

Josh Langford led the way offensively for the Spartans, tallying 18 points on an impressive 67 percent clip from deep. With Ward and Winston’s offensive struggles, Kenny Goins’ number was called often, and he did a solid job contributing. Goins chipped in 15 points and showed his shooting ability from the 3-point line (3-of-8) and was a solid defender on the Jayhawk bigs.

“I just gotta be consistent with it now. I need to stay in the gym and keep working on my shot,” Goins said of his expanded role in the offense as the team’s stretch-four forward.

The loss drops the Spartans to 0-1 on the year with their home opener on Sunday against Florida Gulf Coast. They should have a couple of games to gain some early momentum before getting set for a daunting six-game stretch, with just one of those games in East Lansing, beginning with UCLA in the Las Vegas Invitational in two weeks.