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Men’s Basketball: MSU 62 UK 69 in Champions Classic

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NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Michigan State Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

General Thoughts:

MSU will fall from the #1 position immediately. After laying a bit of an egg vs UK. Tillman, Henry, and Watts had horror-show first halves, and the deficit (and unreal foul-trouble) were just too much for the Spartans to come back from. MSU missed a shocking number of 3pt shots (about half of their misses, maybe more, of the wide-open variety), and just couldn’t get over the hump despite cutting the UK lead to 1 possession and 2 possessions a couple of times. In a 7-point loss, Winston’s two bone-headed fouls on 3pt jumpers, and the two dubious offensive foul-calls on Xavier Tillman loomed large. But MSU can’t expect to win many games if they shoot 5-26 from 3, have 16 turnovers, and concede 32 fts. Neither team shot well (yay MSU’s defense!), but MSU somehow only scored 6 second-chance points despite numerous chances to make UK pay for not finishing defensive possessions. Izzo was PISSED after the game when talking to media, really disappointed in his staff and himself for their failure to prepare MSU for UK’s PnR defense, and vowed that they would have some long nights in the next week or so.

Maxey was the difference - he hit the big shot (a 3 over Aaron Henry with about a minute to go) - and got to the line and to the paint at will.

Player Notes:

Cassius Winston:
Cassius had a bit of a quiet start, and a bad foul on a jump shooter. But he paced MSU (while picking up more stupid fouls) despite playing a truly sub-standard game. Cassius finished with 21 points (only 1-7 from 3pt range), 4 assists, and drew 8 fouls (leading to a 10-11 performance from the line). Cassius was predictably level-headed post-game, and noted that he was proud of all of the young guys and confident that they would find a groove soon.

Xavier Tillman:
Tillman also had some good and bad early - good got on the glass, drew some fouls. Wasn’t a total dud in the second half, but wasn’t great either. Tillman noted that the team didn’t expect Kentucky to stretch and string out ball screens and that their length disrupted the Winston-Tillman connection, he also commented that he feels much more comfortable in the post, and that the team just needs to get in a rhythm in terms of their counters to teams trying to shut down their primary actions.

Aaron Henry:
Aaron had a shocker of a start - missed shots and bad fouls. He isn’t an attack-from-a-stand-still guy, and he needs to be catching the ball on the move or to at least be attacking an open side of the court. Came out of the half and played much better on both ends, scoring in transition, creating in the half-court, and keeping a lid on Whitney. After playing 2 minutes in the first half, Henry finished with 9 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 assists (all in the second half). If he can put together 2 halves like that on a consistent basis, then MSU will be in very good shape moving forward.

Thomas Kithier:
TIM had some nice early plays on offense, including an important drive to create at the end of a stale possession early on, but got in foul trouble, like the rest of the team, and just didn’t play with the steadiness he showed in the second half of last season.

Rocket Watts:
Rocket is too passive right now - he jitterbugs a bit with his dribble and needs to get going north-and-south to draw defenders and force rotations. He had just a shocking performance on both ends, and threw the game away literally with a chance to pull the game to one possession (the fact that he was in the game was incredible, but showed how much faith the coaching staff has in him), but at least he can only improve from this moment on!

Gabe Brown:
Gabe hit his first shot - a big one - and was locked in on defense from the moment he checked in. At this point he needs to be starting over Watts. He had a quiet second half, with Ahrens getting the call for minutes down the stretch.

Kyle Ahrens:
Ahrens came off the bench with superb defense drawing 2 fouls on Brooks jr (on a good box out and a charge), but he didn’t add anything offensively in the first half. Hit a huge 3 in the second half when MSU was down big, but missed a couple of wide-open ones that might have changed the outcome of the game.

Malik Hall:
Malik looked good, but didn’t hit his shot and picked up a few quick fouls. Came back in with 3 fouls and executed on defense picking up a nice steal and being in position consistently. But he was just rushed offensively (like his fellow freshmen), and didn’t make enough simple plays.

Foster Loyer:
Foster had a quick stint in the first half and didn’t add much. Came back in when Cash got his second foul, and that stint didn’t go well either.

Marcus Bingham jr:
Bingham jr checked in when Kithier and Hall picked up their 2 fouls. Immediately got an offensive rebound, then promptly air-balled a rhythm dribble pull up two. But he had a good contest and rebound on a defensive post-up. And got better from there competing like heck, snagging rebounds, and contesting shots in the post. Went 14 from the line in the first half. He had an ok second half - not nearly as impactful, and with an important turnover. Bingham jr was a real bright spot, but Izzo was quick to shut down any notion that such a one-off performance would mean starting-lineup changes.

Julius Marble:
Marble had some great emergency minutes and only had a couple freshmen moments.

Looking Forward:

MSU has Binghamton on Sunday at home (one of 7 games this season that do not register in Kenpom as an A or B game) before a HUGE trip to Seton Hall for the Gavitt Games (I may schlep over to Newark for that one - we’ll see). The big questions remain big questions - when can Watts get up to speed (he needs to slow down, play simple, and play with a bit more conviction in his simplicity), and can we settle down the 4? Kithier and Hall had some positive moments, but need to find ways to impact the game a bit more given all of the attention that Winston, Tillman, and Henry draw.

Both Izzo and Fife reiterated how much they think Watts will help the team once he settles down and finds his game a bit, and Fife reiterated that he was confident that this team will find its 3pt stroke: “These guys won’t be as good as the Valentine, Forbes, and Trice teams, but they will be solid pretty soon and all year; we just have some young guys who are good shooters who need some confidence.” Fife also noted how excellent he thought the officials were.

Once MSU finds its groove in terms of its rotations and roles, this team will cruise. As frustrating as this ugly ugly game was my excitement for the rest of the season remains high - Binghamton will be a great game for the young guys to get in a groove and to see some shots go in. Expect a regression towards MSU’s as-of-yet-undefined true mean for their 3pt percentage, and look for a non-zero-point performance from Rocket Watts, who remains a diamond in the rough for now.

Bonus thoughts on Kansas vs Duke:

Here are some thoughts on the first game, given that MSU will likely play Kansas and will host Duke.

Kansas turned it over like an early-season MSU team, but they have some talented guards/wings (Dotson, Garrett, and Agbaji, especially, are super). Their bigs played horrendously (Azubuike looks like a shell of his former self - in large part because he dropped about 30 pounds - confused, out of sorts, and no-longer the low-post anchor). They need to simplify the game for those bigs, but I think that Kansas’ best lineups will be those with Wilson or Enaruna at the 4 as the season progresses. If those two freshmen can get on line and if De Sousa can sort himself out enough to supplant McCormack, then Kansas is a top team. Kansas should still win the Big XII, but they appear to be willing to let Texas Tech, Texas, and Baylor compete with them.

Duke looks like they don’t have an identity offensively - they were super on defense with Jones and DeLaurier applying pressure, and Moore, Stanley, and O’Connell providing energy and additional peskiness. Duke absolutely needs Carey jr to be an inside-out player - he floated way too often shooting jumpers (he also makes Nick Ward look like Bill Russell comparing their defense). If Carey can anchor the low-post, that creates space for Hurt and O’Connell to shoot jumpers, and clarifies where the help will come from for Stanley, Moore, and Jones as drivers/slashers. The disparity between Jones and Winston is startling (even comparing sophomore-Winston with Jones) - he just doesn’t get how to lead an offense yet. This team has to live in transition though because it will be ugly in the half-court and a struggle all year - they were much better in the second half when Carey got down to the block and when Stanley began to exert himself - Hurt, Stanley, Carey jr, and hustle/transition is this team’s offensive future. I am instantly favoring Louisville to win the ACC (pending what I see from UVA and UNC).

I will update with more quotes and videos in the next day or so. For now, it’s 1:30am and I need to walk the 10 blocks back to my apartment.

Go Green!!!