In what can only be described as a beautifully ugly rock-fight, Aaron Henry and the Michigan State Spartans earned Tom Izzo his first victory over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In a bizarre year, in a bizarre season, this was a fittingly bizarre and satisfying victory for Izzo.
The Five Factors:
eFG%: 46.8 percent (MSU), 36.3 percent (Duke)
TO%: 19.7 percent (MSU), 15.6 percent (Duke)
oReb%: 30.8 percent (MSU), 20.9 percent (Duke)
FTR: 39.7 percent (MSU), 48.4 percent (Duke)
Assist rate: 33.3 percent (MSU), 45 percent (Duke)
I have added in a new Michigan State special to the four factors — Assist rate — because Michigan State’s offense generally relies on passing and sharing the ball to be at its best. It is fitting that I begin this tradition with the Duke performance because this will, in all likelihood, go down as the Spartans’ worst passing game of the season. What this graphical representation of the game should tell us is that great defense when it does not result in fouls or offensive rebounds—best captured in Michigan State’s destruction of Duke’s typically high effective field goal percentage—can overcome a sub-par offensive performance.
The fifth factor also captures Duke’s game-plan: deny Michigan State’s traditional offense by pressuring the perimeter and forcing Michigan State’s players to make individual plays. And for the first ten minutes of the game this strategy worked perfectly.
A Rough Start:
The Spartans came out about as flat as possible giving up fouls, free throws, and easy baskets, and turning the ball over seemingly every other possession. But this Duke team does not have a killer mentality at this point — maybe they will later in the season. With Michigan State floundering — turning the ball over seven times in the first 10 minutes of the half — Duke did not build any sort of significant margin. While the Blue Devils crawled their way to a 13-3 lead after five minutes of play, Aaron Henry took the game by the scruff of the neck and didn’t let go for the rest of the contest.
Henry noted that he “asked his guys and his coaching staff in the huddles to stay calm and keep their composure — everybody’s in a fight you’re gonna get hit, it’s how you respond and how you sustain yourself and I thought we did a good job there.”
On his aggressiveness, “The way they were playing us, it took that out of me to be aggressive to get to the rim and make plays for others I missed too many shots around the rim...but to come out and perform the way I did — it was enough to win, and that’s what matters to me...that we won.”
On the mental toughness of the team, “It starts with me with the head and I’ve been through so much off the court that this is something I’ve been prepared for...and I am really proud of this group and how we responded.”
On Henry as a player-coach: “I’ve played in some big games, tough games, won some championships here, but the most important thing is that I can be on the [same team] with Coach Izzo. You know, I felt like we were in tune the whole game — he was listening to me and I was listening to him, and even his vision on the court and what he sees isn’t even the same as ours —and that respect for us on the court and what we see on the court and how it returns to him, and I felt like I was his voice out there on the court, and it helped give the team some direction, in addition to some other players [doing the same].”
Turning the tide:
Henry’s mini-run during that critical middle portion of the half (six points over the next five minutes of game time) kept the Spartans afloat and gave the team a bit of confidence. When Julius Marble came off the bench to join Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry as major first-half contributors on offense, the team really started to build momentum. Marble and Malik Hall contributed toughness, defense, rebounding, and crucial buckets in both halves, but they were not the only contributors off the bench for the Spartans. In a game where Gabe Brown could not get anything going on offense, his defense was still strong and bolstered by Foster Loyer’s surprisingly steady hand both on the court and in huddles.
Izzo praised Loyer, Joshua Langford, and Henry repeatedly in his post-game comments as exemplars of steady leadership and voices of calm.
Izzo, “I thought our defense and our depth would help and it turned out that way. You know early our defense was so bad, but give Josh a bit of credit and give Aaron a lot of credit too — we put Aaaron at the point some and he just did a hell of a job. He did miss some easy shots, but, boy, we rode him [all night]; he had to play the defensive end, he had to play the offensive end, and he and I were talking on the way up— ‘you know you play the point, and everyone wants to play the point until you actually play it, and you don’t realize how hard it was on Cassius.’ But you know we had some other heroes too: Foster Loyer, taking three charges, gets five rebounds, Malik Hall was dynamite tonight, Julius Marble who hardly even played last game (and I told our guys it’s gonna be that way sometimes)...thank god we had some depth...the good thing is that [all those problems] will be for film session tomorrow.”
On Loyer, “Let me tell you something, Foster Loyer acted like a captain and played like a captain. He was Rocket’s biggest cheerleader, he was ready to play when he came in, and, you know, some guys could have hung their heads and done this and done that. Joshua Langford...did some good things on that bench and in those huddles too...we’ve got a lot of coaching to do — poor coaching job by the head coach too. It was kind of our peripheral guys that really played well and made the difference in the game.”
While Langford generally struggled on the court against Duke, Loyer finished with an impressive five points and five rebounds generally steadying the team after Watts’ erratic first-half point-guard display at the point. These two captains, along with Henry’s consistent aggression, made all the difference.
The big three:
Henry’s constant aggression, attacking play, and assertiveness over the course of the entire game found some partners in battle in the second half in the forms of Joey Hauser and Rocket Watts. Watts and Hauser scored the ball, handled the pressure from the Duke guards pretty well, and helped ensure that the Spartans did not suffer significant scoring droughts.
The three lines of these top players tell much of the story of the game (I will get to the “rest” of the story in just a moment):
Aaron Henry: 14 points (7-21 FGs, 0-3 from three-point range, 0-2 from the line), five rebounds, five assists, three steals, three blocks, four turnovers, and four fouls (playing nearly the entire game).
Joey Hauser: 11 points (4-6 FGs, 2-3 from three-point range, 1-2 from the line), 10 rebounds, one steal, two turnovers, and five fouls.
Rocket Watts: 20 points (7-16 FGs, 1-4 from three-point range, 5-7 from the line), three rebounds, two assists, three turnovers, and four fouls.
These three tell us that the team did not have a great shooting game, did not have nearly its usual passing game, nearly all fouled out, and yet, collectively found a way to combine to have a huge influence.
Duke’s high-pressure defense bears special mention: their strategy was heavy on individual pressure, low on help (a good choice given their players exclusive understanding of help defense as consisting of sliding under guys in the air to draw charges), and forcing their opponents to make individual plays. Early in the game this defense and the Duke players exerted a ton of energy and generally disrupted the Michigan State game plan. But when Henry started driving his man (no one could stay in front of Henry in the first half) and scoring, and then Watts and Hauser started doing the same in the second half, Duke had no counter or adjustment to make. They tried to knock the Spartans out early, but ended up “punching themselves out” as MSU gave them a taste of the old Muhammad Ali “rope-a-dope” strategy.
With increasingly connected, aggressive, and assured defense the Spartans wore down the young Duke team and withstood their late ball-pressure to hold on to a slightly strange and well-earned victory. Particularly important, as the game wore on, was the effectiveness of the scouting report and the team’s long and active defense.
As Henry noted, “I just felt like we stayed true to the scouting report. And with the vets we have we have guys who are willing to listen and talk, guys who are willing to bear down and defend, and I feel like we can make a lot of teams really uncomfortable in that position with the length and versatility we have and the ability to switch and guard different positions, but I feel like the most important thing was our preparation we had all week. The scout team did a great job and looked like Duke out there all week and we just stuck to the game plan.”
With the Spartans missing wide-open three-point shots for most of the night, and Gabe Brown and Joshua Langford combining for only three points on a single Langford jumper in Michigan State’s early flurry in the second half, the Spartans needed some secondary contributions. They found them in the form of roommates Julius Marble and Malik Hall, and the steady presence of Foster Loyer.
Julius Marble chipped in with a perfect shooting game and crucial points as the Spartans slowly took the lead in the first half. Marble finished with 12 points (5-5 FGs, 2-2 from the line), and two rebounds, including a ferocious dunk in transition on a feed from Aaron Henry:
As Marble noted after the game: “It was at Duke, and I kind of hate Duke, so it felt good.” Marble has been playing on the scout team of late, and Izzo commented that he has been incredible with his attitude and performance in that role. Marble was prepared to play tonight, Izzo had told him to be ready, and he was.
“It was a little bit of (playing on) the scout team,” Marble said. “I knew a little bit more than I probably would have if I was on the first team because I studied the player, I knew all of their tendencies and stuff like that, so it did help with that. l wasn’t going out to try and like get a basket, or this and that, I was just trying to do my role, and it just so happened I was able to get some points and be a spark off the bench.”
Malik Hall, Marble’s roommate, also played a major role in the win, finishing with 10 points (2-5 FGs, 0-1 from three point range, and 6-8 from the line), 10 rebounds, two assists, only one turnover, and only one foul. Hall’s defense on All-American freshman Jalen Johnson (along with some contributions from Henry and Hauser, whose second half defense was much better than his porous effort in the first half), proved decisive. Johnson finished with a muted 11 points (4-11 FGs, 0-2 from three point range, 3-6 from the line), four rebounds, one assist, one steal, two blocks, one turnover, and two fouls.
Finally, Foster Loyer, though he only finished with five points, five rebounds, and zero assists, had an immense part to play in this first victory for Izzo on the road against Coach K. Loyer’s two timely charges drawn in the first half came during his first stint on the court, and helped activate the Michigan State defense’s “destroy” mode. Loyer’s three-point shot tied the game at 29-29, and the team never looked back from his minutes in the first half, even if the progress was at times halting. Izzo’s praise of Loyer was effusive, and his ability, along with Langford, to settle the team down played all the difference when combined with Henry’s killer mentality, Watts’ unconscious scoring outbursts, Hauser’s steady second half, and Hall and Marble’s imposing and impactful bench performances.
This was not a vintage box score, but a truly vintage winning-basketball performance. As Michigan State reviews the tape there will be plenty to grouse about: turnovers, missed rebounds, missed wide-open shots, and horrendous free throw shooting that flattered Duke in the final scoreline. But this was a winner’s win, and this team has a lot more, and prettier, wins to come.
And in case you thought I forgot: