It’s hard to call a series a “rivalry” when one team is now 20-0 all-time, but each showdown between Michigan State and Oakland has a flare to it that makes it almost a must-watch. The Spartans defeated the Golden Grizzlies 90-78 on Tuesday night at a packed Little Caesars Arena in what was technically a home game for OU. MSU improves to 10-2 on the season and will head into another break before concluding non-conference play against High Point next week.
“Love Detroit, love this venue...Our fans were awesome (tonight), and I appreciate that,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said following the game. “The reason I keep playing (this game) is because I think it’s a good game for us...We’re going against a tough team (in Oakland), very well-coached, played all zone and pressed us.”
Both teams came into the game well-rested with Michigan State last playing 10 days ago and Oakland 14 days ago before Tuesday night’s contest. “For once in my life, I think my staff and I handled (the break) pretty well,” Izzo said.
Michigan State players having fresh legs was evident with a high-pace despite Oakland playing a tough zone defense. The 90 points matches a season-high for a Spartans team that is beginning to find a rhythm offensively that was absent for most of last season.
The scoring was spread out for the MSU, as five players finished in double-digits: Max Christie and Marcus Bingham led the team with 17 points each. Christie, in particular, continues to look as mature as a freshman can be offensively, finishing 4-for-6 from three-point range and 6-for-8 overall.
“I think the break certainly helped just so I can reset myself and just get mentally ready for this game,” Christie said after the victory. “When I hit those first two shots, it felt really good, because I've been working on my shot relentlessly.”
Izzo also praised Christie’s performance, mentioning how the team needs to be better at getting him more opportunities.
“I don’t think there’s anything he’s changing or doing different,” Izzo said when asked about what Christie’s performance means for the team. “It’s just a matter of getting him adjusted and confident. Max is such a good player. Nobody’s seen the real Max Christie yet...He’s got to get more shots.”
Per usual in the matchup, Oakland stuck around and did not make things easy for the Spartans to pull away. Only four Golden Grizzlies scored in the game, and three of them played the entire 40 minutes. A focus defensively for MSU coming into the game was limiting production from forward Jamal Cain, who has been a driving force for Oakland’s early season success after transferring in from Marquette. Cain, a Michigan native, finished with 20 points and six rebounds.
“In the scouting report he was number one for sure...Our game plan coming in defensively was to make all his shots tough,” Christie said.
Izzo knew that Cain was capable of causing some issues for the Spartans. Izzo even alluded to the fact that he potentially could have recruited Cain harder than he initially did.
“We put a lot, a lot, a lot into Cain...I recruited him,” Izzo added. “Probably another recruiting mistake of mine. He's a good player.”
The Spartans dominated in some categories that may have ultimately decided this game. Michigan State outscored Oakland in bench production 27-0, points in the paint 48-26 and second chance points 27-9. And we can’t forget that the Spartans ended up with only 10 turnovers, which tied a season low.
The Golden Grizzlies’ zone defense may have been successful in limiting fouls shots, but overall didn't cause too many issues for the Spartans offensively. MSU had a sizable advantage in the paint with Bingham protecting the rim, catching lobs and cleaning up second chances.
The best performance tonight may have been from point guard Tyson Walker (despite fouling out), who continues to show leadership within this offense a bit more each game. He would finish with 10 points, 10 assists and three steals, and turned the ball over just one time.
Walker was also able to take on what may be the most important role on the team: the player who holds Izzo back when things get heated. In the second half, following a controversial blocking foul call on Joey Hauser, Izzo went off on the referee, in which Walker had to calm his coach down. The intensity of the moment caused a frenzy throughout the crowd that made it tough to hear yourself think during the two proceeding technical fouls shots.
“That’s just how our relationship has built over time,” Walker said. “So now I can be the one that goes to (Izzo) to tell him to calm down a bit.”
Christie praised Walker’s leadership and calm, collective demeanor.
“(Tyson Walker) is QB1, he’s the point guard,” Christie said. “He’s a direct connection to Coach (Izzo) on the floor. When Coach gets a little rowdy, it’s his job to calm him down a little bit.”
Both teams now have another break ahead as the holidays approach and will use the additional rest to gear up for conference action. The Spartans finish their non-conference slate on Dec. 29 against High Point before throwing all hands on deck fo Big Ten play. Oakland, on the other hand, completed what may be the Grizzlies’ toughest stretch of the season, and should feel very good about where they’re at heading into Horizon League play.