On Saturday afternoon at the Breslin, Michigan State played a game that was far from its best. You could tell there were a lot of nerves from the opening tip until the end for both teams. Makes sense as there has been a lot of build-up coming from off the court leading up to this game. This definitely felt like it was more than a basketball game between two in-state rivals. In the end, the Spartans came away victorious. But before we discuss how they did it, let’s talk about a few other things.
As I said, this was more than just a basketball game today. If you are a fan of either of these schools, you know that the bad blood between them has been approaching all-time high levels since the last time they competed (October’s football game). Between um clamoring for criminal charges in the aftermath of the tunnel incident and a certain um basketball player’s involvement in an absurd podcast snippet slandering Coach Izzo, the tension between these two student bodies and alumni groups was at a fever pitch. And that led to an amazing setting inside the Breslin Center. The biggest stars for MSU had showed up: Steve Smith, Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell, Morris Peterson, and new NBA team owner Mat Ishbia (sitting in a courtside row that looked like it was cut out specifically for him and his guests). The Izzone was loud and energetic and, contrary to my personal preference, they took Izzo’s wish and showed a level of class and respect, particularly toward um’s best player biggest villain. But since I am not as big a person as our hall of fame coach, I need to take the low-road for a second. I no longer can call this player by his given name. Nope. Maybe this guy has been hanging out with former um players, the Wagner brothers, too much. Maybe that is where the Izzo/nazi comment came from. So I will roll with it, and give him a German name, the closest one to his actual name. From now on, I will refer to him as “Gunther Dachunsund”.
GAME FLOW HIGHLIGHTS
Now that I got that out of the way, let’s get to what happened during the game. I had decided even before this game started that I would not do a recap like the one I did in the last game, giving short synopses of each segment between commercials. And thank god for that because there really was not a lot to actually discuss in many of those intervals. This game was full of bad possessions, ugly shots (including several airballs), turnovers, and just in general, sloppy play. MSU won the tip and, as is becoming custom, tried to go inside to Mady on the first possession. I have no problem with this strategy, although every B1G coach should know it is coming at this point. Apparently Gunther knew and he had a good defensive play to stop Mady at the rim. Gunther got the scoring started on the other end with a basket. A few possessions later, Walker opened it up for MSU with a triple. From here, it was mostly misses, and at the second TV timeout, the score was a measly 7-7.
MSU had the ball coming out of this break, and here was the first nice play of the game. After a sequence of passes and players moving around screens, Walker ended up with it near the top of the arc and he drove to his left all the way to the hole for a left-handed layup. The game remained tight for a few more minutes. Both teams were playing good defense and neither side was allowing any offensive rebounds. But the Spartans would get some separation late, as Malik Hall went on a one-man run, scoring 7 straight and 9 total in the final few minutes of the 1st half to lead his team to a 27-18 lead at the half.
Let’s pause a second, though, to talk about those last two points he scored. They were at the free throw line with 0.5 seconds left. The referees had to go to the monitor to see if there was any time left. I thought they were going to see if there was a flagrant foul. After yet another um miss late (they had more turnovers than FGs in the 1st half), Malik Hall and Jett Howard chased a long rebound into the corner. When Jett realized he was beaten, he redirected away from the ball and threw his hip into Malik, sending him flying into the skunk bear bench. As some of you said in the game thread, yeah this was dirty. I guess I can’t be surprised by it. Like father, like son.
Before we get to the second half, let’s talk about something that the network aired right before the end of halftime. They were splicing interviews of Izzo and um’s coach talking about the rivalry. Izzo’s comments pointed to “respect”, along with strong dislike. Their coach had this soundbyte: “We are the school they wish they could be.” First of all, it’s a grossly false comment. But second, it just says everything you need to know about um. What a horrible, awful, despicable institution.
And now, back to basketball. Michigan State came out strong. On the first possession, Jaden Akins collected an offensive rebound, kicked it to AJ Hoggard up top, and AJ buried a triple. On the next trip, Hauser came around a screen and hit a jumper off the curl. The lead was 14 and um called a quick timeout. From here, the lead held steady. Every time um would try to chip away, the Spartans had an answer. At the 9-minute mark, the lead was still 14.
But something happened at this point. um started playing with more aggression. They were getting layups and drawing fouls. Mady Sissoko, who played excellent defense in the first half and had no fouls at the intermission, reverted to last year’s form and picked up 4 fouls in minimal playing time. When he came back in around the 7-minute mark with 3 fouls, he went out at 6:50 with his 4th foul. And um was in the bonus. Thirty seconds later, the lead was down to 7, and Gunther was leading all scorers at that point with a dozen.
Walker answered with a corner three, getting a fortunate bounce high off the near rim. But um would score on consecutive drives to trim their deficit to 6, leading to an Izzo timeout at 4:24 remaining, which served as the final TV timeout.
From here, MSU played just well enough. A few more FG and some late FTs kept um at bay. The lead never shrunk to less than four. And the final score was 59-53. We don’t have to talk about that absurd display of officiating with 0.1 seconds remaining; I will let you gambling conspiracy theorists say what you will.
VICTORY FOR MSU!!!
3 Things I Liked: (This was tough today)
- AJ Hoggard. Generally not the most dynamic scorer on the MSU roster, today he added some beautiful shooting and tough finishes at the basket to go along with his normal contributions. Speaking of normal contributions, AJ absolutely had the ball on a string today. When he gets in traffic, sometimes I have no idea how he gets out of there, but he must drive defenders crazy with those ball handling skills. Not only was he our leading scorer at 15, but he led all players with 6 assists, and only had 1 turnover.
- Defense. Listen, it was no secret who um’s biggest scoring threat is. But Coach Izzo clearly had a plan for Gunther today, and the Spartans executed it wonderfully, especially in the first half, when they held him to only four points. Whether we would roll a second defender toward him or allow Mady or Kohler to play him one-on-one (generally depending on where he was when he got the ball), the defense was generally excellent. Yes, he had a few more easy baskets in the second, but some of those were on set plays and not all of them were to be blamed on our centers; there were breakdowns in the defense elsewhere on a couple of plays where Mady had to slide out, leaving Gunther open. Overall, they kept him to his season average while he shot below his average. Go home, Gunther.
- Rebounding. I will admit, the final margin was much closer than it seemed from watching the game, 38-34. Early on, it seemed like Mady Sissoko was cleaning up everything, and he ended up with seven. Even better, Joey Hauser made up for his poor shooting performance by leading all players with ten boards. The key was that MSU was not giving up second-chance points; at halftime, um had recorded only 1 offensive rebound and they ended with 5. On a night where we were having our own issues scoring, it was vital that we were not giving away extra opportunities to them.
3 Things I Did Not Like:
- Shooting. No way to sugarcoat this. MSU shot horribly today. Plenty of shots that were way off line, corner threes going over the rim, others coming up short of the rim, missed alley-oops and layups. And I can’t attribute this to um playing good defense because MSU simply missed a Spartan-warship worth of open looks. We need to shoot better than that on our home court.
- Mady reverting. Certainly not his best performance. Between the misses down low and the bad fouls in the second half, there was much that detracted from his otherwise strong game on the defensive end. I am hoping much of it was nerves, that he allowed Gunther to get inside his head. We need to get better results from Mady as we get deeper into the conference schedule, especially when we go on the road.
- Listen, we won a Big Ten game and only gave up 53 points. So overall, not much to be upset about. So I will nitpick for this third one. There was a moment in the first half where Izzo was yelling at the referee about something, getting all heated. And, from all the way at the end of the bench, his son, Lil’ Izzo, came up and tried pulling him back by putting his hands on his dad’s waist. This is not the first time we have seen him do this. But today, Coach was not in the mood to be restrained. After Lil’ Izzo persisted in trying to pull back Tom for a few seconds, we saw him turn and snap at his son to leave him alone. Stephen walked back to the end of the bench silently. So my dislike here is to the younger Izzo. Son, stop doing that. Let your coach work the referees.
Michigan State gets on the road this coming week, starting Tuesday night with a game in Madison against the 14th-ranked Badgers.