Let me come right out and say it. I was wrong. I predicted a Marquette win. I predicted it in my bracket. I said it to people in my office. I said it to friends. I even said it to an um fan earlier today. Well, being wrong has rarely felt so good.
But if I am going to continue being honest, Michigan State had me thinking they were going to lose well into the second half. It wasn’t until just over the 8-minute mark, after Hauser and Walker sunk four FTs in the aftermath of the Marquette flagrant foul to give MSU a 6-point lead, that I started to believe. Because, again, let’s be honest, this was not how MSU typically wins games.
Let’s start with the most obvious thing, something you all were probably yelling at your TVs about. MSU shot 2 of 16 from behind the 3-point arc. AJ Hoggard hit one about three minutes in, which even had the commentators saying how he is not one of the teams better deep-ball shooters. Maybe that was a sign that this would be a strange game for the Green & White. They would not hit another one until Joey Hauser hit one with about four and a half to go, which would turn out to be their final triple try of the evening. In between the two makes were thirteen consecutive bricks. Maybe MSU is trying to make it hard on themselves. There was a graphic displayed during the game that said that MSU was 1-8 this season when they scored 5 or less 3FGs. The one win was Friday against USC. In that game they shot 5-14, which is a respectable 36%. But it was still a severely smaller number of makes than they are accustomed to getting from their lineup and it allowed the game to remain tight. For the tournament, MSU has made seven 3s, an absolute anomaly of a stat for the nation’s #3 team in 3FG% (and #1 among NCAA Tournament teams). It is great that they are getting offensive contributions elsewhere, which wasn’t always the case this season, but it feels like they are playing with fire if they are going to continue not to do the one thing they do better than anyone.
Aside from the abysmal three-point shooting, there were a number of other things that MSU struggled with today. So let’s go to the second item that you were all screaming about (I know because I was reading the game thread at commercials), fouls. This one was the total opposite of the game against USC where we had 10 total fouls called against us. In this one, Marquette reached the double bonus in both halves and Michigan State had three players amass four personal fouls. Yes, there was that odd stretch of 1:50 of game time in the first half where MSU got called for 6 fouls, two of which led to Hoggard sitting on the bench for the rest of the half, and yes these referees were blatantly punitive, but there were also several fouls that MSU committed due to bad play, being out of position on defense or just being careless (i.e. Malik Hall putting his hand on the back of the guy who just blew by him and was now in the air for an easy layup). There are two things to discuss regarding the fouls. The first is that two of the three players who reached their fourth foul were centers, Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper. I think it is time we get an explanation from Coach Izzo as to why Jaxon Kohler has been limited to one brief shift in each of the 2 tournament games so far. It is no secret that of the three centers, he is the most polished scorer. And while defensively he is the worst of the three, he has become much less of a liability on that end compared to what he was earlier in the season. I would really have liked to see him get a little more run in the first half or early in the second to help Mady and Carson avoid foul trouble.
The other issue about the foul situation that I would like to hear Izzo address is his insistence on benching AJ for however long is left in the first half in the occasions he has picked up a second foul. We saw in this game that when he came out, Marquette was trailing by ten with 5:23 left until intermission. The Golden Eagles would cut it down to as close as three, before MSU got the last basket of the half for a five-point lead at the break. We also saw in this game that Shaka Smart allowed his two players that had picked up a 2nd first-half foul to still play a few minutes. I would like to see Izzo learn to trust his floor general to not pick up that third foul, even if it means doing line-changes for offense and defense just to protect him. As this tournament goes on and the opposition, in theory, gets better, MSU can not have Boss Hogg out for such long stretches.
Beyond that, MSU continues to have difficulty getting the ball past half-court against full-court pressure, and they struggle even more getting the ball inbounded when a defender guards the passer. Marquette used these tactics repeatedly today and with generally positive outcomes. None were more emblematic than the time Jaden Akins got caught by a double team just short of midcourt and ended up getting whistled for a five-second violation because he could not find anyone to pass it to. It should not be a secret to any opposing coach that Izzo just does not teach these situations in his practices.
And lastly, while MSU did outrebound Marquette by ten in the first half, Marquette won the battle of the glass in the 2nd by five. MSU wasn’t as focused on establishing position and was not as sure-handed as they were earlier in the game.
So how did MSU win this game? Well, that flagrant foul definitely was a turning point. And after that, there were several clutch performances from the Spartans. After a few missed FTs in the first half (plus an offensive lane violation that does not show up as a miss in the box score), MSU made all but two of their second half attempts, one being with twenty seconds remaining and the game already decided. Defensively, this team has stepped up to Izzo’s challenge. 9 steals and 3 blocks, including two by Mady in the last two minutes to prevent any sort of Marquette rally, showed that this team is going to be in your face for the full 40 minutes. And while the three-pointer was not there for MSU tonight, the 2-pointer certainly was. MSU converted 22 of 38 inside the arc, good for 58%. By comparison, Marquette went 9 for 25, a paltry 36%. Individually, Tyson Walker took over late, scoring 9 points in the final 3:07, helping turn a one-point lead into the 9-point final margin of victory.
In the end, MSU was the better team, playing with more grit and hustle. As a result, they get to keep dancing. Their game against Kansas State is set for Thursday. This team definitely has some things to work on if they are going to beat their second consecutive higher-seeded opponent. Oh, by the way, with tonight’s win, Izzo is now the all-time leader in that category. So who better to make sure those things get worked on than Mr. March.
Here we go Spartans! We on to the Sweet-16! We going to NY! Izzo is going to get a cab ride and a slice of pizza! And maybe, just maybe those three-balls will start to go down.
GO GREEN! GO WHITE!