Michigan State pulled away late to beat Minnesota 76-66. The game was tight till the final minutes when the Gophers ran out of gas. The win for the Spartans still leaves plenty of questions.
Here is my 3-point shot (and 1!) on the game.
POINT 1: If there are good losses, there are also bad wins
This was a bad win. It will count just the same as every other win. It is still 100% better than a loss. Regardless, this was a bad win.
Michigan State shot 25% from three and essentially abandoned the shot in the second half. For a team hovering around 40% in Big Ten play, it makes no sense that two of the last three games the Spartans shot about 25%. At least this game was a win, unlike the Illinois game.
Speaking of the Illinois game, that was a “good” loss. It was a tough game, on the road, against a (then ranked) top ten team who was hitting shots all over the place. This game was the opposite. Yes, the outcome was the opposite but the feeling of the game was also opposite.
Minnesota was down its star point guard. Two of their better offensive weapons, Cam Christie and Pharrel Payne, had four fouls before the 16-minute mark in the second half. The Gophers were forced to play their leading scorer 38 minutes and their backup point guard 40 minutes.
Michigan State should have run this team off the court. In the end, it most likely was the Spartans depth that helped them outlast Minnesota. The Gophers went ice cold and descended into panic shots for the final 6-minutes of the game. That depth and talent margin should not have waited till the final minutes of the game to create separation.
The Spartans had the home court, a raucous crowd and at times a very friendly whistle (or rather a lack of a whistle). These advantages helped Michigan State keep the game even with Minnesota and trade the lead for the majority of the second half.
The Spartans won. They won by grinding it out. They won by not getting rattled. These are all positives. Still, this was not a “good” win. Luckily, all wins count the same - regardless of quality.
POINT 2: The Spartans are starting to go as Malik Hall goes
Michigan State’s game by game fate is starting to be driven by Malik Hall. When he is engaged and active, he is a difference maker for the Spartans. When he is not (see Northwestern game) the Spartans lose too much to make up for it with other players on the roster.
Hall’s value can be assessed by understanding the lack of replacements. Xavier Booker has proven he is not ready for regular minutes, let alone replacing a starter in a time of need. Coen Carr has shown flashes, but looks best in stretches and is a defensive step down. The centers are offensive non-factors (more on that in a moment), leaving Hall as the only true post up threat on the roster (Jaxon Kohler still not being a factor as he comes back from injury).
When Hall is absent - or playing like he is absent - the Spartans simply cannot replace his production. In this game, Hall’s offense was on display early. He scored 6 of the team’s first 11 points and assisted on Walker’s and-1 jump shot.
In a second half stretch, Hall had three defensive rebounds in a row to spark transition offense. On one of those, he ran the length of the court and had an offensive rebound to keep the possession alive.
Defensively late in the game, Hall was the only answer the Spartans had for Minnesota discovering their forwards could face up and drive on the centers. The Spartans dominance in the paint was established by Hall and supported by his defense.
Hall had a good game. The problem is no one knows if he will have a good game next game. Inconsistency has been a hallmark (see what I did there?) of his career. The Spartans fate game by game may be tied to Hall. If he can finally discover consistency that could be great. If not, it will continue to be a roller coaster season.
POINT 3: Michigan State’s centers now means opponents are spotted 6 to 12 points a game
Complaining about Michigan State’s centers is borderline cliche at this point. The shortcomings of Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper are well documented. They are offensively limited, unnatural on the court, and can be beaten defensively.
They can also set fantastic screens (particularly Sissoko), have stretches of dominant rebounding, and bring high motor effort almost every night.
What became clear against Minnesota is the impact they have on the final score. The centers effectively remove anywhere from 6 to 12 points a game from the Spartans offensive total. This effectively spots the opponent points.
This doesn’t just happen through blown defense. Bad defense happens to lots of players. The centers for Michigan State currently possess a strange trait that means the offense finds them in clear scoring positions that turn into absolutely nothing.
In this game, the combination of Cooper and Sissoko cost the team at least 8-points. This included a missed Cooper dunk with no one around him in the first half. A missed slam by Mady Sissoko. Cooper getting blocked in transition. And both players having multiple possessions that ended in them bobbling the ball under the basket and not even getting the shot off.
Games have limited numbers of possessions. This means, offenses have a set number of opportunities to score. While this is more flexible in basketball than say football, there are still a finite number of offensive opportunities. Cooper and Sissoko consistently taking clear scoring opportunities and bumbling them is a chronic issue. It’s easy to point to in a loss. It’s almost more important to point to it in a win like this. Cooper and Sissoko’s lost points would have made this game transition from a close game to a comfortable, consistent 5 point lead.
The most frustrating part of this is there is no clear answer. Jaxon Kohler could be the answer when he is fully healthy and acclimated. Beyond that, the Spartans must keep feeding Cooper and Sissoko.
For a stretch this year the offense stopped putting the ball in the centers’ hands on offense. That coincided with the Spartans losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Going back to feeding the centers - even without them converting - helped balance the floor. It also opened up the post for Malik Hall as defenses at least had to pay some mind to the centers near the basket.
So Michigan State will have to keep feeding two players that nullify points for the team. Hopefully one of them can start converting a bit better - even a small improvement could have a huge impact.
And 1 (POINT 4 - because the refs helped me out): College Basketball Needs Six Fouls
This game - like so many others - proves how much college basketball needs six fouls. This game was physical and rough. Minnesota made this look like an early 2000s Big Ten matchup. While it may not be as pretty as fast flowing three pointers, it was exciting.
Enabling teams to play more physically brings back a needed dimension to the game. And if that doesn’t convince you, then this game showed how much top players need to be on the court, not on the bench.
Minnesota’s efforts were clearly crippled by Pharrell Payne and Cam Christie getting into early foul trouble. Fouls should hurt teams - and the fouls called on those guys were legit - but having a team’s best players play the full game is better for the competitive balance of college basketball. It’s better for the fans and it’s better for the game.