MSU roared back from a double digit second half defecit to beat Kansas by 6 in the nightcap of the Champions’ Classic. The Spartans climb to 2-0 with the victory over the #4 ranked Jayhawks and in the process sent a very clear message that this team is at an advanced stage for November, compared to where we usually see Tom Izzo teams at this time of the year. I say that because MSU weathered adversity and some shaky moments against a good, experienced opponent and pulled it out in the end through grit, toughness, defense and some huge shot making. That’s stuff we normally see later in the year from this program but tonight, we saw it from MSU in game #2.

Reviewing the keys…

1. Mistakes – Both teams want to play fast. Both teams had some TO problems with MSU having 13 in its first game and KU registering 15 in its opener. In big games with relatively similar talent levels, turnovers tend to be a separator and any significant edge in that department probably goes a long way in deciding a winner.

RESULT – In the first half, it was one of the two big separators (along with FTA), as MSU had 10 TOs to KU’s 3. This still ended up being a big KU advantage but MSU only committed 5 second half mistakes (KU ended with just 5 TOs, a remarkably sound game in that way). Cutting them down mitigated the damage in this area but I do think it was a problem for MSU and something they’ll look to address going forward.

2. Deep Ball – Both of these teams shot very well from three last season and seem likely to repeat that again this year. KU hit 38% from three last season and hit 58% of their long balls in the opener, so it appears it’s business as usual for the Jayhawks. Last season, MSU relied on the 3 more than did KU…the Spartans took about 4 more attempts per game than did the Jayhawks. KU did take 26 triples in their first game though, so maybe we’re about to see more emphasis on that shot from Self’s crew. Again, an edge for either in an area both consider to be a strength would be significant.

RESULT – Huge, huge edge for MSU by game’s end, and most of it came in the second half. MSU went 9-21 from deep while KU only shot 3-15. That will override a lot of other sins (like TOs and free throw advantages) and it surely was a major factor in the outcome of this game. Forbes, McQuaid and Zel each had 3 makes. Without a truly dominant low post player or a bunch of guys capable of getting things done off the dribble, this is once again going to be a major component of MSU’s offense, so they have to produce. Tonight, when it mattered, they were brilliant.

3. Post – KU’s post players essentially doubled up MSU’s group in terms of point production in last year’s game. I thought MSU’s guys fought hard but at times had real trouble dealing with guys like Ellis, and the Spartans gave up 13 offensive boards which was also a problem in a game which wasn’t played at a blistering pace. I think MSU is in far better shape to combat the Jayhawks inside this year, even without Schilling and Clark. One key guy to watch is Deyonta Davis. He had a major impact in MSU’s opener but he’s going to be tested physically in this game in exactly the kind of ways which could prove to be problematic for him early on. Hopefully he’s able to avoid foul trouble and use his length and athleticism to counter KU’s strength advantage.

RESULT – It wasn’t easy, but MSU did OK here. KU’s post guys combined for 33 points and 21 boards by my count, with Perry Ellis easily the top producer. He was a problem from beginning to end and showed why he’s among the best college big men anywhere, with savvy and strength more important that his athleticism. I have MSU’s post guys for 24 points and 23 boards, however. That was enough to keep MSU in the game. Without Gav and Marv, the idea was just to not let KU dominate. Look, KU got some things done inside, no question, but MSU countered them with enough to not let it become a deciding factor. I thought Matt Costello played a great game, especially considering he was hampered with foul trouble much of the night. Deyonta Davis was also a factor, especially late with some key blocks and defensive rebounds.

4. Free Throws – The expectation is for MSU to be significantly improved from last season’s struggle but that didn’t show through in the opener. KU is a good free throw shooting group, so it’s reasonable to anticipate they’ll produce on their opportunities. MSU can’t afford to give away scoring chances in what should be a competitive game.

RESULT – Can’t come at MSU for the way they shot tonight. 14-16 as a group with the only two misses coming from arguably their best shooter in Zel. I’ll take that any night of the week. Now, KU had a huge advantage in attempts and makes but in a tight game it’s critical that you convert the chances you do get and MSU did that. Big, big tip of the cap to Zel and Deyonta for their makes late in the game as well.

5. Pace – Both teams want to play fast…that’s no news to anyone who’s followed either team. However, I think it’s probably more important for MSU right now to get the game’s pace ramped up. Last season’s game was surprisingly slow and I think that hurt the Spartans, as that team didn’t have late clock bail out options to rely upon with regularity. This MSU team has more potential in that way, with newer pieces like Eron Harris and some growth from returning players giving Izzo more offensive versatility, but I still think a slower game plays to KU’s advantage.

RESULT – I thought MSU did OK here. At times, they got too cautious and usually when they slowed it down, they paid for it with bad possessions. For the most part, though, I thought we were aggressive and looking to go at KU and that’s what we needed to see.

THE GOOD

1. Zel – Welcome to the triple double club, Zelly! It wasn’t his best shooting night but 10-23 from the floor and 3-9 from deep isn’t a disaster, especially against a good defensive opponent. The important thing is that he was aggressive and he was absolutely money when MSU needed him to be. You saw the whole bag of tricks tonight…the half hook in the lane, the off one foot floater, the deep ball, takes to the rim, all of it. Yet, scoring was probably the third most impressive thing he did tonight. 12 boards is just a monster effort, especially against a big KU team which takes pride in its rebounding. Then there were the 12 assists, to just 1 TO as well. Zel did it all…the great finds of his running buddy Bryn on the arc, savvy veteran moves where he drew defenders to him and used his own offensive threat to create space for a teammate (Colby’s bucket in the first half at the rim), lobs to Matt…it was a virtuoso performance.

I said at the beginning of the year that I thought he’d be Big Ten POY and a first team All American. No reason to back away from that now. Much as you’d wish it would be otherwise at times, that decisions like that be based on an entire body of work, the fact remains that perceptions are created often times early in the season in high profile games like this one. Having Vitale hype him as an All American and more importantly having him perform like this on a national stage is massive, for him and this team. I couldn’t be happier for him. He deserves this, he worked his ass off for it by all accounts, and now we’re going to get to see what I think will be one of the all time memorable senior seasons in MSU history. Seriously, I can feel it coming, just like I felt it with Day Day early in his senior year…just like you could tell early on from Skiles…it just has that sense to it.

2. Freshmen – Money, money, money players. What does it say that down the stretch against an elite opponent in a tight game, Izzo had not one but two freshmen out there, playing in their second real games? First and foremost, it says that they’ve already earned some trust. Keep in mind that Deyonta was out there WITH Matt before Matt fouled out, so he was likely to be on the floor either way…Bess is the guy who came off the bench late, not DD.

I thought Matt was a little shaky early. A bad pass here, not stepping into a catch there…nothing dramatic, just what you would expect of a guy playing on his first truly big stage. Late though…my God, did he step up. Those two threes were massive, massive shots. I said at halftime MSU needed one more perimeter guy to step up as a scorer alongside Zel and Bryn. Matt waited until late, but he did it. The block he made which led to a TO was another great individual play late in the game. The key to his being on the floor at winning time is this, though…right now, he is the best two way player we’ve got for the job. I don’t think he’s quite the defender that Tum is (though he has true potential with his length and footwork) and he probably doesn’t have the total offensive package Harris has (though we really haven’t seen that yet) but as a combination, he’s better than either. I’ve been a big, big proponent of the idea that Tum will remain the starter and see major minutes at the point, and he’s still going to play a big role IMO but I’ll say this…if you’re looking for a guy to take some of that time and maybe even a starting role, right now you look at McQuaid, not Harris. The f-ing BALLS on that kid to take those shots at those times, and to hit them? Ridiculous.

Deyonta wasn’t quite as dramatic but I thought DD played a big role late as well. Had a big block, a couple of big defensive boards, and two huge free throws to make it a 6 point game. As you all know by now, we’re just scratching the surface of what he can and will be, likely by later this year. I thought overall he handled himself well against about as good a big man group physically and talent wise as he’ll see, at least until Big Ten time. The biggest thing you can say in a general sense is that he never looked overawed or out of place in that environment.

3. Costello – I thought that was a really strong effort from Matt, foul trouble aside. Those were some of the best, most assured post moves I’ve ever seen out of him and this is what I think those of us who were boosters when he committed to MSU years ago always thought he could be. If he hadn’t been hampered by the whistles, it might have been an even more special night from him. As it stands though, I’m really encouraged. We all know that Gavin has made strides and when he gets back, combined with this Matt Costello and an improving Deyonta Davis, MSU could be cooking with real gas in the post.

4. Second half offense – MSU took it up a level in the second half offensively. To end the game shooting 47/43% against that defense is a strong effort, and considering they weren’t great in the first half, it says something about how it all turned around in the second twenty minutes. Good ball movement was there, as it needs to be for this team (20 assists on 28 made field goals) but there was just some great individual play at times, mostly from Zel creating something out of not much late in clocks at winning time.

5. Defense – Not a complete “A” grade because we were fouling a LOT, but anytime you hold KU to a 35/20% performance, you checked somebody. I thought the group down the stretch was particularly impressive but MSU got some good defensive basketball out of a lot of folks throughout this game. Second straight game MSU had 8 blocks as a team as well…that is going to be a component of this group we’re going to end up discussing a lot, I think. If you can do that, it covers up some other mistakes and we know MSU will likely end up far sounder than most in terms of penetration denial…so it ought to make it even better if we’re also erasing shots on those occasions teams do get to the rim.

THE BAD AND THE UGLY

1. Fouls – Yeah, I know about 90% of us likely agree that the emphasis change is once again a disgrace. However, I’ll admit they lightened up considerably in the second half and we got a much more watchable game as a result. Even acknowledging that, though, we committed a lot of dumb fouls in the flow of play tonight. Can’t have that kind of FT disparity and overcome it very often, especially against good teams.

2. TOs – A much bigger problem in the first half but any way you slice it, 15 is too many. Some of it (not all) was personnel related…Colby had 3 by himself and you know he won’t play these kinds of minutes when MSU is at full strength. Same for Goins, who had 2. Yet, the bottom line is, MSU has to be better there to go where they want to get to.

3. Harris – He’s got to get better. Offensively it was rough at times but nowhere near the struggle it was at the other end. It’s going to be a process, same as it was for Bryn last year. I’ll admit, I expected him to be much further along this path than he appears to be, his having had the benefit of a redshirt season. Whatever…the bottom line is he’s got to check a LOT better than we saw tonight to see major minutes, the kind of PT his overall talent suggests he should be capable of playing. Can’t play a big role for Tom Izzo if you can’t tune it up on that end.

So, MSU gets to feel good about itself for a few days before facing Arkansas Pine Bluff. They did some thing poorly, got down big, and yet did some tremendous things to come back and pull this out. They did so behind a truly signature individual performance by their leader and best player, and saw some freshmen make huge contributions at the biggest moments to boot. I said before the game that I was fine with either result and that’s true. MSU didn’t win any titles tonight. For me, I look at games like this as a level check and what I saw suggests that MSU does in fact look like a team ahead of their usual curve. I don’t think it’s necessarily an accident that two freshmen played that well, because due to the Italian trip they’re not really freshmen the way most of their classmates around the country are. So, I’m satisfied with that for now…we did some things poorly but we did a lot well, we got a win over a very good team which is likely to be a signature win come March if you’re into that sort of thing…so time to be happy, MSU fans!