Michigan State used a 21-14 push over the final 8 minutes of the second half to beat Louisville 71-67. The Spartans overcame a double digit deficit for much of the first half, using a late run sparked by Denzel Valentine and Deyonta Davis to pull within 3 at the half. After that, the Cardinals kept a small working margin until that final 8 minutes, where MSU used a combination of strong defense and big shot making and free throws from their senior guards Valentine and Bryn Forbes to pull out the win. The victory takes #3 ranked MSU to 8-0 on the season and handed Louisville their first loss.

Reviewing the keys…

1. Pace – I think for older fans especially, the perception of Louisville is always frozen to some extent around the Darrell Griffith “Doctors of Dunk” era, and it’s true that they’ve generally had great athletes on their roster. However, I don’t think this is an example of a year where Pitino wants to go running and gunning, particularly against a team like MSU. Louisville is really, really, REALLY big inside and though those guys aren’t stiffs, I don’t think it’s to UL’s advantage to go up and down the floor with MSU. Thus, it’s on MSU to push the tempo and try to get out into transition as often as possible. Easy baskets mean you’re not setting up and trying to score against what’s been a very good halfcourt defensive team thus far.

RESULT – It was really tough for MSU to get anything going in transition. Louisville did a good job in the first half not only grabbing offensive rebounds but strongly contesting the ones MSU did get on its defensive end. Lack of clean boards meant MSU really couldn’t run much. I’ll give the Cards some credit as well…their big kids are a little more mobile than I’d thought. UL had to have keeping MSU out of its break as a point of emphasis (Pitino noted it in his presser, which I happened to watch, and compared MSU to UNC in that regard) and give them credit for pulling it off for the most part.

2. Recognition – Louisville in recent years has been known for doing something well that few teams even try, never mind execute at their level…switching back and forth between man and zone within the same possession. This year, I don’t expect to see as much of it but you can’t completely rule it out. They hadn’t been playing much matchup zone up until their last game against St.Louis, when they went back to it. Pitino has said he doesn’t expect to use much zone against MSU which does make some sense, given MSU’s ability to move the ball and shoot from deep. However, I don’t necessarily take Rick at face value. If Louisville starts to spring the zone occasionally, MSU has to be able to recognize it and get into its sets quickly. If Louisville can start to do that switiching stuff within possessions again, I think it becomes an even bigger weapon, given the shorter shot clock.

RESULT – I thought we really struggled in the first half with this. Note that I mentioned above that I didn’t take Pitino’s claim that they wouldn’t likely show much zone in this game at face value…that was proven out to be correct, as the Cards were switching constantly and mixing in a good amount of full court pressure. In fairness to MSU, they were clearly sluggish early on and did not look to have the usual level of preparation and it bit them…that was circumstances as much as anything else, though I doubt Izzo will admit to that. However, we did a far better job in the second half with it. I thought our offensive cohesion was much, much improved and 17 assists on 23 made field goals is evidence that the ball movement was still pretty good, even against a strong defensive team.

3. Boards – Louisville is a big team and they’ve rebounded like it. They are averaging an insane 16 offensive rebounds per game and have a 21.4 rpg edge overall . MSU by contrast is averaging 12.8 Orpg and has an 18.3 rpg edge overall, though I think it’s fair to say they’ve faced better opponents than have the Cardinals. Regardless, this game sets up as one where rebounding is going to matter a great deal. Louisville is going to throw big man after big man after big man at MSU, so guys like Costello, DD, Bess, Clark, Goins, etc. are going to need to hold up. UL is also getting great rebounding collectively out of its wings, which puts an onus on MSU’s guards to hold their own as well.

RESULT – MSU continues to stake a claim to perhaps being the best rebounding team of the last several years at this school…a bold statement but I think we’re seeing it. MSU won the overal battle by 10 and the offensive rebounding battle by 3. Against a huge team which was obliterating opponents on the glass coming in, that’s a big, big statement. Kenny Goins with 13 boards at 6’6″ was a grown ass man, full stop. Bess and Clark better watch out, because that’s two straight games where the young man has been arguably MSU’s best power forward.

4. Legs – There’s been lots of concern raised about MSU’s energy coming off a late return from the West Coast. Personally, I expect them to be OK because of the number of people they were able to play in those games and I think coming back to EL as opposed to traveling somewhere for this game helps as well. However, if I’m wrong and MSU is tired, that could be a major factor in the outcome, as I’d expect Louisville to be fresh.

RESULT – We were clearly sluggish for the first 12 minutes or so of the game. Credit to the young guys, Deyonta, McQuaid and Goins, for helping to turn the energy up with about 8 minutes left in the first half, and from there I thought MSU’s depth showed as guys were able to find reserves of energy to push through and get the job done.

Honestly, as I think about this game, I think lack of prep time was at least as much a culpret as energy and dead legs but you have to assume those played a role as well in MSU’s start.

5. Support – MSU beat Providence for many reasons, not least of which is the way that several guys combined to pick up what was, by his standards, an average effort from Denzel. Seeing guys like Harris, Forbes, Davis, McQuaid, Goins, etc. make big contributions was a very welcome sign for this team, as Zel had carried us offensively during earlier games. Learning how to win when he’s less than dominant or not even on the floor is critical and I think some progress was made in the last game on that front. It needs to continue…you don’t beat quality teams with a one man band and MSU has far too many guys capable of making plays for it to be a one man show.

RESULT – Zel was a superstar again, no question, but he had more than enough help in this one. Deyonta was huge in the first half and ended up with another nice line…9 points, 6 boards and 3 blocks. Bryn Forbes was massive as a 3 point shooter, scoring 20 points on 5-9 from deep. The brief two game semi-slump in LA is firmly behind him now, as that’s two straight aggressive games he’s played against tough, physical opponents. I mentioned Kenny Goins above…THIRTEEN rebounds for him? Ridiculous. What a huge game for that young man, and he was in there precisely because of that and his defense, which was also solid in matchups where he was surrendering 4-5 inches regularly. His 5 points were also a big bonus and we’re seeing he is far from just a dunker…he’s got nice midrange touch and should not be afraid to take that shot. Tum and Costello have been much maligned already this season but those two guys made huge defensive plays at winning time. Definitely another team win for MSU.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

1. Zel – This is what superstars do. For much of the game, Louisville seemed to be doing a good job of taking him away but when MSU needed #45 to step up, he answered the bell. His 6-6 at the line down the stretch preserved the win, eliminating any chance the Cardinals had at getting it to a one possession game. His 5 boards and 7 assists were typical Zel production, and I though there was another subtle thing he did well…after picking up a ridiculous foul about 15 seconds into the game, he was only whistled one more time the rest of the way and never had to play in any foul trouble. That is going to be a big, big deal for him this year…can’t let the stripes take him away from his team.

2. Boards – You win a rebounding battle against that bunch, you have done a day’s work, believe it. MSU in the second half was fantastic, with undersized Kenny Goins leading the way. I can’t say enough about the job he did individually but others chipped in as well…Deyonta had 6, Costello had 5, and Zel had 5. That’s what it takes against a team like Louisville, a team effort. I said it above and I’ll repeat it…this may be Izzo’s best rebounding team in several seasons.

3. Defense – Take away the first 10-12 minutes and I thought it was REALLY good. Louisville has a better offensive mix than they’ve had over the past couple of seasons, because those two grad transfer guards really know how to score. However, MSU really limited everyone else and they never let Louisville get loose from deep, holding them to 4-17 from outside the arc (and they got a couple of those makes to go very late to boost it even to that level). Once MSU found better energy, I thought we competed and you really saw some big plays late…Tum with a strip and a drawn charge and Matt with a huge block stand out among several. No, they’re not perfect…still have guys going under screens too often and taking bad angles on the perimeter, allowing for driving lanes. Still, it was better.

4. Robin – If Zel is Batman, then I think Bryn is your best candidate for the side kick. MSU ran a bunch of tweaked stuff for him over the past two games to get him loose on the arc and he played with purpose and delivered. He’s become a guy you just believe is going to hit every jumper he takes, but I also liked the way he was active in probing the defense at times. He’s not just floating 20 feet from the rim these days.

THE BAD AND THE UGLY

1. The Start – Understandable but calling it what it was…MSU looked to be running in quicksand at both ends. That was due in part to lacking energy and I believe insufficient time to prepare for what a team like Louisville can throw at you defensively. Thankfully, they picked it up enough to gut out the win. Chalk up everything, the TOs, the poorly run sets and the defense and rebounding, to the turnaround time. Izzo won’t say that and he won’t accept it and he shouldn’t, but if we’re being honest, I think that’s 90% of what it was.

2. Power forwards not named Goins – Marv and Javon really didn’t bring it tonight. Both guys struggled with Louisville’s length and yet Goins, who is the same size, found a way to compete so much better than these two guys. They’ll be alright…I’m not down on either long term. However, if they haven’t heard the message being delivered, they’d have to be deaf. The beauty of this team is that Izzo has pieces to deal with just about anything. Don’t compete hard enough? You’ll sit, and for a long time to boot.