Michigan State overcame a tough and energetic effort from Florida and held off the Gators at Breslin Center, winning by a 58-52 score. The Spartans were never able to push out to a comfortable working margin at any point in the game (believe the largest lead was 8 and it didn’t last long) but turned up their defensive intensity late in the game and made enough plays at both ends to earn the win, moving to 11-0 on the season.

Reviewing the keys:

1. Defensive glass – Florida is averaging better than 15 offensive rebounds per game. They are a team with a legit and athletic big man in Egbunu and two lively athletes flanking him…those three guys in particular are the players MSU needs to limit. Controling the defensive glass is where it all starts for MSU. It means you’re closing out defensive possessions, not allowing for second chances (and when facing a middling at best shooting group like Florida, that matters a lot). It also allows you to get transition happening and that’s always a goal for the Spartans.

RESULT – Heard Izzo on the post game. Other than that horrendous possession where FLorida got about 5 offensive boards in the second half, he said he was OK with what MSU did. As it turns out, they only had 12 offensive boards, so you’d have to say MSU did its job. It just seemed worse than that at times, and that may have been because it seemed Florida did a solid job converting second chances into points. MSU had 16 offensive boards on its own end and won the overall battle by 11. One thing MSU was unable to do is convert defensive rebounds into transition opportunities, as I thought Florida’s floor balance was very good all night.

2. Perimeter defense – Florida isn’t living at the foul line so far this year…they’re averaging just under 21 FTA per game, not a massive number in the current era (it’s just slightly less than MSU is getting, and MSU isn’t a big penetration team). However, they have legit high level athletes and given their struggles with the jumper, I would guess White is going to try to get what he can out of Florida’s guards in looking to get to the rim. We’ve seen what I think (and more importantly, what Izzo thinks) is improvement over the last week in terms of denying penetration but this will be a test of a different order. As with clearing the defensive glass, the key here is to make Florida have to beat you by doing things they don’t typically do well, and that’s make jump shots.

RESULT – Not bad. UF shot 18 FT, so slightly under their average. They also only hit 22% from deep and 33% on the game. We weren’t perfect (Eron Harris took a definite step backward tonight on the defensive end…it’s going to be that way for awhile, I suspect) but by and large, we were OK here.

3. Poise – MSU’s been OK in terms of turnovers so far, averaging 12 per game. However, in a game against an athletic opponent who may try to run a bit with the Spartans, it’s important to not give possessions away with mistakes.

RESULT – Awful in the first half, fantastic in the second. MSU had 10 TOs in the first half and were just out of sorts the whole 20 minutes, it seemed to me. Lots of ill advised cross court passes and some occasional difficulty handling pressure, and to compound things it seemed that a high percentage of those mistakes ended up as transition buckets for the Gators. In the second half, I thought MSU was far better in terms of avoiding costly mistakes, only committing 2 TOs for that second twenty minutes. On a night where they didn’t shoot it well, that mattered.

4. Ball Movement – It’s generally been outstanding this year but I do think MSU got a little bit off kilter at times in the MES blowout. Florida is not a great team this year but one thing they have done well is play defense…they’re limiting opponents to 37/32% so far and I can understand why, looking at their length and athleticism. Yet, I remain convinced that when MSU has it’s ball and man movement humming at maximum levels, there isn’t much any defense can do to prevent them from getting a clean look. Florida is good enough defensively to give MSU problems if they aren’t locked in offensively, looking to move the ball with speed and purpose.

RESULT – Not nearly at the level we’ve seen so far this year, even against good defensive teams like KU and Louisville. The assist ratio was still fantastic, with 18 on 21 made field goals, but I think that didn’t tell the whole story tonight. Not that we were terrible or anything, but I felt this was the least crisp and least energetic offensive effort we’ve seen so far this year. Credit Flordia with some of that to be sure…the Gators came in with numbers suggesting they’re a good defensive group and their performance certainly lived up to that. However, I didn’t think we were as aggressive or as dynamic, from Zel on down, as we normally are. Some of that was MSU as well.

5. Emotion – With the 2000 team in town, there will be a lot of hoopla around this game. MSU also has to learn to deal with taking the best shot other teams have to give. I think they’ve seen some of that already…Providence and Louisville were clearly jacked to play the Spartans, and they should expect something similar out of a Florida team which shares some physical characteristics with those two squads. MSU has to walk a line between using their emotion as fuel for what they do and yet not getting out of their comfort zone and away from what matters most, and that’s playing within themselves at both ends.

RESULT – I think Florida was the more emotional, energetic and tougher team for about 36 minutes. Fortunately, MSU was all of those things at winning time and that’s what helped put the game away. They learned some things tonight, I suspect. One is that you have to be able to match everyone’s best effort because that’s what you’re going to get. Yeah, yeah, yeah…MSU normally gets strong opposition because of what the program is but if you think being #1 doesn’t add a little extra something to it, you don’t understand the game very well. So, they saw that tonight. They also learned that they can rise up off the canvas and find it within themselves to make the tough plays, the effort plays, to win a game, that this team isn’t just a soft, finesse jump shooting bunch. Jump shots surely didn’t win this game.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

THE GOOD:

1. Winning time – I can point to three guys I thought stepped up and made huge plays. Costello’s hustle interception of what would have resulted in a layup or dunk, and then having the presence of mind to save it to a teammate. Tum’s strip of a bigger player posting him on the block was #2. Then Marvin Clark’s steal followed by relentless offensive rebounding, leading to a tip in at the other end…what might have been a 2 point lead was instead 6 because of all his activity in that sequence. None of those guys are seen as the main men by any stretch on this team but they all stood tall when the game was there to be won or lost, and with all of them it was hustle and grit getting it done.

2. Free Throws – In a tight game, you need to convert your chances. MSU was 11-15 as a team, with Zel and Marv cashing in some big ones late.

3. Rebounding – It didn’t always feel like a great outing in this area but the numbers say MSU did its job. You hold a very good offensive rebounding team 20% below its normal output, that’s doing some good work.

THE BAD AND THE UGLY:

1. Shooting – One of those nights. Our ball movement was not at normal levels and Florida is a legitimately good defensive team, so we have to keep that in mind, but MSU missed a LOT of open looks tonight, shots that normally fall at a much better rate. I remain convinced of what I said in the preview…this team is good enough offensively that even against strong defensive units, they should generate a lot of good looks and that’s what happened tonight…they just didn’t fall.

2. Energy – We were second to the ball for much of the night. Credit to the guys I mentioned above for making hustle plays when the game was in the balance but for most of this game, Florida was the more aggressive and energetic team. Uncharacteristic of this bunch, but have to call it the way it was.

3. Eron Harris – Defense took a step back and that is pretty much the whole deal with him at this stage. If he can check, you keep him on the floor. If he can’t , he’s got to come off. I can think of two plays which absolutely infuriated me watching them tonight. One was a big, big momentum play…MSU finally had an 8 point lead and seemed ready to perhaps stretch things out into a nice working margin. Insteady, Eron gets lazy and cuts under the screen, giving Chiozza a wide open three which he hit. He got momentum and so did UF and we never got comfortable again. Now, you can say the guy still had to hit the shot but Eron’s defensive mistake made that look much, much easier. Can’t have it. There was another possession a bit later in the half when he had that one foot in out in front defensive stance and got blown by, leading to an And One. Again, CANNOT have it. If a guy scores on you, fine, that’ll happen sometimes. If a guy is gifted points by you, that’s not acceptable.

So, after a stiff test, MSU remains unbeaten. The Spartans will return to action a week from today in Boston where they’ll face Northeastern in a 12:30 tip off.