Michigan State overcame a 13 point halftime gap, took the lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation and seemed to be on their way to victory. Then Kay Felder made a huge three and a pair of free throws to send the game into OT. From there, it was a combination of big buckets from Deyonta Davis, Matt Costello, and Bryn Forbes and some timely free throw shooting (and a massive, massive defensive play in taking a charge on Felder to foul him out and essentially put the game on ice) from Eron Harris to finally put the Grizzlies to bed and beat them for the 14th straight time without a loss. The victory completes a perfect non conference for MSU and this team has now set the record for the best start in program history at 13-0.
Revisiting the keys in what was a thrilling, nerve wracking game:
1. Emotion – I put this one somewhere near the top every year when MSU faces Oakland. The reality is that this Oakland team, as with most of them, is filled with Michigan kids. Of the 10 guys in their rotation, 7 are Michigan natives. 5 of them played in HS with at least one guy who ended up playing at Michigan State, and Jalen Hayes played in HS with Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes. You cannot ever discount the role that motivation can play in a game like this one. Historically, MSU teams have tended to do a decent job in dealing with this but it’s always something I think about in this matchup…and with MSU unbeaten and ranked #1 nationally, the motivation would seem to be stronger than ever on the OU side.
RESULT – I wrote this just before the news about Denzel came out. That obviously shifted some things around. In this case, I think you saw Oakland use every bit of what I was talking about for fuel and it helped them buzzsaw their way through MSU in the first half. As things went on, though, I thought guys like Tum, Bryn and Eron really seemed to find an emotional resevoir and help the Spartans respond in terms of effort and energy (as well as exectution). This was a major test on so many fronts and in the end, I think MSU responded the way you’d like to see.
2. Arc – Both teams shoot the 3 extremely well. OU isn’t crazy with it in terms of attempts but when they do shoot it, they hit (39% as a team). We know how important it is for MSU as well. If either team has an edge in this area, it’ll go a long way toward earning a victory for that side.
RESULT – MSU went 10-17 from deep and OU 8-22. That may not seem like a huge edge but I think it was significant. MSU was more efficient and their two best scorers (Harris and Forbes) went 9-12. You can’t ask for better shooting than that out of your big guns.
3. Transition – Both teams want to play fast. OU is averaging almost 87ppg and their team is built to run. We saw MSU have probably its best sustained effort in transition yesterday against Northeastern. That will need to continue.
RESULT – In the first half it was a disaster, as OU had a number of pick sixes off Spartan turnovers. As the game settled in, I thought neither team had a ton going on in terms of pure transition baskets but both were able to score quickly off of sets. The pace was exacty the kind of thing the NCAA Rules Committee is dreaming about, as both teams were playing the game FAST. Can’t say MSU had an advantage in this area overall, though, but they tightened up considerably as the game went along in terms of forcing OU to score against halfcourt defense.
4. Free Throws – In what could be a tight game, MSU needs to be converting the opportunities they get from the stripe. So far this year, the team has been solid but has generally been really good down the stretch in the handful of games in which they’ve been tested. OU is not a great defensive team, so I think they may be forced to foul some and that may mean the Spartans find themselves on the line more than usual.
RESULT – MSU was OK…29-42 for 69% overall. You could say they failed down the stretch in regulation with key misses from Eron and Matt Costello. Yet, in OT, they stepped up and hit the ones they needed to put the game away. As expected, there were a lot of fouls (both ways, as OU shot 48 FT), so it mattered that MSU was at least respectable all the way and great when they absolutely had to be.
5. Defensive Rebounding – It’s been good all season but was far from that yesterday. OU averages almost 13 offensive boards per game, so they can provide a challenge for the Spartans in keeping them off the glass and limiting second chances.
RESULT – For the second game in a row, not fantastic here. There was an extra period, so 15 offensive boards given up isn’t a disaster by any means, but I just thought MSU wasn’t as tough as OU was for significant stretches of that game. Jalen Hayes in particular was a real problem.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
1.Forbes and Harris – MSU obviously doesn’t come close to winning this game without these two guys. Both posted (Spartan) career highs, with Bryn scoring a balanced 32 points and Harris doing the vast majority of his 27 point damage in the second half. Bryn was 7-9 from deep (including a huge one in OT that made it a 5 point game late after he’d been short with a couple), played solid defense throughout and showed some midrange and penetration ability, as he’s been demonstrating all year. Other than the “T” he picked up, he was also a tower of strength emotionally for this team. Harris was a much more uneven performance. In the first half, I thought he showed a lot of the indecisiveness and unconfident demeanor he’s shown all year. Eron just didn’t seem in sync and I wondered at halftime if perhaps others should get more run in the second half in his place. Glad I’m not the coach. In the second half and in the OT, Eron Harris was phenomenal. Oakland had no answer for him. They tried Felder but Eron started posting him for midrange shots and drained several of them. Against bigger defenders, he took people off the dribble for buckets or fouls. He added a couple of threes as well. Most importantly for Izzo, though, I’m sure, he really stepped up defensively. He had a couple of very big sequences in the second and OT but none bigger than the charge he drew to foul Felder out. That’s essentially where the game was put away.
Over the last 36 hours we had a lot of talk on this board about Zel’s injury creating opportunities for guys, chances for them to step forward and play bigger roles and grow. I think we saw that from these two tonight. I was confident on Forbes…not a surprise he’d step up like this. With Eron, you just didn’t know. Now he’s got no more excuses. He knows what he can do in this system, with these teammates and for this coach. Just go DO it, #14!
2.Second Half Defense – MSU’s first half defense was atrocious. Yes, OU is an outstanding offensive team and they made shots, but MSU was far from sharp. They particularly struggled in dealing with Kay Felder…couldn’t keep him out of the lane and not only did he score 21 points but he had 8 assists, so he single handedly was distorting MSU’s defense. In the second half, it was a combination of two things…good help from bigs in denying Felder any penetration lanes but some PHENOMENAL individual work by Tum Tum Nairn. In the first half, Tum sat (I believe with fouls) for long stretches and you saw that guys like Matt McQuaid are just not ready to guard a player like Felder. Tum stepped up and took the challenge in the second and really bottled him up until late in regulation. Felder scored 16 in the second half and OT but it came much, much harder than the first 21, and he only had 1 assist over those last 25 minutes. What that tells you is that everything he got, he did himself and for himself. If you’re MSU, you can live with that. Holding OU under 40% overall and from three is a nice night’s work, made even more impressive considering what they were shooting at halftime.
3. Bit Part – MSU didn’t get massive numbers out of guys like Alvin Ellis, Kenny Goins and Deyonta Davis tonight but they all were big parts of this victory for sequences or stretches of minutes where they made major contributions. For Ellis, I thought he really took advantage of an opportunity in Zel’s absence and showed he deserves more opportunities. He was solid defensively and scored 7 points, grabbed 5 defensive boards and had 3 assists to 0 TOs. In short, he was steady across the board. I love his response to what has been a very tough 12-13 months. He got hurt, he got out of shape, he didn’t play much and then he got in trouble and the doghouse during the offseason. He hasn’t played regularly so far, just getting turns here and there, but he’s played well every time he’s been out there and today it was something more than that. For Kenny, he seems to have become the 4 man of choice lately. He didn’t score but had 6 boards and made some fantastic hustle/toughness plays. DD was quiet as he struggled early to guard a much stronger Percy Gibson (my God, has that kid added weight…he’s easily 60 pounds heavier than he was at Southeastern). However, in OT he was a force, scoring some big buckets and allowing MSU to take control down the stretch after the first 2.5 minutes were more or less even. He ended up with 11 points in not a ton of minutes…shows you how quickly he can impact a game, even if he’s struggling in certain areas.
4.Threes – 10-17 from deep was a big part of this one. MSU needed every single triple they got, with Bryn and Eron doing the heavy lifting (AE chipped in with one as well). MSU didn’t have a huge edge in made threes in this game but the two more they hit than OU did help provide that final 6 point margin.
5. Toughness – More mental than physical, but some of that as well. This is a hell of a win, don’t let anyone tell you differently. No, MSU was not perfect and yeah, they’ve got plenty to work on, but getting down as many as 15, down 13 at the half, taking the lead and then giving it up late to go into OT…that’s a lot to overcome without your best player and leader. MSU found a way. They just found a way to get a win over a motivated, determined, tough and *good* opponent. That deserves credit. I think we know a little bit more about some of these guys than we did yesterday, and it’s very positive.
THE BAD AND THE UGLY
1. TOs – Not a shocker…when you have as ball dominant a player (and as much of a creative force and hub) as Zel leave the lineup with only 1 day notice, it’s probably not going to be pretty. Yet, the kinds of mistakes in the first half especially were ones you cannot make, ones that lead to easy baskets for the other guys. As has often been the pattern with this team, MSU got better in valuing the ball as the game moved on but still, not good enough in this area.
2. First half defense – Felder was fantastic and his teammates were great in cashing in the good chances he created but MSU just couldn’t seem to check anybody in the first 20 minutes. Felder was the big problem because he distorted everything via his ability to get wherever on the floor he wanted, but even in areas like post defense, the Spartans were lacking.
It’s been a fun, fun ride with this group so far. They’ve got a lot of upside left to potentially reach and yet here they are, 13-0 against a challenging schedule and heading into Big Ten play with what should be a good degree of confidence. Obviously they can’t be close to their ceiling without Denzel playing at his National POY level he’s been at most of this season so far, but what they showed tonight is that other guys can be a big part of the answer. That will pay dividends down the line, absolutely no question about it.