MSU used a 20 point first half from Bryn Forbes to get out to an 11 point halftime margin and then saw Denzel Valentine and others fuel a big second half offensive performance which led to an easy 92-65 win over Penn State. With the win, MSU moves to 16-1 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten.

Revisiting the keys…

1. The Return – It is anticipated that Denzel Valentine will play in this game for Michigan State. What I’ve heard from Izzo is that when Zel starts playing again, it won’t be in a bit part fashion to ease him in. So, if he does play tomorrow, I would expect him to earn large minutes and probably start. The latest is that it will be a gametime decision, as his head coach wants to see how he looks and feels after warm ups. If Zel is back, one interesting thing will be to see how the pieces all fit together again. He’s such a huge part of everything MSU does at both ends, and they’ve started to show some growth in areas which weren’t as strong before he was hurt (more consistent post play on offense and Eron Harris’ overall game being the two most obvious). Does all that continue with Zel back?

RESULT – It took awhile, but eventually everything started to click again. In the first half, Zel showed off his rebounding and playmaking but shots weren’t falling for him and he looked a little bit out of sync. In the second half though, things turned around. He went 4-6 from the floor in the second twenty minutes and generally looked his normal self. I would say given the range of possibilities, things went about as well in this area as one could expect.

2. Make Them Bomb – PSU does not shoot the deep ball well…only 30% as a team. That’s one reason they only take about 1/3 of their overall shots from 3, but if you’re MSU you want to see them launching a lot and proving that they can hit before you look to take it away (sort of the flipside of the Illinois gameplan). OTOH, PSU has gotten to the line decently this season and theyr’e not a bad 2 point shooting group, so preventing penetration and forcing PSU to shoot jumpers should be what we see MSU try to force the Nits into.

RESULT – Not so good. Maybe the one thing you could get after MSU for in this game was the way they gave up penetration. Shep Garner and Devin Foster really gave MSU fits off the dribble. It led to 28 FTA by the Nits and it also helped them boost their field goal percentage in the second half considerably. PSU was held to 3-14 from deep, so things went as planned when they were forced into taking jumpers…it just didn’t happen enough.

3. Defensive Glass – We finally saw MSU control that end of the boards against the Illini, after several games (even before Zel went down) where that proved to be a struggle. PSU is a better rebounding team than either Minnesota or Illinois, so they’ll pose a challenge for MSU. As always, it’s key to clear the defensive glass in order to close out possessions against a team which doesn’t generally shoot the ball well *and* to get MSU’s transition game flowing.

RESULT – Nice performance here by MSU. PSU is a good (not great, but good…plus on the season) rebounding team and they only got 7 offensive boards in this one. MSU didn’t live in transition but they did get some things going on occasion. More importantly, though, PSU had few good second chances after misses.

4. Post Play – PSU has a defensive element in Dickerson that neither Minnesota nor Illinois possessed, but it’s still important for MSU to continue to go to work on the blocks the way they have of late. You can’t let a shotblocker discourage you from looking to get to the rim, so guys like Costello, Gavin and DD have to be strong and aggressive and take the ball right at the Nit defenders inside and go through them.

RESULT – Really nicely done here. Gavin Schilling was the star of the show, scoring 13 points (11 in the first half) but Davis (6) and Costello (8) got work done in the second half. PSU is not an easy team to score against in the post, because they have some good length with Dickerson and Moore (who played really well, it has to be said). I thought MSU’s big kids were aggressive in going against them, though and that’s what you have to do versus shotblockers. You can’t let them just completely take away that part of the floor from your offense and MSU didn’t do that.

5. Convert – MSU has shot free throws generally well this season. PSU has a tendency to put opponents on the line a bit, so it’s important for the Spartans to cash in opportunities presented.

RESULT – Non factor but MSU was 12-15 for 80% as a team, keeping up their solid early season performance from the line.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

THE GOOD:

1. He’s Back – Just a relief to see Denzel out there playing for starters. The fact that he got things turned around after a tough first half shooting the ball was gravy, but still nice to see. MSU’s team is so obviously better with him in the mix in all respects…doesn’t take a genius to see that. Zel played a good amount of minutes as well, which is also encouraging. They’re not babying him, which is what Izzo had indicated he’d do (that if he couldn’t go full tilt, he wouldn’t play until he could). I’d say it’s reasonable to expect something close to normal minutes and production for Thursday’s big game at Breslin.

2. Bryn – Carried MSU offensively in the first half, when they couldn’t get much of anything else going shooting the ball. He barely played in the second but I saw no indication that was a result of anything other than Izzo wanting to get Valentine minutes and work on some particular playing group combinations. When it mattered, Bryn was lights out.

3. Gavin – Best game of the season so far for Gavin. He had 11 and 7 in the first half and ended with 2 more second half points. However, for as great as all of those contributions were, I was most impressed with his defense. He was guarding Brandon Taylor, who while not a superstar is a bonafide Big Ten scorer at the 4 spot who can do a lot of different things offensively. Gavin shut his a** down. Taylor ended up with 10 points but I’m reasonably certain all of that came against others. A guy like Taylor makes you extend out onto the floor to guard him but you’re also going to deal with him backing you into the post…that last part is where guys like Marv and Javon struggled with him. No such worries when Gavin guarded him. I also loved one sequence where Gavin got caught on Garner after a switch. No one other than Tum had any success at all stopping that kid from getting to the rim (and even Tum was only somewhat successful in that regard) but Gav moved his feet so well that he cut off the penetration attempt and then his length caused Garner’s entry pass to be a little off, which led to Costello getting a knock away and a steal. It was a lights out defensive sequence…a small thing in a blowout but it shows you the capabilities this kid has.

I’m not ready to say Gavin is Branden Dawson level good, but he may be the closest thing this team has to a guy with the versatility to hang with multi skilled, multi faceted guys.

4. Shooting – Hard to argue with 50/50/80. PSU isn’t a terrible defensive team on the season, either. The thing is that if MSU had been even semi normal outside of Bryn and Gav in the first half, they probably would be looking at a 60% plus performance from the floor, as they had great looks all day long.

5. Defensive rebounding – MSU limited PSU to 7 offensive boards and controlled that end. That’s one way you cut off any oxygen to an upset bid…limit a bad shooting team to one shot.

6. Poise – It gets lost in a lot of what else was going on, but MSU had only 6 TOs, about half of what PSU normally forces. That’s one of the better performances of the season and it came in a game that, while not quite a Westhead Loyola Marymount type pace was still played reasonably fast.

THE BAD AND THE UGLY

1. Fouling – A result primarily of penetration. MSU simply could not cut off Garner or Foster and they paid for it by being put in position to foul a LOT in this game. That’s what PSU does and that’s a strength of their team, so it’s not unexpected but you can’t give MSU a good grade in terms of dribble denial.

So MSU takes care of business in a game they’re expected to win and they do so in emphatic fashion. Sometimes stats lie and sometimes you can overcome what seem to be their implications. MSU has had teams which went a long way and won championships even when forced to play in a lot of tight games, even against lesser opponents. So far this season, though, this group has done pretty much exactly what you’d expect out of a top 5 team…they have largely blown the doors off lesser opponents. MSU came into this game 8th in the nation at 18.7ppg in margin of victory and today will obviously extend that by a bit up toward the 20 ppg mark. Often, that stat is highly correlated to title contending teams. Again, MSU has gotten to Final Fours and won Big Ten titles in spite of not blowing teams out the way this group has, but when you actually DO that, it tends to be confirmation of the value of the W/L record and the quality of the team.

The Spartans get a couple of days to work on things before welcoming Iowa to the Breslin. The Hawks obviously handed MSU its sole loss of the season to date. I am expecting things to not be nearly as pleasant for Fran and Co as they were in Iowa City…we’ll see how that goes.