Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thoughts on MSU's 42-41 loss to Illinois

(Box score here and BTN highlights here, if you dare)

I never thought I'd see MSU play as poorly offensively as they did in a 43-36 loss to at Iowa in 2008. That was brutal.

Tuesday's 42-41 loss to Illinois came darn close.

Man, was it ugly. MSU shot 14-for-58 from the field. That's 24 percent. By comparison, they shot 31 percent in that 2008 loss. Some shots only got air. Some only got backboard. The result was Illinois' fewest points in a win since 1947. The Spartans are now 1-4 in their last five games at Illinois when ranked in the top 10 of the Coaches Poll.

When Draymond Green plays 16 minutes and Appling has his worst game of the season, 42 points doesn't come as a complete shock. But when you see the amount of layups MSU missed (I lost count at 45) you know the Spartans could have won this game.

Speaking of Green, he went down with a left knee injury in the second half and never returned. He didn't walk the rest of the night either. More on him later in the post.

MSU took the first eight shots of the game, as they grabbed seven offensive boards before the Illini took a shot. Yet out of that came a two-point lead. An omen for the rest of the night. The layups were missed early and often.

Green picked up two fouls early in the first half, then waved his arms in frustration, picking up his a technical foul and ensuring he wouldn't see the court for a long time. Given that MSU shot 7-for-30 with 10 turnovers in half that didn't see a lot of Green, MSU could be happy trailing just 22-20 at half. But the second half wasn't any better.

Appling was pressured and frustrated all night. With Brandon Wood battling the flu and Travis Trice dealing with a groin injury, perhaps the Illini gameplan was to wear out MSU's top guard. Whether or not that was the plan, it worked. Appling finished with four points on 1-for-11 shooting. He also had five turnovers to just two assists. He was pulled out of the game by Izzo a few times after some bad plays, but didn't respond well.

Yet when it came down to the end, MSU had a shot for the win, just like in Ann Arbor two weeks ago. And just like in that game, MSU failed to score on a drive to the bucket in the final seconds. This time it was Appling.

When you look at how bad MSU played, it would appear to be encouraging that MSU kept the game so close. However, the Illini missed the front end of two one-and-ones late in the game, keeping MSU around. Illinois completely blew a win at Minnesota late in their previous game, and the Illini tried to do it again.

Other than defense and rebounding (finished 43 [18 off] to 30 for MSU), the only real bright spot for MSU on offense was Branden Dawson, who had his third straight solid game. he finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds, taking advantage of Illinois' four-guard lineup on the glass. On defense, both Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne did a good job shutting down Meyers Leonard. MSU had 15 turnovers, a third of which came from Green.

But the Spartans couldn't make the play at the end, losing their second straight road game by one point, and likely losing their Big Ten title hopes in the process.

From Green to Appling, to Nix — who split a pair of free throws down two in the final seconds — the Spartans couldn't handle the adversity. As Izzo put it, they cracked for the first time.

Back to Green, he injured his left knee stepping backward on defense, when it looked like it buckled a little bit. He may have hit knees with an Illinois player. I only saw one replay and it wasn't totally clear. At first, some thought it might be cramps. But it clearly is much worse than that. Green left the arena on crutches with a big ice pack on his knee. Further evaluation in the morning.

After the game, Green tweeted: "Tough loss keyed by me letting my team down... We will bounce back and we will be fine," and "I serve The Awesome God knee will be fine Michigan on Sunday."

I'm going to stay away from the "what-ifs"on Green until we have a diagnosis. Although he has struggled against Michigan throughout his career, he clearly is important if the Spartans want to end a three-game losing streak against the Wolverines.

The good news is that MSU has four full days off until the showdown with the Wolverines.  I wouldn't be surprised if the tape of this game is thrown away. The Spartans just missed so many layups. They didn't exactly take bad shots, they just missed those shots badly. Really badly.

It would appear the Spartans are at a bit of crossroads. Coming into the game, things appeared just fine. But that's how bad this night was for MSU.

This next game against U-M could determine if this is going to become a good season, or a great season. And Green may have to be factored out of that. We're halfway through the Big Ten season, and while the Spartans have surprised, this schedule was backloaded. If they were able to make one final play in Ann Arbor or Champaign, they could be in control of the Big Ten.

Wood has been in a major slump. Only Dawson appears to be trending up right now. After the loss to U-M, Green said Feb. 5 was circled on his calendar. That game looms large now. But it's about more than just payback. It's about trying to right the ship.

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