Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Thoughts on MSU's 60-59 loss to U-M

(ESPN highlights here and box score here)

What a game.

It was the most-hyped game in this rivalry in a long time — the first time since 1998 that both were ranked — and boy, did it live up to the billing.

A rough first half for MSU was followed by a back-and-forth second half. MSU grabbed a three-point lead late, but couldn't hold on. Stu Douglass gave Michigan a 60-59 lead with about 30 seconds left, then Draymond Green missed a short jumper and tip-in, as the Wolverines came away with their third straight win against MSU and their first against a top-10 MSU team since 1979.

MSU falls to 15-4 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten, leaving Illinois as the only one-loss team in the conference.

The star of the night was U-M freshman guard Trey Burke, who had 20 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks — leading the Wolverines in all of those categories. He was simply incredible. MSU fans can't wait for him to leave for NBA.

The game started with an 13-4 run for U-M that included three three-point shots. Every time the Spartans would cut the lead down, their defense would let them down and U-M would open the lead back up. After the Wolverines stretched the lead to 30-20, MSU went on a 9-0 run. But Brandan Kearney fouled Douglass on a made three-pointer, and a 6-0 run put the Spartans down 36-29 at the half.

U-M shot a season-high 54 percent for the half, mostly thanks to a 9-for-14 performance on two-pointers. The Wolverines were getting to the basket really easily and Adreian Payne looked lost on defense for most of the night. MSU's guard play in the half was dreadful from everyone not named Keith Appling. Brandon Wood and Travis Trice looked like they were playing in their first rivalry game. They were indecisive and lost on offense (except when Wood decided to keep jacking up bad three-pointers).

I wrote before the game that the matchup between Wood/Branden Dawson and Tim Hardaway could be a big key to the game. The three had a combined six points in the first half and only Dawson had made a field goal. Shows what I know.

The second half began with much of the same. MSU cut the deficit to four, but U-M answered with a 7-0  run to take it's biggest lead at 11 with 12:18 to play. But that's when things finally started to click for MSU. Austin Thornton answered with a three-pointer. He finished with eight points and three rebounds in 20 minutes, looking like one of the few Spartans who wasn't overwhelmed by the game. What made it more impressive was the fact he had the stomach flu and apparently was throwing up.  Really a gutsy performance from him.

MSU began chipping away at U-M's lead thanks to some big buckets from Derrick Nix, who finished with 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting. A three-pointer from Kearney with 6:45 to go gave MSU its first lead at 50-49.  It may have been a bit of a breakout game for Kearney, who had six points and two rebounds in 12 minutes, but also played great defense on Burke when Appling got in foul trouble in the second half.

MSU's lead was as big as four with 4:21 to go, but the offense sputtered down the stretch. With MSU leading 59-58, Appling dribbled an inbounds pass off his foot, resulting in a backcourt violation. This really upset Izzo, but based on the replay, it was a good call.

But Burke missed a deep three on the resulting possession. MSU's offense in the final minutes was "goofy," as Nix put it. After Appling missed a short jumper, Burke grabbed the rebound, rushed down the court and handed the ball off to Douglass for a layup and the lead with 30 seconds left. Appling's decision not to hustle back on defense left Douglass wide open.

MSU's final possession was sloppy, but it resulted in Green driving and missing a mid-range jumper. His tip-in attempt came up short and the Wolverines came up with their third straight win in the rivalry. According to Jim Comparoni, MSU had the ball for 3:27 of the games last 4:07, and U-M had three field goals in the 40 seconds they had the ball. MSU didn't make the big plays on either end late, and that ended up being the difference in the game.

Green finished with a season-low seven points, 11 rebounds, and a season-high five turnovers, leading Izzo to say afterward that they should have gotten him the ball more often. Appling had 10 points, five assists and four rebounds, but shot just 5-for-12 and had four turnovers. MSU had 14 turnovers for the game, compared to eight for U-M.

Although they allowed just 60 points, MSU's defense struggled for the second straight game. After letting Northwestern shoot 50 percent in a loss Saturday, the Wolverines shot 51 percent (23-for-45) Tuesday night, including an incredible 17-for-24 on two-point shots. That's 71 percent. U-M made just six of 21 three-point attempts.

Afterward, Izzo questioned the toughness of his team. U-M scored 28 points in the paint, while MSU had 30. The Spartans did win the rebounding battle 31-18, but only drew eight fouls. In fact, there were only 20 called fouls in the game. There certainly have been more physical games in this rivalry.

Payne has looked completely lost outside of the paint on defense in the last two games. As much of a height and jumping advantage he had on U-M on the glass, he became a liability on defense. Nix looked strong, but he wore down and asked to come out of the game with about four minutes left.

On offense, the Spartan newcomers looked tentative, especially Trice, Dawson and Wood. Dawson started, but played just 12 minutes. I don't even know if he played in the second half.

I picked each team to win its home game in this series, so a loss tonight was not unexpected. A 4-2 start in the Big Ten with four road games is nothing to be upset about.

The good news is that four of MSU's next five games are at home, beginning with Purdue at Breslin Center on Saturday. More good news is that Purdue plays a normal offense, so MSU's defense should be up to the challenge. The Big Ten race is wide open, with almost every team having three losses or less. The next five games are vital for MSU to stay near the top of the standings.

Kearney is clearly trending up, while Trice is tending down. I know Izzo wants to find more ways to get Kearney some minutes. Thornton is playing like a senior. When things seem to be going wrong, his calm demeanor carries over on the court and helps everyone regroup. He's also found some confidence in his shot for the first time, well, ever.

As for the MSU/U-M rivalry, this is as good as its ever been in my lifetime. The last time MSU and U-M had football and basketball teams all in the top-16 was April 1990. U-M has won three basketball games in a row, but it's hardly been domination in the rivalry. This is how it's supposed to be. This heated.

The Appling/Burke matchup was a big talking point before the game, and man, did it live up to the hype. It's going to be a lot of fun seeing those two go at it over the next few years.

The loss — and zillion camera shots of Denard Robinson at the game — irritated a lot of MSU athletes (you should click on all of those). It's fun to see how other athletes have a passion for the rivalry. With all four programs on the upswing, this rivalry should be heated for a long, long time. You're going to win some, you're going to lose some. And the emotions after both will be extremely high. As Izzo said before this game, it's nice if this becomes UNC-Duke, you just want to win more than you lose.

Plus this rivalry is even and heated in multiple sports.

So the U-M faithful bask in three straight wins for the first time since 1997-98, while MSU fans pull out other obscure points to argue.  So goes a rivalry.

The best part? These teams meet at Breslin in less than three weeks.

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