Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thoughts on MSU's 70-55 loss at Indiana

(Box score here)

When Indiana beat Kentucky earlier this season, we knew the Hoosiers were for real.

Not necessarily "contend for Big Ten title" real, but "they're going to be a lot of good teams at home" real. Since that Kentucky win, I've said the game in Bloomington would be the toughest of the season for MSU. With a chance to win an outright championship, MSU's frequent comeback attempts fell short in a 70-55 loss.

MSU (24-6 overall, 13-4 Big Ten) likely will need to beat Ohio State on Sunday to win the Big Ten championship outright.

In a game where only Draymond Green could do anything on offense, the Spartans actually found themselves trailing just 55-49 with seven minutes to play after being down double-digits for most of the game. But the lack of offensive weapons and tired legs led to a 15-6 run for the rest of the game. MSU had one field goal in the final 7:21, and that came with 18 seconds left.

(ESPN.com highlights)

MSU grabbed an early 4-1 lead to start the game, but Victor Oladipo answered for Indiana (22-7, 10-7). Oladipo consistently drove past MSU to the hoop in the first half, sometimes making a shot, but usually getting fouled and hitting his free throws. He scored 11 points in the first half, despite shooting just 2-for-4. But he went 7-for-8 from the free throw line. The Spartans couldn't defend without fouling, and Green was the only person who could score for MSU. He scored MSU's last 14 points of the first half, and MSU went into the locker room down 41-27. The Hoosiers went 16-for-18 from the free-throw line in the half.

You knew MSU was going to make a run at some point, the question was if the defense would hold off the Indiana offense long enough for a win. After a bucket by Indiana's Cody Zeller, MSU went on a 10-0 run to cut the deficit to six points. Indiana answered with an 10-5 run to up the lead back to double-digits. The run was highlighted by a dunk from Oladipo who used a screen to get past Brandan Kearney and drove right past Adreian Payne, who came up too high for the screen.

But a layup from Green and three-pointer from Austin Thornton cut the deficit back to six points at 53-47. Zeller scored a layup, Appling hit two free throws, but MSU was out of gas. After Indiana grabbed two offensive rebounds following a missed free throw, Christian Watford banked-in a three-pointer and Indiana ran away from MSU for the rest of the game.

Green was just about everything for MSU, finishing with 29 points on 10-for-17 shooting with eight rebounds, two assists and two steals. But he had six turnovers. He may finally be getting some talk about National Player of the Year, but the loss probably will hurt that. (More on this tomorrow).

The only other Spartan who did anything offensively was Austin Thornton, who scored eight points on 3-for-4 shooting.  As much as MSU needed a second player to step up offensively, Thornton can only do so much. He shouldn't be expected to me MSU's second-leading scorer in a game.

The guards who needed to score were Appling and Brandon Wood, who finished with a total of six points (all from Appling). Appling has got so much on his plate, and he appears to be hitting a wall. Sometimes we forget he's a sophomore in his first season as a point guard. He's expected to score, distribute and be the best perimeter defender. He looks exhausted. He has been playing with such little confidence on offense. He finished with six points on 2-for-6 shooting, with both buckets coming on the fast break. He had five assists and three turnovers.

In his last four games, Appling hasn't made more than three field goals in any of them, averaging seven points per game. The good news is that he'll finally get some rest before the regular season finale. The bad news is Aaron Craft is next. Appling had zero assists and seven turnovers in the last meeting with the Buckeyes.

Wood continues to struggle to score, but he also continues to help in other ways. Wood finished 0-for-5 from the field and added in an airball on a free throw. He did have seven rebounds, including four on the offensve end, but MSU needs him to start scoring consistently, which is a weird thing to say with one regular season game left. Wood has scored in double-figures just three times in Big Ten play. He had scored 20 in the last two games, but put up a dud tonight, missing a lot of open looks. He came to MSU to play in the big games, and the Spartans need him to step up in them.

MSU got very little from its big men, as Indiana lit up MSU in the paint on offense. Derrick Nix couldn't defense Zeller in the post, nor do much on offense, while Payne couldn't defend the screen, also not doing much on offense.

As a team, MSU shot 20-for-51 (39 percent), meaning everyone who wasn't Green shot a combined 10-for-34. That's not going to win a lot of games. Indiana shot 23-for-48 (47 percent), becoming the first team to score more than 62 points against MSU since Northwestern on Jan. 14.

The Hoosiers outrebounded MSU 31-30, which shouldn't be a surprise, as MSU won the battle 33-31 in the team's first meeting. Watford led everyone with 14 rebounds for Indiana, In the first meeting, Indiana had 13 offensive rebounds. Tonight, the Hoosiers had nine, leading to a 13-0 edge in second-chance points. MSU had 13 offensive rebounds.

Looking back, MSU went 4-1 in this five-games-in-13-days stretch, which included games against Wisconsin, at Purdue, at Minnesota, Nebraska and at Indiana. It's really comparable to the football team's October gauntlet. Spartan fans should be extremely happy with a 4-1 record in that stretch, and it resulted in a Big Ten championship.

But we know MSU doesn't want to share it. Ohio State and Michigan sit 1.5 games back with games at Northerstern and Illinois, respectively, coming tomorrow night. Assuming both win, MSU would need to beat Ohio State for the outright title.

Yes, MSU needs others besides Green to step up on offense. It usually happens. Why else has MSU won 24 games? It was just a bad game in the toughest environment in college basketball. A bad game was bound to happen, and this likely was going to be it. There's no need to overreact that MSU's offense is in the tank. Remember, they did shoot 59 percent against Nebraska. If no one other than Green scores, MSU is going to struggle. But that usually doesn't happen. This team is deep, as I showed earlier today. Someone else usually steps up alongside Green.

So the Spartans will get some much-needed rest heading into Senior Day. The hopes of a No. 1 seed took a hit, but that's in the back of the minds of the Spartans. It's about an outright Big Ten title, and you know Green will do everything he can to make sure he kisses midcourt in a victory.

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