"Draymond Green does everything, including wiping the floor!"
While that anecdote was great for national writers, the real story Sunday was Keith Appling's 19 points, leading MSU to a 65-61 win over Saint Louis in the third round, advancing the Spartans to the Sweet 16. (Yes, I realize I did that exact same thing with the anecdote, but it was, you know, sarcastic).
You knew Rick Majerus would have his team ready for MSU, and the Billikens had a great gameplan. It's good to see Majerus back in the NCAA Tournament, he's one of the game's most underrated coaches. But as the coach of a mid-major team, he didn't have to talent to play MSU straight-up, he had to have a plan. The plan was to force Appling to take open jumpers. Make the struggling shooter beat you. And that's exactly what he did, shooting 7-for-14 from the field.
With the win, MSU advances to the Sweet 16 in Phoenix, where they will face No. 4 seed Louisville. It will be MSU's fourth appearance in the Sweet 16 in the last five years, and 10th in 15 years under Tom Izzo.
Given the quality coaching and defenses on these teams, it was going to be a low-scoring game. Saint Louis players said they wanted to muck it up, and they did just that, grabbing and playing as physical as possible while forcing the refs to make (or not make) difficult calls. The Billikens didn't score a field goal until almost seven minutes into the game, but they forced MSU into some difficult shots and turnovers. The Spartans started to hit some shots, but that was only when they wouldn't turn it over.
MSU took a 26-21 lead into halftime. The Spartans shot 48 percent (12-for-25) while the Billikens were at 23.8 percent (5-for-21). However, MSU turned the ball over nine times to SLU's six, and the Billikens were 9-for-13 from the free-throw line, compared to 0-for-1 from MSU. The officiating was an issue for MSU all night. During the year, SLU was ranked No. 197 in the country in FTA/FGA, so the discrepancy isn't normal for the Billikens After the game, Derrick Nix commented that he wondered if they were from another country.
For much of the game, Izzo was all like
|(I just love this gif, wanted to use it)|
MSU upped its lead to double-digits in the second half and appeared to be pulling away, but SLU was not going down without a fight. After MSU took a 43-32 lead with 12:15 to play, the Billikens went on a 14-6 run to cut MSU's lead to three points with 5:34 to go. The lead got down to two points with just over three minutes to play.
But then Green did what he does. He hit a long running jumper to put MSU up 55-51, blocked a shot and got the rebound on the other end. Then, Green drove to the basket, the defense collapsed on him and he kicked it out to Appling, who rattled home a three-pointer to up MSU's lead to 58-51 with 1:34 to play. SLU began to foul to extend the game as long as they could. MSU missed some free throws (5-for-9 in the last 1:01), but SLU never had the ball when it got to a one possession game.
The final minutes of the game were a representation of all of Green's skills. A long jump shot, a block, some incredible rebounds and a great pass to extend MSU's lead and eventually win the game. Shortly after the game, Green was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Award. Green won't win the award, but if there was an MVP award, Green would clearly be the winner. He finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals on Sunday after his triple-double on Friday against Long Island-Brooklyn.
MSU shot 54.3 percent for the game, while SLU shot 35.3 percent. The rebounds were 32-28 in favor of MSU, but SLU had a surprising eight offensive rebounds, while MSU had just five. The eight offensive boards are surprising because SLU didn't really go to the glass, getting back to play transition defense instead. However, the Billikens took 25 three-pointers (making seven), which resulted in some long rebounds.
As was mentioned earlier, Majerus' gameplan was to sag off Appling, daring him to shoot long jumpers. Early on, he did a good job taking advantage of the space and cut to the hoop for some opportunities. Later in the game, he started to take some long two-pointers and made a good share of them. He shot 7-for-14, but just 1-for-3 on three-pointers. The 14 attempts were his most since the win at Wisconsin on Jan. 3, and the seven makes were his most since the Indiana win on Dec. 28. He also had three assists to one turnover along with his always solid defense.
He did a great job of balancing his struggles with his opportunities. He couldn't just take a ton of jumpers and hope they went in, but he couldn't ignore all the open looks either. He took (and made) enough where I don't think future opponents will be sagging as much as SLU did on Sunday.
After monster performances on Friday night, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne had solid second-half performances, finishing to combine for 14 points and eight rebounds (seven from Payne), but they did have four turnovers (three from Nix).
All in all, it was a tight, physical game as we expected, but it was closer than it should have been. MSU shot better than 48 percent for the fifth straight game, and its defense was once again stifling. This game was only as close as it was because of the free-throw line. It kept SLU (18-for-23) around for much the game, and then MSU (12-for-17) missed some at the end that would have made it less stressful for fans. Still, the Spartans faced some adversity and fought through it all for a solid win. As Izzo said after the game, it was a good learning experience for the team. Izzo moved to 17-3 on the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend.
Looking ahead, the Sweet 16 game against Louisville (Thursday, 7:47 p.m., TBS) should be another low-scoring affair. The Cardinals have one of the top defenses in the country, but they struggle to score and there shouldn't be any matchup issues for MSU. The Spartans are a decent-sized favorite early on, and I like their chances to win that game.