It started to gain traction late in Michigan State’s 90-68 romp of Iowa Monday.
Every member on press row was seated in front of a computer with the same stat broadcast feed in front of them and saw numbers popping out. Three numbers stood out in particular, next to Kenny Goins’ name.
With seven minutes remaining in the game, Goins had 17 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists. If that doesn't prove how dominant the tenth-ranked Spartans were on the night, hardly anything ever will.
Hawks Cut Off After Halftime
Iowa made one of their first 20 shots coming out of the locker room and didn’t score their fourth point of the half until there were just 10 minutes left on the game clock. That kind of ineptitude takes two to tango, as Iowa was indeed poor at moving the ball and missed the good looks they did get. However, the Spartans were suffocating.
“When they set screens, the big was helping a lot on the guard, so that gave the guard a certain amount of time to get back,” sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said postgame. “We helped on the backside as well. We just did a good overall job of pressing up on ball screens and getting up on ball screens and being on the weakside.”
Tillman, Goins and Nick Ward were the stars of the night, both offensively and also on the defensive end. Iowa’s leading scorer Tyler Cook was largely ineffective (15 points on 6-of-13 shooting), being guarded mostly by Tillman and Goins.
The most impressive thing about the Spartans’ defensive performance was how they handled drives to the basket. Though the number of fouls was high (25 of the 48 whistles called went against MSU), the bigs did a serviceable job of staying in front of the Hawkeyes and forcing difficult shots.
“I thought we did a decent job of six-eyeing it as we call it, collapsing, Jordan rules, whatever you wanna call it,” coach Tom Izzo said.
MSU won’t be able to sag off of every team. Iowa is a decent shooting team that had a bad night (27.3 percent from three-point range), but the effort and on-ball defense by the frontcourt was encouraging.
“We stayed locked in. We were doing a better job playing at a steady pace,” junior point guard Cassius Winston said. “Teams are gonna make runs, and teams are gonna do things like that, but we’re playing at a constant steady pace. If we can put stops together, the game can really open up from there.”
Winston sounds like Izzo when he talks about consistency and defense leading to offense, and he’s right. When they play the way they did Monday night, it’s tough for anybody to score on them.
Ball Movement Was Excellent
“We did the things we wanted to do. When you have 28 assists on 31 baskets, that’s unbelievable,” Izzo said.
Monday night was the best team performance of the season offensively — Ward and Tillman put up career highs, Goins had the best night he’s ever had, statistically — and in many ways, it wasn’t due to any of them in particular.
“They were really doubling Nick, sagging off Nick, so we started flashing (Goins) to the high post,” Izzo said. “He had a couple high-lows, just burying Nick in there. I thought we did a pretty good job there. Kenny got all the assists. I think he got three or four that way. But I thought we moved the ball pretty good.”
Iowa played a lot of zone, which wasn't very effective. The high-low was there all night, and when it wasn’t, the Spartans drove the zone. They finished with more points in the paint, and free throw makes (73) than Iowa had points (68).
Though MSU only shot 3-of-12 from behind the arc, their relentless attack and ball movement inside put the rest of the Big Ten on notice: go zone, as Syracuse did to knock off MSU’s ultra-talented 2017 squad in the second round of the tournament, at your own peril.
“When Kenny caught it up top, I just ducked in my man, and I sealed him. Then I realized it’s just me and a guard down low, so then we realized we can utilize that a lot and give it to Kenny, then have me and Nick duck in on the baseline,” Tillman said.
The team that lost to Syracuse refused to stop shooting threes even when they weren’t falling. Though Iowa’s zone isn’t as good as Syracuse’s, MSU’s commitment to avoid playing the way their opponent wants them to will serve them well.
A Quick Note on Aaron Henry
While the second half was a breeze, MSU trailed early in the game and were only leading by one point with 6:08 left in the first half.
That’s when freshman guard Aaron Henry caught a pass in transition from Cassius Winston, took two steps and sailed to the rim without dribbling for a huge dunk that caused the Breslin Center to erupt.
That was the highlight of course, but Henry’s defense has been really excellent in the absence of senior guard Matt McQuaid.
“Ultimately, it’s gotta fall on somebody, so what can I do?” Henry said. “What does McQuaid do? Since he’s out, how can I pick up? He’s obviously a shooter, he obviously plays defense and takes a lot of charges. So I gotta start on defense, make my way onto offense and let the game come to me.”
He was hard on himself, too, talking about one switch he made late leading to a pair of Iowa free throws in the first half.
“(Just a) lack of communication; just me not knowing. I just gotta be better in the film room just realizing that,” he said. “I gotta be ready like everyone else on the floor depending on me to be the fifth person.”
Izzo clearly feels that Henry is the readiest of the five freshmen, and from recent results, it’s hard to argue. Henry was asked what he felt his role on the team was, and he nailed it.
“Don’t force anything, and as long as you play defense, rebound and run your lane, you can’t do any wrong.”
He’s going to have a few more important moments at some point this season. Monday night, he wasn’t the star, but he did the dirty work and made a big play when the game was still competitive. That’s all Izzo can ask of him.