NEW YORK – “We were two when we played Kentucky, who was one, and they had the 40-0 shirts. We aren't making any of those,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said at Big Ten media day on October 2.
“There'll be no 40-0 shirts because number one, the schedule we play, but number two, that puts so much more pressure on the team. It's not good enough to be playing at the end of March or beginning of April,” Izzo said. "Now you've gotta be undefeated and we're not that kind of team. We're just not talented enough game in, game out.”
Izzo, of course, is referencing the last time no. 2 upset no. 1 to open the season, when his 2013 Spartans defeated John Calipari’s Wildcats 78-74.
Many parallels connect that matchup and the one that took place Tuesday night; the underdog trounced the favorite from the opening tip, suggesting that their preseason rankings were erroneously flipped.
The former proved that each program possessed championship-caliber talent, but the result itself had little bearing on the broader scope of the season; MSU rode a roller coaster of injuries and streaked from the Big Ten tournament only to exit in the elite eight, while UK realized its talent even later, appearing in and losing the title game as an uncharacteristically high eight seed after aspirations of going 40-0.
Last season proved the same. Kansas outplayed the Spartans from start to finish. The Jayhawks went packing after a second-round loss to Auburn in the NCAA tournament. MSU’s leading scorer against the Jayhawks, now-senior guard Joshua Langford, remained sidelined for the back half of the campaign, as he and Nick Ward each forfeited their places in the starting lineup by March.
The rest is history.
Simply put, Izzo’s lineups often look and play very differently by the end of the year.
“Between the free throw line, the turnovers for touchdowns, we just made some crazy plays,” Izzo said Tuesday. “But we had some lineups in there that don't belong in there at this time of year with that game. Foul trouble created that.”
But let’s overreact a little — or a lot — as is custom following the Champions Classic, to some of the Spartans' glaring issues from college basketball’s opening event.
Live and Die by Gabe Brown
Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins graduated, taking 40.4% of MSU’s three-point production overseas. Joshua Langford was on pace for the most threes on the team had he played all 39 games. With Langford out, three-point shooting becomes a prevailing issue, at least for the near future.
Freshman guard Rocket Watts, the default shooting threat aside from senior guard Winston, is now a combined 0-7 from three counting MSU’s exhibition win over Albion. His outside shot is nothing short of shattered, and he also failed to sink his two attempts from inside the arc Tuesday.
“Rocket found out what it's like to be in this, but I thought he was pretty good defensively, just didn't do as much offensively. That's where we miss Josh,” Izzo said through a half-chuckle, half-sigh.
”But we're going to get a lot better. Most years they say, ‘well, Kentucky's going to get a lot better ‘cause of their freshmen’. Hell, I think we were younger than them most of the time out there.”
Sophomore forward Gabe Brown’s quick trigger proves to be the most polarizing aspect of this offense. He shot a respectable two for six from three against Kentucky, but his ill-advised shot selection in transition essentially converted to turnovers.
Brown, whose shooting improvement was once seen as a luxury off the bench, now looks to be a necessity to aid Winston from the outside.
Frontcourt figures overly reliant on Winston
MSU’s offensive aspirations rely heavily on the assumption that junior forward Xavier Tillman’s offensive game has improved significantly.
Kentucky took away the screen and roll, the connection between Tillman and Winston that accounted for the majority of the forward’s offensive production last season. On the few entry passes he received successfully, the Grand Rapids product showed a quick first move but hesitated to capitalize once he got in position, still looking as if he hasn’t realized his own quickness.
MSU’s go-to post player will have to show that he’s developed into exactly that. The 6 foot, 9 inch forward also missed all three attempts from beyond the arc.
MSU will need at least an occasional Tillman three to fall if it hopes to shoot the three well.
The Spartans also placed big hopes on sophomore forward Marcus Bingham Jr. being an Adreian Payne in the making.
All three of his field goals came within five feet of the basket, two coming from Winston lobs. The potential Spartan floor-stretcher hesitated to take open shots and failed to convert when he did, missing all three of his outside attempts and the rim completely on a long two.
“He had some good things. The problem is, the second half, there were things that you didn't see ... I mean, hey, Marcus took a step forward. Let's put it that way,” Izzo said. “You know, we still got a lot of work to do there.”
Blueprint devised to beat MSU
The Spartans’ last two matchups, Kentucky and Texas Tech, were eerily similar.
Texas Tech reduced the game to defensive slugfest, taking away the fast break from a team that so heavily relies on it. The Red Raiders didn’t give and inch in the half-court either, clamping Winston-Tillman ball screens by extending their defense well beyond the three-point line.
Winston and Tillman each committed four fouls, resulting in a tentative defensive effort in the second half from Winston especially. Sophomore forward Aaron Henry picked up two in the first half, halting his rhythm until late in the second half.
“It's hard to get in the flow of the game when you're out so early, and everybody's in there sweating and you come into the second half ... you're the only one cold,” Henry said.
These two nights, as Winston shot a combined three for 15 from three, Henry’s length and athleticism, slashing and dishing provided a spark in the dwindling minutes, but his effort was too little too late. MSU didn’t see the lead in the second half as the lone hot shooter wore an opposing uniform.