Two early-season losses for the preseason-ranked No. 4 Michigan State men’s basketball team have presented some common deciding factors – free throws and poor shooting from three.
In its upset loss by two points against James Madison last week, the Spartans missed 17 foul shots and shot 1-for-20 from behind the arc.
However, in falling to Duke 74-65 in the StateFarm Champions Classic Tuesday night, MSU’s problem wasn’t missed free throws. It was getting to the line in the first place.
In response to MSU’s airtight defense for most of the first half, Duke got its offense going by drawing fouls and converting on its opportunities at the free-throw line. The Blue Devils shot 24-for-30 from the line compared to the Spartans’ 7-for-12 night at the charity stripe.
A minus-18 free-throw margin isn’t a recipe for success against one of the nation’s premier teams and programs, especially in a neutral-site game in the middle of Nov.
Duke found its rhythm offensively near the end of the first half, which was spurred by several trips to the line for sophomore forward Mark Mitchell. Mitchell led all Duke scorers with nine points at halftime in large part because of his success getting to the rim and drawing fouls.
Although MSU head coach Tom Izzo praised his team’s defensive performance on the uber-athletic Mitchell, he said it left some things to be desired.
“I thought we executed to the tee, except we let [Mitchell] drive and fouled him,” Izzo said. “There’s no reason to foul him, no reason to let him by the way we were supposed to be covering him.”
The Spartans attempted 14 more field goals than the Blue Devils and shot more efficiently from deep. There were moments in the second half when they seemed to have life. But in the end, their inability to get to the free-throw line cost them.
Izzo didn’t seem too concerned about his team’s recent conversion rates from the stripe but emphasized that it needs to improve moving forward.
“Every night before a game we shoot free throws as a team and we haven’t been under 89 percent yet,” Izzo said. “So I just can’t complain about that. It’s not that they haven't done it before … we just got to keep working at it.”
After combining for 2-for-31 shooting from three-point range in its first two games, MSU came out Tuesday night with similar struggles. The Spartans ended the first half 2-for-13 from deep.
They made four out of six three-pointers in the second half, showing much-needed improvement. Still, a 6-for-19 shooting night from behind the arc isn’t going to beat a team like Duke without substantial command in other categories.
Izzo said he wasn’t upset with his squad’s shot selection Tuesday night.
“A lot of teams aren’t shooting as good right now from three,” Izzo said. “I just have to worry about, ‘are we getting good shots.’”
With a couple of marquee games remaining on MSU’s non-conference schedule, Izzo said the Spartans will need to improve their free-throw and three-point shooting if they want to achieve positive results against teams like Butler and Arizona.
“It’s not gonna get any easier” Izzo said of MSU’s upcoming schedule. “Butler is playing really well, scoring a lot of points. Right down the road, we got Arizona, who we saw what they did to Duke at Duke. So, we gotta get better and get better quickly.”
MSU returns home Friday, Nov. 17, hosting the Butler Bulldogs at the Breslin Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
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