By: Jamie Samuelsen
Okay…who saw THAT coming?
Of all the previews I read about the Michigan-Michigan State game, not a single one had #8 MSU putting on an offensive explosion and blowing #4 Michigan off the floor. If the Spartans were going to win, as the narrative went, they were going to grind it out with great defense and dominant post play against the undersized Wolverines. Instead, Michigan State never trailed winning in dominant fashion 75-52. And if you were wondering which of these two teams deserved to be mentioned as the #1 team in the nation and a potential one-seed in the NCAA Tournament, it would be the team from East Lansing.
MSU rolled out to a fourteen-point lead at halftime thanks to 53% shooting from the floor. The Spartans made 16 baskets on 10 assists. And here’s the most amazing part of the first half – Keith Appling, arguably MSU’s most important player – had just one assist and shot 1-for-7 from the floor. If you had told Tom Izzo before the game that Appling would play that poorly in the first half and that one team would be trailing by 14 points, he probably would have picked the Wolverines.
Another popular theory espoused by, among others, Izzo, was that Appling had to stay out of foul trouble. With Travis Trice sitting out with concussion-like symptoms, Appling had to stay in the game to put up some defense against Michigan All-American Trey Burke. Nobody theorized what might happen if Burke got into foul trouble. The answer wasn’t pretty. Burke picked up two early fouls and added his third early in the second half. When he sat down, the Spartans revved up. Burke played well when he was on the floor scoring 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. The rest of the Wolverines shot just 13-of-42 for 31 percent.
As it turned out, Appling did get in foul trouble in the second half, picking up his third foul with 15:54 left to play. That turned out to be one of the best things that happened to MSU. With Trice out, Izzo handed the ball to freshman Denzel Valentine who excelled at the point with seven points and nine rebounds.
And yes, MSU did flex its muscle inside as well. With Jordan Morgan hobbled and Mitch McGary overmatched, Derrick Nix had one of the best games of his career with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
So what does this game mean?
For Michigan State, the answer is obvious. They are a legit Big Ten favorite and look as ready as any of the Izzo-coached teams to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The only bad news is that they’re no longer “the Ravens” of college basketball, an under-the-radar type of team. There will be a large target on their backs from this point forward. And we’ll have to see about the status of Branden Dawson who left the game and looked awfully woozy.
For Michigan, it’s a bit dicier. After losing their first three games by a combined 14 points, they were embarrassed for the first time all season. They’ve lost two in a row and still are probably hung-over from the Wisconsin shocker on Saturday. They remain a talented team and a serious threat in March. But they now have three legitimate questions that need answers.
1) Why do they have such awful starts in the first half of key games?
2) When will they win a road game in a hostile environment against a quality team (sorry…Minnesota doesn’t count.)
3) What happens when the three-pointers don’t fall?
I suppose it’s debatable whether this is more about Michigan or more about Michigan State. The answer, as always, is a little bit of both. But this game will mean a lot more to Michigan because all of a sudden the problems seem very real.