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The 3-2-1 on MSU basketball following loss to Duke

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CHICAGO - Three things we learned during Michigan State’s 88-81 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic, Tuesday night at United Center, two questions and one prediction:

THREE THINGS WE LEARNED:

1. The Spartans were weak on the boards.

That was the biggest surprise of the young season. Michigan State, with its renewed depth on the interior, and Miles Bridges able to provide brawn as a three, was supposed to enjoy a rebounding advantage every time it took the court.

Tom Izzo went as far to say after the last game of last season, in his charmingly exaggerated way, that he looked forward to this season and never being out-rebounded again. Ever.

Well, it took two games for that prophecy to prove false. And it happened in resounding fashion, with Duke holding a double-digit edge in rebounding from pretty much the 10-minute mark on.

Izzo lambasted the Spartans at halftime for surrendering a 26-17 edge on the class through the first 20 minutes.

But the extra emphasis didn’t help all that much. Duke out-rebounded Michigan State in the second half, 20-17, even without super freshman center Marvin Bagley, who left the game with a scratched eye.

Duke out-rebounded Michigan State 46-34.

Duke had 25 offensive rebounds on 46 missed shots. That’s an offensive rebounding percentage of .543. I don’t know if Michigan State keeps records on such things, but that has to be close to the largest offensive rebounding percentage an Izzo team has ever allowed.

“Never in a million years did I think we would get out-rebounded like that,” Izzo said.

Neither did I. And to get out-rebounded by prim and proper Duke? With Duke full of freshmen? It was bizarro basketball for the Izzo world.

“Normally they beat you with their jumpshots and things like that,” Izzo said. “Give Mike (Krzyzewski) credit. They went to smashmouth. They kind of did what we used to do.

“We have the size and the athletes to do that, but tonight we didn’t do it.”

About 20 minutes after his post-game press conference, Izzo continued to talk about the game with some listeners. He continued to harp on the rebounding.

“And you guys wonder why I built this program around rebounding first,” he said. “This is why. That’s how we lost this game.”

No argument from me.

Rebounding and turnovers. Because of those things, Duke had 15 more field goal attempts than Michigan State. Duke was out-shot 50.8 percent to 39.5 percent. But MSU’s edge in shooting accuracy was erased by MSU’s turnovers and Duke’s rebounding.

It won’t be difficult for Izzo to find the areas in which the Spartans lost. It will be easy for him to emphasize those categories in practice, and get quick improvement. But what he won’t have is a better opportunity to beat Duke any time soon.

“This was a golden opportunity,” Izzo said. “We were up two, four minutes left, and we just didn’t lock up like we could and we didn’t rebound like we could.”

Izzo will look at the film and not only lament the fact that the game was tied with four minutes to go and MSU couldn't pull out victory, he'll also be bothered that the game was tied with four minutes to go in the first place.

2. Duke’s zone defense bothered Michigan State.

Duke surprised Michigan State with 40 minutes of zone defense. And just in case Michigan State was getting a bead on how to navigate through it, with the score tied and four minutes to play, Duke changed the zone by extending it out, pressuring into the backcourt.

The change-up to the change-up stalled the Spartans again, causing four empty trips out of five, as Duke turned a 75-75 tie game with 3:47 left into an 86-77 lead with :50 seconds left.


Izzo’s teams usually sift through zone defenses without much of problem. On this night, Michigan State shot well overall (31 for 61 for the game) and adequately from 3-point range (36 percent) but ran into problems in the turnover department with 17.

Michigan State likes to attack zone defenses through the foul line area, often feeding the power forward at the high post. That means true freshman Jaren Jackson needed to be the conduit to many of those operations, receiving entry passes at the foul line, and then looking to kick out to the wing or send duck-in passes to the pivot man down low.

“We had to play Jaren in the middle, which he can do, but that’s a lot to ask of a freshman right now because we put a lot of our (zone) offense through there,” Izzo said. “I’ll be honest with you: We haven’t faced a zone much and give them credit, they played it the whole game,” Izzo said. “I thought if we could get a lead and get them out of that zone the advantage goes to us, but we couldn’t get a big enough lead, so we couldn’t dig ‘em out.”

So Duke caught Michigan State a little light in the zone offense department. Not a big deal, from a November perspective - except that it IS a huge deal to Mr. Izzo. He’s now 1-11 against Krzyzewski.

3. We saw how competitive Izzo really is.

We know Izzo is a competitor. We know he hates to lose. But he usually hides it better.

I have never seen Izzo plow through post-game handshakes faster than he did after this game. He didn’t sprint. But he didn’t doddle. He was in no mood for pats of encouragement. It was the shortest handshake he has ever had with Krzyzewski. He wanted to get the hell off the court, and go harm something.

A few minutes later, members threw a couple of softball questions at a despondent Izzo. Izzo didn’t want gentle treatment.

When asked, other than rebounding, if he felt good about the team holding its own against No. 1-ranked Duke.

“No insult, I’m sick of holding my own. Okay?” Izzo interrupted. “I don’t need to hold my own. Give them a lot of credit, they’ve got a good team, but this ain’t about holding my own. I’m sick of holding my own.”

Izzo has gone to more Final Fours than anyone other than Krzyzewski in the last 17 years. Izzo is a Hall of Fame coach, revered in East Lansing. He likes Krzyzewski, but Izzo is absolutely nauseated by his record against Coach K.

“To be honest with you, I’m so sick of it,” Izzo said of the losses to Duke. “Our fans, our media, everybody should be upset. Twelfth game and we can’t win many. But at least we’ve got the courage to play them, which most people don’t.

“We’ve beaten a lot of people in this event, they’re one we haven’t beaten. They out-played us in the last four minutes and that was the difference in the game.”

Michigan State is 1-1 on the young season. In college basketball, what happens in November stays in November - except for this Coach K tattoo that Izzo has on his forehead.

I’ve never seen Izzo take a nonconference, regular-season loss as hard as this one - aside from maybe in the Duke blowout of Michigan State during the one time the Blue Devils visited Breslin Center, early in the 2003-04 season.

Izzo was asked, in a round and about way, if he was allowing himself to get too high or too low about a game this early in the year.

“Hell no,” Izzo said. “I’ve done this my whole life. No. Definitely, no. If we would have won it, I wouldn’t have felt any different than if we lost it.”

(Well, actually he would feel a lot different if Michigan State had won, but his outlook on the process would be the same. But let him roll with it …)

“This is about building a team,” he continued. “This is about getting better every day, this is about learning where your warts are. I’m going to go home and I’m going to have a book full of warts, I’m going to have a lot of them that we can work on. We’ll get better.

“They (Duke) are going to get better; we’re going to get a hell of a lot better.

“So we got punched in the mouth and we kept responding. But how many times can you respond down six, down eight, down four, make a great play and then all the sudden a stupid turnover? Make a great play, and then give up a wide-open three.

“We deserved what we got; they deserves what they got. Do I think we’ll get better? Do I think we’ll get another chance to play them? I sure as hell hope so.”

That’s your little competitor, Michigan State. He’s a harsh guy, a friendly guy, a humble guy, a fighter guy, but I’m not sure we often see the competitiveness in him. But we did on this night. It wasn’t actually THAT important of a basketball game. But to Izzo, and the dread of having another L next to his name in this series with the sport’s all-time best, just drives him nuts.

Competitor. That’s a good thing.

And the Michigan State players? This morning, they're already over it, and eager to correct it.

“There’s disappointment because we gave the game away,” Bridges said. “We lost on effort-related stuff, turnovers, offensive rebound. That’s stuff that we can control.

“I mean we’re in November. So we’re still learning. Of course we wanted to win this game, but it’s just a learning block for us and we’re going to keep it moving.”

TWO QUESTIONS

1. Getting back to the first thing we learned: Is the rebounding problem going to continue to be a problem.

Nah.

But it is astonishing that Michigan State players didn’t find their men and erase them from the offensive glass. That’s middle school stuff, and Izzo’s teams usually prosper in those details.

2. Okay, why did Nick Ward play only 18 minutes?

He scored 19 points in those 18 minutes. The sophomore had similar stat lines during losses last year - lots of productivity in limited minutes.

So what’s the deal with that?

Paul Konyndyk and I discussed it in the V-Cast. It’s all about demanding quality control on the defensive end of the court. Ward struggled in ball screen defense, just like he did last year. That’s why he sat. If he's not going to learn, he has to hand over the keys to MSU's basketball dad.

Duke sent ball screens right at Ward and Cassius Winston for a pair of Trevon Duval lay-ups - the first of which tied the game at 61-61, and the second gave the Blue Devils a 63-62 lead.

If Ward didn't come out of the game, the isolations would have continued.

He had similar problems on Friday against North Florida. And similar problems last year, especially in the NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas. Improving Ward’s ball screen defense has been a major priority for the past eight months. Izzo would like to see some progress. Any day now.

We didn’t see progress on Tuesday night in Chicago. In the meantime, he didn’t do a great job on the boards, either. So Ward sat from the 8:35 mark (with Michigan State trailing by 3) until the 1:50 mark (with Michigan State trailing by 4.

I don't mean to rip on Ward. He's a great talent. Because he has all that talent and skill, much is expected from him in all areas of the game. MSU needs him to be a 25-minute badass at both ends of the court, not a 19-minute half-court chooser.

Michigan State might have had a better chance to win this game by letting Ward play more in the final 10 minutes of the game, giving him a chance to out-score his deficiencies. But that would have enabled his defensive problems. It would have been a form of acceptance. That's not how Izzo's program was built. That's how inconsistent crap programs are built.

When Ward sat, Jackson and Gavin Schilling had four fouls apiece. Izzo went with senior grad transfer Ben Carter.

Carter initially gave Michigan State a lift in the area of ball screen defense. He played angles well, got some deflections.

Did Izzo leave Carter in a little too long? Maybe so.

With the score tied at 75-75, and 3:20 remaining, Duke left Carter wide open, daring him to shoot from the right wing at about 12 feet. Carter hesitated, hesitated some more, probably wanting to make sure he wasn't over-stepping his bounds in his first crunch time minutes as a Spartan, and then missed the shot.

He is probably kicking himself today more than Izzo. He can make that shot in his sleep. He’s not Ethan Happ or Al Anagonye when it comes to shooting problems. He should have been able to make Duke pay for leaving him unguarded. But he didn’t. And Duke took the lead on the next trip and led the rest of the way.

But Carter did some good things. Izzo utilized him more than I expected. He’ll remain a threat to Ward’s minutes for the foreseeable future, which is a good way to get Ward to sharpen up.

Schilling played only six minutes, and accumulated four fouls. He was strong in those six minutes. He, too, will be an asset on most days.

I suspect this isn’t the last time this we’ll see the Ward issue get addressed in this manner. And make no mistake about it, if Michigan State wants to be a Final Four team, the Spartans need Ward to solve his ball screen defense slippage.

Bonus Question: Why the heck couldn’t Michigan State put a lid on Grayson Allen?

First of all, he’s good. He’s been good for awhile. Now he’s better. Like first-team All-American better.

And he’s benefitting from being off the ball, working as a true shooting guard with a good, new point guard in Trevon Duvall.

Allen scored a Champions Classic record 37 points on 11-of-20 shooting (breaking Denzel Valentine's record), including red-hot 7-of-11 shooting from 3-point range.

Any time Allen became open in a loose-ball situation, he seemed to can a 3-pointer.

And then there were a few times when he nailed high-difficulty shots, the type that would be classified as bad, ball-hog shots by almost any other player in America. But he has the green light to stop and pop from deep, without a conscience. He does it with quickness, good leaping ability and a 6-foot-5 frame - making it hard to get a hand in his face. And I thought Matt McQuaid did a pretty decent job of trailing him and contesting his shots, most of the time.

But Allen just got too hot, and Michigan State couldn’t cool him down.

Will Michigan State watch the film and work on the ability to get help for a defender the next time the Spartans begin to get torched by a heat-check chucker? Sure. Will it help? We don’t know.

McQuaid is a pretty good defender. Josh Langford can be a pretty good defender.

For Michigan State to achieve the accomplishments they seek this year, the Spartans will need better than “good” and “pretty good” in the defensive stopper category.

Right now, the Spartans don’t have a defensive stopper. But let the record show that Michigan State held Duke to 39 percent from the floor as a team. So there was some quality defense in there somewhere.

Overall, MSU played good team defense. The Spartans’ team defense can get better, if a perimeter stopper is developed.

As for Allen, Krzyzewski gushed about his senior scorer.

“I felt like I was coaching (J.J.) Redick,” Krzyzewski said. “With him, you keep calling plays for him. They work. Grayson was fantastic. Come on. He was not good, he was fantastic.”

So maybe we should give Langford and McQuaid a bit of a break.

“He (Allen) is not a good shooter,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a great shooter. And he’s a really good driver. He shoots an NBA three, easy. Grayson is a great shooter and then he is a really outstanding scorer. He needs to be a shooter first, then a scorer.”

That’s kind of what he did.

I’ve seen good defensive players take turns getting torched by great shooters during championship years at MSU. It happens.

One that comes to mind is the time Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell took turns allowing bombs to Indiana’s A.J. Guyton during a loss to the Hoosiers late in the 2000 National Championship season. In fact, that was the last game those Spartans ever lost. But the point is this: sometimes when a great shooter gets going in this sport, it’s just too hard to stop their flow. But Michigan State will study what they did, and how they could have done it better. The question is whether they will achieve improvement soon.

ONE PREDICTION:

1. It’s going to be a long, arduous process to get Bridges acclimated to playing small forward. The angles are different for him at this position. The rhythm, the balance, the players guarding him - it’s all different for Bridges, in comparison to the time he spent last year at the four.

There were times against Duke when things seemed awkward and forced when Bridges received a pass on the right wing, sized up the defense, and tried to make something happen. Teammates stood around and watched. He drove and made mistakes, or forced difficult shots.

Overall, he had a good game. Bridges scored 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting with five rebounds and four blocked shots. But he also had five turnovers.

When I asked him about how he felt he played. He said he felt he needed to be more aggressive than he was at the start of this game. And two, he said he can’t turn the ball over as much as he did. He said he went overboard at times.

I would agree with all of that. But that’s a strange balance to find: be more aggressive, but don’t go overboard as much.

In other words, he still has to find his way around the court in this offense as a small forward. Facing a surprising amount of zone defense didn’t help in the smoothing-out process.

We’ll continue to observe. Until further notice, I still think he’s a more effective player as a stretch four than a three. But this team needs him at the three, so there will be some roadkill along the way. It’s a necessary process.

Bonus Prediction: We'll see TumTum Nairn play more than 11 minutes in games going forward. He was a positive force for the team late in the first half. He finished with six assists in 11 minutes. He made a difference on offense. He's ready to regain more playing time.

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