Night Line: Spartans Find Their Offense, Rebound With Huge Win Over KansasPosted by EJacoby on November 13th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @EJacobyRTC on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
With the departure of first team All-American and do-it-all superstar Draymond Green from this year’s Michigan State roster, the Spartans figured to take a new offensive approach this season away from the high post, Draymond-centric attack they featured last year. What they didn’t expect was a surprising season-opening loss to depleted Connecticut last Friday in which they shot just 37.5% from the field. Tuesday night presented another massive challenge in defending national runner-up Kansas, and Tom Izzo’s team found a way to change the narrative by converting 52.1% of their field goals and defeating the Jayhawks, 67-64, in the Champions Classic in Atlanta. In the process, Michigan State found a new go-to offensive player in Gary Harris and a clutch late-game playmaker with Keith Appling. Replacing the versatile Green isn’t an easy task, but this year’s Spartans team learned a lot about its potential to do so with the impressive offensive performance on Tuesday night.
The Spartans couldn’t have looked any different in their first two tilts of a five-day stretch to open this season. A trip to Germany to play in an aircraft hangar might have something to do with that. A Hall of Fame head coach with an understanding of how to make quick adjustments might, too. Izzo understood that his team struggled to score in the 66-62 loss to Connecticut to open the season, and it needed better production from the players expected to carry this team offensively. The freshman Harris played tentatively with a “deer in the headlights” look in the season opener, according to Izzo, en route to a 4-for-13 shooting night for 11 points. Harris was much more assertive from the get-go on Tuesday, looking to score early and often with smooth moves to the hoop and a soft touch from the perimeter, and he finished with 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting. Harris was aggressive and productive in attacking Kansas’ guards, so much so that the Jayhawks switched their top defensive player, Travis Releford, to guard Harris in the second half. Nonetheless the frosh still found ways to score without forcing the issue.
Only his teammate Appling topped Harris in the scoring department on this night, with the junior lead guard dropping 16 of his game-high 19 points in the second half. Appling provided the game-saving daggers, knocking down a deep three-pointer with 1:38 remaining to extend Sparty’s lead to four before converting an incredible layup with 16 seconds to play that sealed the victory. Where Michigan State looked out of sorts down the stretch in its season opener, the Spartans found out on Tuesday that they can trust Appling with the ball in the clutch. When he was given space from the perimeter, he confidently stepped into his deep shot attempts. And in the crucial last-minute possession in which KU center Jeff Withey got caught on a switch, Appling made the smart decision to attack the seven-footer off the dribble rather than fire a long three with the space he was given. The result? An acrobatic lay-in that gave Michigan State a three-point lead with seconds to play and its first win of this young season.
With the strong combination of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne down low, the uber-athletic emerging star Branden Dawson on the wing, and a new crew of reserves that coach Izzo will teach up, the Spartans will once again be a force on the defensive end. Even the 6’1” Appling is a plus-defender on the perimeter and Harris has high school McDonald’s All-American pedigree with good size for a guard. It’s the new-look offensive strategy that needs time to reach the up-tempo, high scoring attack that coach Izzo envisions with this group. If Tuesday night was any indication, the Spartans might have the weapons necessary to achieve that offensive efficiency and another nationally contending squad, contrary to the Spartans’ poor showing out in Germany over the weekend.