Four Thoughts on Michigan State vs. Kansas…Posted by jnowak on November 14th, 2012
With a 67-64 win against No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic in Atlanta on Tuesday night, No. 8 Michigan State avoided starting consecutive seasons 0-2 for the first time since the first two years of Spartan basketball (1899 and 1900). Now, after a grueling five days that included two games on a national stage — on Friday at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany and Tuesday at the Georgia Dome — the Spartans can settle in to a more manageable non-conference slate with a 1-1 start. There’s plenty to feel good about with this group of Spartans, but still some early-season concerns. Here are a few thoughts from Tuesday night’s game:
- Keith Appling might just be ready to lead — In more ways than one, perhaps. The Spartans desperately need a go-to scorer, and they desperately need a leader this season after the departure of Draymond Green. Appling showed on Tuesday that he can be both, turning in a game-high 19 points — including a late 3-pointer that appeared to be the dagger, and then a beautiful drive-and-scoop off the glass that ultimately was — and taking control of the game when the Spartans needed leadership. Appling had a realization of sorts after the UConn game that the offense was going to have to run through him this season. It can be a difficult thing to harness, particularly since he’ll be shifting between the one and two when Travis Trice is healthy and in the rotation, and because the Spartans want to run the fast break but also have a wealth of half-court sets. But Appling’s ability to shoot the ball presented itself on Tuesday (6-for-9 from the field and 3-for-3 from deep) and he turned the ball over just twice in 38 minutes. But most importantly, those shots came in crunch time. The Spartans needed big baskets a couple times against Connecticut and never got them. Tuesday, Michigan State’s go-to scorer obliged.
- Branden Dawson is back — And better than ever? This may seem hard to believe, but the sophomore wing not only appears to have fully recovered almost miraculously from a torn ACL suffered this spring, but he seems even more explosive than he was before. Tom Izzo has said this summer and fall that he’s repeatedly been bewildered by Dawson’s progress, and fans are starting to see why. It was clear last season that Dawson would make his hay as a scrappy player, getting his points on putbacks and offensive rebounds, thriving on the fast break and putting his elite athleticism to good use. But even after knee surgery, he’s as explosive as ever, with a great nose for the ball around the basket and a real threat on both ends of the floor. The Spartans haven’t had a complete athlete like this on the wing probably since Shannon Brown, and Dawson is giving fans a glimpse of what many hoped Durrell Summers would bring on a regular basis. If Dawson can refine his jump shot, he presents a tremendously difficult match-up problem for teams when he plays the four.
- Gary Harris is ahead of his time — Izzo has been saying that Harris is a freshman who has traits of an upperclassmen — the coach loves Harris’ defensive acumen, which is usually a good litmus test — but the former McDonald’s All-American played even better in his encore on Tuesday than in his debut from Friday night. Harris had a sturdy 11 points against UConn in Germany, but matched that total in the first half on Tuesday. On the plus side, he finished with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, but on the other hand, he turned the ball over four times and pulled down just one rebound. Kansas’ backcourt posed a problem at times for the Spartans’ guards and Harris has plenty to build on, but his aggressiveness and authority around the basket (not to mention his body control going up against the Jayhawks’ tall trees inside) were great signs for someone with as little big-game experience as Harris has.
- Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne are still working out some kinks — The two-headed monster that turned into Derrick Payne or Adreian Nix — depending on your perspective — emerged last year as a formidable frontcourt threat because of their differing qualities. But with the two of them taking on more featured roles, and with Izzo looking for them to share the floor at times this year, they’re still working out some growing pains. Nix has lost an incredible amount of weight since he enrolled at Michigan State, and looks better than ever now in his senior year. It’s evident in his leaping ability, but he still struggles sometimes to catch up to the play and can be found flubbing rebounds or sharp passes from guards. And now, as a captain, he tends to over-compensate and take on more of a load in the way that Green did last season. Nix has fine footwork for a man of his size, and really does have good passing ability, but the moment he tries to do too much is when he ends up doing too little. As for Payne, he has supreme athleticism but foul trouble (four on Tuesday and three on Friday) have slowed his production and he’s also shown flashes of confusion on the defensive end and adjusting to a larger role in the rotation. With Alex Gauna and Russell Byrd slow on the uptake at the four, there’s a chance we’ll be seeing plenty more of Nix and Payne. With these two quality opponents behind them, they’ll have some good chances to work out the kinks.