Michigan State’s Loss to North Carolina: Three Questions Sparty Must AnswerPosted by Brendan Brody on December 5th, 2013
Michigan State’s run as the number one team in the land is likely over after losing convincingly to North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Wednesday night. The Spartans went down 79-65 in a game in which they were outrebounded, outhustled, and just generally beaten down by the enigmatic Tar Heels. While not an excuse, the Spartans’ three best players all suffered some sort of ailment in the contest, as Gary Harris tweaked his injured ankle, Keith Appling suffered a hip pointer from a nasty spill, and Adreian Payne had a muscle cramp that he couldn’t shake. But nobody else stepped up, as the team shot only 35.9 percent from the field, allowed the Tar Heels to score 1.09 points per possession, and were whipped on the defensive glass (UNC grabbed 39 percent of its offensive rebounding opportunities). None of this will happen to Tom Izzo’s team very often as the season plays out. To answer the titular question, though, the loss isn’t all that meaningful in that it was to a team that very well may spend a good portion of the season in the Top 25. But questions remain that Michigan State will have to answer if it is really to prove that it is a serious national title contender. Here are three in particular.
- Does Michigan State have the depth it needs to contend for a national title? This game would have been the perfect opportunity for someone like Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, or Denzel Valentine to take over, but it didn’t happen. Dawson was silent to the tune of scoring only two points and more importantly grabbing only three rebounds. Trice had five steals, but along with only two assists and four turnovers. Valentine shot 1-of-4 from the field and didn’t do anything else to make an impact. If your three best players are struggling with injuries or just off nights, someone else has to come through and none of these likely candidates stepped up. This team is built on the big three of Harris, Payne and Appling, a trio that might be the best group in terms of combined talent and experience of any team in the country, but the others will have to contribute more consistently if Sparty is to reach the final weekend of the season.
- Is Michigan State going to struggle against teams with length? The instant rebuttal to this statement would be… well, they beat Kentucky, didn’t they? That they did, but Kentucky’s front line actually isn’t as tall and rangy as North Carolina. In looking at Big Ten teams that are similar in size, you have to wonder if the Tar Heels gave some other teams like Indiana and Iowa the blueprint for how to beat them. Roy Williams’ team used its interior height to dominate the glass, which is something that those teams also have available. Dawson is an outstanding rebounder, but he only stands at 6’6″. If he’s playing the four, he might encounter similar problems trying to rebound against teams with great length among the frontcourt. That leaves Izzo having to play Matt Costello or Gavin Schilling extended minutes, not an ideal situation especially in the case of Schilling.
- Can Michigan State score efficiently in the half-court if they aren’t able to score in transition? The Tar Heels did a great job keeping Appling under wraps, using a second defender to box him in at the top of the key and not let him drive and dish. This led to a half-court offense that consisted mainly of launching contested jumpers instead of getting the easy dunks and layups Sparty gets when it can run. Harris is not going to shoot 28 percent from three all year, and he was getting some open looks, but the team needs to work on its half-court execution when it can’t get its running game going.
All told, one loss is one loss. The Spartans won’t really be tested again until they square off against Penn State to open league play on December 31, so there’s plenty of time for Tom Izzo to get back to the drawing board and work toward answering some of the above questions. This is not really the time to panic, but it also should open up some eyes in East Lansing that this team still has a ways to go if they expect to make a deep run next March.