Michigan State Frontcourt Finding Itself Ahead of Crucial Stretch

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 25th, 2014

Michigan State’s narrow victory against Navy in its season opener raised a few serious concerns for Spartans fans, not the least of which was the team’s frontcourt play outside of Branden Dawson. Not only did forwards Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling combine for just 10 points in that win, but the Midshipmen found surprising offensive success near the basket, unearthing countless easy looks on their way to 56 percent shooting inside the arc. After showing some positive flashes in a loss to Duke, however, and playing markedly better against Loyola (Chicago) in its home opener, the Michigan State big men seem to be taking incremental steps in the right direction. On Monday night, in a 79-52 victory over Santa Clara – an evening in which Dawson was sidelined with the flu – those small steps turned into even bigger strides, as Schilling, Costello and Dawson-fill-in Marvin Clark Jr. demonstrated a level of assertiveness and production that was largely missing 10 days ago. With the Spartans’ most crucial week of non-conference play looming just ahead, it’s a sign of improvement that may have come in the nick of time.

Michigan State's Gavin Schilling had a big night against Santa Clara on Monday. (Photo: Mike Carter, Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan State’s Gavin Schilling had a big night against Santa Clara on Monday. (Photo: Mike Carter, Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Izzo mentioned the 6’9’’ Schilling as a possible breakout player before the season began, and he fully looked the part – in terms of production, aggression and physique. After playing somewhat tentatively against Navy, Schilling was at times dominant against the smaller Broncos, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and securing 11 rebounds in just 18 minutes on the court – his first career double-double. “He’s so strong and athletic… he’s got a nice jump-hook, he can use both hands,” Izzo said of the big man afterwards. Interestingly, Schilling’s outing was statistically similar to Costello’s night against Loyola, wherein the junior scored a career-high 13 points and notched 11 boards. While he didn’t near that scoring production against Santa Clara, tallying just two points, Costello did log nine rebounds and a pair of blocks, at times demonstrating the same ball-commanding assertiveness he did against the Ramblers (and subsequently earning three trips to the free throw line). More importantly, both he and Schilling were defensive enforcers in the paint, helping limit Santa Clara to a 32 percent two-point shooting mark that would have been even lower if not for a few late buckets. Likewise, the pair combined for 13 of the team’s 21 offensive rebounds, keeping possessions alive and enabling Michigan State to put the game away early. “Costello and Schilling have been bright spots,” Izzo put simply after the game.

Yet, the night’s most encouraging frontcourt performance may not have come from the five-spot at all, as freshman wing Marvin Clark Jr., who – playing in Dawson’s place, but not necessarily playing like Dawson – doubled-down on his nice outing last Friday by scoring 15 points, blocking eight shots and demonstrating intriguing range and athleticism. If he can be even close to that good going forward, Izzo might have more depth and versatility than he once figured, even with small forward Javon Bess still out with a foot injury.

This improved frontcourt play – especially from Schilling and Costello – may be coming at one of the most critical points of the season for Michigan State, even if it is only November. After missing out on an opportunity against Duke, Izzo’s club now finds itself quietly starving for quality non-conference wins with only a few opportunities remaining – all of which come within the next seven days. In this weekend’s Orlando Classic, Michigan State (assuming it beats Rider) gets either Marquette or Georgia Tech before possibly meeting Kansas in the championship game. The Jayhawks and Rhode Island, in fact, might wind up being the only tournament-caliber opponents in the field, so the Spartans’ performance in the third game of the event looms large. It’s then off to South Bend on December 3 to play Notre Dame in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, after which the schedule provides nothing of note until Big Ten play: Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Oakland, Eastern Michigan, Texas Southern and The Citadel.

Luckily, the team appears up to the challenge, seemingly hitting its stride at the right time. Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Dawson will continue to lead the way as far as offensive production and leadership goes, but the work of the supporting cast – again, especially Costello and Schilling, who could wind up facing Kansas’ talented bigs – might be the difference between an impressive non-conference body of work and an empty first two months of the season. Izzo seemed to recognize this fact, in so many words: “We got to get through next Wednesday. We just have to keep chugging along.”

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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