Michigan State Grows Stronger Ahead of Selection Sunday

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2016

Tom Izzo’s disappointment in the first half against Ohio State on Friday might be the best indication yet of just how well his Spartans are playing. Less than a week after beating the Buckeyes in East Lansing, Michigan State controlled the opening 20 minutes from start to finish, taking a seven-point lead into the locker room and holding its bubble-bound opponent to just 26 points on 27 shots. “I thought we got off to a bit of a sluggish start,” Izzo said. “We didn’t feel like we were in sync the whole first half.” His team went on to dominate, of course, winning by 27 points and completing a three-game season sweep of the Buckeyes by an average margin of 20.3 PPG. The victory was more than just a necessary step toward a Big Ten Tournament title, though. On a night when the threes weren’t falling, Michigan State – in one of its best defensive performances of the year – took an important stride toward invulnerability heading into the NCAA Tournament.

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue improving. (http://247sports.com/)

Denzel Valentine and the Spartans continue to get better. (http://247sports.com/)

Guard Bryn Forbes entered Friday as the nation’s best individual three-point shooter on the nation’s best three-point shooting team, having knocked down more than 50 percent of his 200 attempts from behind the arc. On nights that he and Denzel Valentine (a top 50 three-point shooter in his own right) get hot, Michigan State is incredibly difficult to beat. Friday was not one of those nights; the Spartans shot just 8-of-23 on three-point field goals, and Forbes never got going. For Izzo, it could not have worked out any better. “The best thing that happened was Bryn struggled, best thing for our future, because we had to learn to play without,” he said. Instead of blowing out the Buckeyes with lights-out perimeter shooting, the #2 seeded Spartans blew them out by pounding the glass and finding easy looks inside. Already a top 20 offensive and defensive rebounding team, Michigan State ripped down 14 offensive boards (41.2% OReb) and prevented many Ohio State second-chances on the other end. To score, the Spartans used a combination of high-percentage transition looks, easy put-backs and well-run set plays to blow open the lead after halftime, opening the final 20 minutes on a 14-2 run and never looking back. Spartan big men Deyonta Davis, Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling complemented Valentine’s predictably excellent play by combining for 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Junior guard Eron Harris, playing in his hometown for the first time since high school, poured in 13 points of his own. College basketball’s most efficient offense was as efficient as ever (1.27 points per possession), even without its usual perimeter prowess.

And then there was the defense. Michigan State held the Buckeyes to 0.84 point per possession on 42.6 percent field goal shooting, including an ugly 1-of-11 mark from behind the arc. In one fell swoop, the Spartans improved their national defensive efficiency ranking from 30th to 22nd, the result of both relentlessly swarming the paint and consistently stepping out on shooters: “They play with pressure, but they’re packed in,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said after the game. When Izzo’s crew pairs that kind of defensive intensity with its already-lethal offensive attack, there may not be a ceiling in sight. “I have had the pleasure of coaching some of the best teams that have come through here in 12 years,” Matta said. “And I think that team right there is one of the best that I have seen.”

And maybe that’s the larger takeaway from Friday’s beatdown. Michigan State’s status as a Final Four contender has been evident all season, especially with a National Player of the Year candidate like Valentine leading the way. But when a team starts fortifying virtually every aspect of its game, when “finding ways to win” on subpar shooting nights becomes “finding ways to blow out” NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents, then you start talking about titles – particularly when that peak happens in March. “Our goal, when we got here, was to win a National Championship,” Valentine said. “We have the perfect team, I think, to do it this year.” Perfection may be a stretch, but the Spartans’ continued improvement near the end of the season certainly makes their national title hopes as legitimate as any team in college basketball.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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