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.