Coming off the thrilling, if not somewhat controversial 72-68 loss to Indiana on Tuesday night, the Spartans look to regroup before hitting the road for Ohio St. on Sunday. The Indiana loss, which easily could’ve been a Spartan “W”, makes the Ohio St. game practically a “must win” if MSU wants to play for the Big Ten title in the season’s final week. Earlier this month, Tom Izzo told Spartan Nation that avoiding “those 3 and 4 game losing streaks” was paramount to staying in the Big Ten race.
It’s also that time of year to look at potential NCAA seedings, keeping in mind the distinct advantage to be gained if you’re a 2-seed or better. There may not be that much of a difference between a 1 and 2-seed, but there is between a number 2 and number 3 slot. Regardless of MSU’s eventual seeding, Tom Izzo believes they’re already well prepared to compete. “We’ve (already) played 5 or 6 teams in the Big Ten that were ranked in the top 10 or 12 when we’ve played them.”
When Indiana completed a 7-point swing in the last 1:25 Tuesday night, they inked the sweep of MSU, and clearly established themselves as the top team in the Big Ten and entire country right now. Earlier in the week, Tom Izzo praised the Hoosiers as “the premier team in this league the whole season.” The race isn’t all over, but the Spartans will need some serious help from here to win the league. Before they can worry too much about tournament seeding or bumping into Indiana again, they’ll need to get Captain Keith Appling back on track.
Appling had a nightmarish Tuesday night for the Spartans. Their best closer never got it going, then missed from the Foul Line on the front end of a 1 and 1 that would’ve put the Spartans up 69-66 with 1:09 left to play. Appling’s stat line of 1-8 from the field, 0-4 from “3”, and just 4-7 from the Foul Line, will stick with him and hopefully drive him to an outstanding finish in 2013.
Tuesday he looked tight as he went up for shots early, later missed a few 3-pointers that could’ve turned his night, and then of course ended it with the miss from the line, before feeling Victor Oladipo fly behind him to convert the go-ahead rebound. Appling knows Tuesday wasn’t his night, but also that he’s done it before in big games, and will again be counted on to deliver in crunch time rather soon.
“We’re not as good defensively or at rebounding as most of our teams have been, but we’re not bad,” Tom Izzo recently summed up. Yet, if this team can defend when it’s needed most, and can get the key boards they have to have, a deep run into March is once again possible. Tuesday night, that didn’t happen. The Spartans let the best player in the league and country, Victor Oladipo, go up and get the decisive rebound-tap in to put IU up 68-67.
Oladipo never should’ve gotten past Denzel Valentine to slip behind Appling with enough space to make that leap. MSU would’ve practically been better off hip checking him into the third row. There’s no need to reset how “back in the day…” Raymar Morgan, Antonio Smith, or someone else would’ve eliminated Oladipo from contending for that rebound, but there is an immediate point to be made that this team must sharpen their focus on the glass when it matters most.
“They have a different team than they’ve had in the past…(but)not a shortage of talent,” Purdue’s Matt Painter said earlier this week. “(They’re) not as good as they’ve been rebounding.” Other teams surely realize that too, but the tide could come back a bit with the emergence of big man Matt Costello. “He’s starting to be an integral part,” Izzo told us earlier this week, before Costello made his biggest impact to date during the Spartans best stretch against Indiana. Costello’s role will likely increase as conference merges into tournament time. Before then, the Spartans will again be tested to go get some rebounds they cannot afford to lose.
This strong Freshmen class needs to keep improving if the Spartans are to keep improving. “They’ve been a big part of us winning, our resurgence, and why we’ve gotten a little better every game,” Izzo explained. Costello’s contributions are rather fresh, but Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine are becoming used to playing key minutes, though as they were reminded Tuesday night, things don’t always go your way.
“Gary Harris is such a complete player,” Izzo laid out. “So intelligent…and so gifted Defensively. Offensively, he’s been better than I thought he could be.” Valentine’s best attribute is probably his versatility. “He’s gotten better…we’ve asked him to do different things (playing positions 1 through 3 on the floor),” Izzo said prior to the Indiana game that found both Freshmen right in the thick of it late. Valentine will learn from the Oladipo tip in on his watch, just as Harris’ experience at the end of the game should pay big dividends in the future.
Harris was fouled driving towards the basket as the clock dropped below 20 seconds, but a whistle was nowhere to be found. Then as the Spartans needed a 3 to tie in the game’s final seconds, Harris was savvy enough to go up for a shot and create enough contact for a whistle to suddenly appear. To most who watched the game, the Officials had those two calls backwards. They weren’t the only head scratchers of the night though.
With three foul shots to tie, Harris looked to be thinking about just that as he prepared to let the first one go. It ultimately missed, and practically ended the Spartans hopes at an Overtime result to match the legendary one in Breslin 13 years ago. Harris and Valentine won’t be expected to sulk long over their tough ending Tuesday night, however, and should have plenty of opportunities to come through in the clutch later this year.
Though Indiana blanked them in the regular season, all is far from lost for this growing Spartan team. Izzo still really likes what he’s got. “We have a little more balance,” he believes. “We have more diversity as far as inside-outside…and we can be very athletic with Dawson, Payne, Appling, and Harris.” Now compared to early on this year, he’s getting scoring contributions from all over the court. “We have five guys in double figures.”
The Spartans only play twice in the next 15 days. After they travel to Columbus Sunday, they’ll have an entire week to rest, practice, study, and prepare for their trip to Ann Arbor. By then, the Big Ten race will probably have a firmer shape at the top, and Izzo should have his Spartans rounding in their traditional March form.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind
- Dan Dakich is the best analyst to hit ESPN since Jay Bilas. He knows the game, the Big Ten, and has an entertaining style of his own. Hopefully they won’t ruin or muzzle him down. And now that Bob Knight is just about done with ESPN, he’d make a natural fit in a special role with the Big Ten Network.
- Tuesday was a low point for College Basketball Officiating, as Dakich himself pointed out after the game’s end. The season’s marquee regular season matchup was tainted by a handful of whacky whistles, make up whistles, and all that’s since developed in the Derrick Nix-Cody Zeller incident. As the casual fan might have looked at his second or third game of the year, he saw borderline striped chaos taking place. Some take the easy cop-out and say “that’s just part of College Ball, what are you going to do.” But too often nowadays, the casual fan replies, “go watch something else until March.”
- Some knew Victor Oladipo was the best and most exciting player in College Basketball before he made the big national splash Tuesday night, now the rest have seen the light. To pinpoint the reason he’s become so dominant, you’d have to consider his unique combination of agility, explosiveness, and basketball intelligence. “His motor is off the charts,” Tom Izzo told us earlier this week. That motor’s got a lot of high octane parts working for it.