Illinois continued their winning ways yesterday in East Lansing, winning their third straight game, two of which were on the road. They have found their recent success because of their stellar defense; Michigan State was the fourth straight team they held below 50 points.
Michigan State finally has everyone playing, but they continue to struggle. They lost their second straight and six of their last 10. With not much time left before the NCAA Tournament, the pressure is building.
Izzo, once again, seemed disappointed with his team’s effort, “…I thought our energy level was at an all-time worst.” He went on to say, “It seemed like everything came to a head and we just didn’t have any juice. This is a very disappointing loss. We tried to practice that way, but we sure didn’t play that way.” Illinois coach, John Groce, was feeling pretty good after the surprising win, “We feel blessed certainly to get out of here with a win.”
Gary Can’t Do Everything
Gary Harris seemed to be the only player that came to play for the Spartans. On a team loaded with stars, he was the only one that gave a star effort. Harris scored 19 points, snagged 5 rebounds, and ripped away 4 steals. Not to mention, he chipped in a block and an assist. Harris was the only starter without a turnover. He made 5 three’s, and shot 50% from beyond the arc, the rest of the team went a combined 1-8 from three. Harris was the only player to score more than 7 points for the Spartans. Obviously, Gary Harris needs more help if this team is going to achieve what they hope to come Tournament time.
Although I thought Harris was great, Izzo didn’t necessarily agree, “I thought (Gary) Harris early on was one of the best players because he guarded and did some things. After that, he had a complete meltdown.”
Illinois Stifling Defense
Illinois has been on a defensive tear lately. They have held their last 4 opponents below 50 points; the Spartans scored 46 and have a season average of 76.2. Let’s be honest, 46 points at home isn’t going to cut it no matter who you play. It may be great defense, but even when they weren’t being guarded at the free throw line the Spartans were bad, going 4-11.
Illinois held the Spartans to under 40% shooting from the floor. They forced 16 turnovers by Michigan State, and were able to pick away 14 steals. It was an unbelievable defensive performance against a usually solid Spartan club. Groce said of his team’s defensive performance after the game, “The guys in our locker room and their effort, I thought their toughness on the defensive end has obviously been very consistent for several games.”
Illinois was able to hold Appling to just 5 points, but even more surprising was their ability to hold Payne to his season low, 4 points. Payne only attempted 5 shots in the game, he was doubled every time he touched the ball and forced to pass out of it. It clearly confused the senior center; he coughed up 4 turnovers in the game, an inexcusable number for a center. Izzo said of Payne, “I really can’t explain. They started doubling him early – big deal. We made some adjustments in the second half. We got layups. Adreian (Payne) had no energy today.”
Both Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams had 5 steals in the game, something Groce was proud of afterwards, “It’s not very often when you play a game that you have two different players with five or more steals in the game like Ray (Rice) and Tracey (Abrams) did. I thought that their hands were really active and I thought that they competed and played hard. Right now, I think the strength of our defense is the fact that we’re playing as a team on that end of the floor.”
Groce also spoke on his team’s recent success on the defensive end, “I think we’ve got a team right now that values that end of the floor. I think our upperclassman have done a great job of leading by example in that area. When you put on that jersey, we have expectations that everyone will contribute defensively and rebounding the ball. Certainly, that’s helped, but I think experience and repetition has helped.”
When you turn the ball over like Michigan State did, you can say it was good defense, but it also has to be bad offense. The Spartans had three starters with 4+ turnovers: Valentine, Appling, and Payne. The Spartans are one of the national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio, “For the most part, I think our assist-to-turnover ratio has been pretty good and today it was a joke.” It may have been a joke, but it wasn’t very funny to watch the Spartans have just 12 assists to go along with their 16 turnovers.
Denzel Valentine has struggled with turnovers throughout his career and seemed to revert back in that area against Illinois. He was careless with the ball and Izzo wasn’t too happy with his 5 turnover performance, “I’ve never seen Denzel (Valentine) throw the ball around like that. Maybe I should go back to treating him the way I used to treat him.” Izzo hates all the turnovers because he knows they can lead to easy buckets, something his teams thrive off of. However, Illinois got the better of them in that category yesterday, they had 25 points off of turnovers, “Well, I thought they defended very well, which they’ve been doing. They turned us over very much and go layups, you know, turnovers for touchdowns” Izzo said.
It was a game that Michigan State trailed most of the way, but most fans still believed they would pull it out. This team has a knack for winning tough, close games late. In the second half it looked like the Spartans were about to take control of the game on their home floor after Harris made a three with 9:54 left to pull within 3. The next possession Gary Harris made a steal for what seemed like a break-away dunk, but the officials called a shot clock violation first. Izzo was furious, he yelled at the refs, pounded the scorer’s table, and yelled at the refs some more. His team didn’t respond well after the questionable call. Even though Michigan State forced the turnover, it seemed like momentum swung Illinois’ way. On the Spartans preceding possession, Rayvonte Rice stole it away from Adreian Payne. Illinois came down and made a three pointer, expanding the lead to 6. After Dawson missed a jumper on the other end, Illinois was able to score another basket and make it an 8 point game with less than 8 minutes to go. The Spartans never came back within 4.
After the game, Izzo was asked about the questionable shot clock violation call, “In the second half, there were a lot of things I didn’t like, but in no way, shape, or form will any referee get to take any credit for why we lost that game. We lost that game because we didn’t play the way a Michigan State Spartan team is supposed to play.”
Izzo talked about Appling’s lack of effectiveness on the offensive end, “So we had no break. That’s where Keith’s effective. He’s not effective in the half court. He’s getting better. He actually had a pretty good week in practice compared to the weeks before that. Compared to how he was playing at the beginning of Big Ten season, he’s not there, so some of that is not confidence, he just can’t do it. As the weeks go on, I think his wrist is pretty good now. He just needs rep after rep. He’s been working on his shot, he really has. It’s going to take some time.” Izzo is sticking by Appling, and loves his leadership, competiveness, and defensive effort. It doesn’t look like Izzo plans on sitting Appling until tournament time, despite the rumor that has spread like wildflower. To me, Appling looked much better in yesterday’s game. He still couldn’t shoot the ball and seemed to refuse to shoot, it may be injury or it may be lack of confidence. Appling has struggled with confidence before in the past. Despite his struggles shooting, Appling looked much more aggressive driving the ball. With his ability to penetrate the lane, it makes Harris’ job easier to make open jumpers along the perimeter.
Michigan State will host 20 Iowa on March 6, and then travel to 22 Ohio State to finish the Big Ten regular season. The home loss to Illinois looks to all but end any chance of Michigan State receiving a share of the Big Ten title. With the next couple games against ranked opponents, the Spartans hope to shape into peak form for the NCAA Tournament.