Five things we learned about Michigan State

There is no doubt Michigan State is one of the top teams throughout college basketball this season. But that dosen’t mean there weren’t plenty of questions surrounding the Spartans heading into this season. Who would fill the role of departed center Derrick Nix? Will either of the two freshmen make an impact? How will the new rules implemented play into the way Tom Izzo wants to play defensively?

We got plenty of answers Tuesday night, so let’s go ahead and list five things we learned about the Spartans following their 78-74 victory over Kentucky.

[ MORE: Despite what Spartans say, this win meant something ]

1. Keith Appling is ready for a breakout senior season

Keith Appling is not a guy who is going to create a stir about not receiving many preseason accoldates. The Spartans’ soft-spoken point guard just goes about his business and works at perfecting his craft one day at a time. But it may be challenging to find another player throughout the Big Ten who has improved as much as Appling has from last season to this one.

The Spartans’ senior guard was outstanding Tuesday night, scoring a team-high 22 points, while dishing out eight assists and grabbing eight rebounds. He was all over the court, directing an offense that is loaded with scoring power from top to bottom. But when it was Appling’s turn to score, he did so, shooting 8-of-14 from the field and hitting all four of his free-throw attempts in crunch time.

Gary Harris and Adreian Payne are the stars of this team, but it may be time to start including Appling’s name in that conversation as well.

2. The Spartans can win games, even if they are out-rebounded.

It’s very rare that you see a Tom Izzo-coached team get out-rebounded, but that’s exactly what happened Tuesday night at the United Center. The Wildcats out-rebounded MSU by a 44-32 margin, 18 of which came on the offensive end. When Izzo was asked about that he replied, “I don’t ever like to get out-rebounded, but now is a good time to bring the pads back to practice.”

Knowing that MSU can get out-rebounded and still win a game has to be a reassuring sign for the Spartans. Julius Randle was a force on the boards for Kentucky, pulling down a game-high 13 boards in the Wildcats loss. But there is no Julis Randle in the Big Ten. That is a fact.

[ MORE: 5 Great Sights from Tuesday's Champions Classic ]

3. As impressive at the Spartans were on the offensive end, they were even more impressive on defense.

You know the old saying of “defense wins championships,” right? Well if that’s the case, Tom Izzo’s club has a great chance at cutting down the nets in April. The Spartans were beyond impressive on the defensive side of the ball, holding Kentucky to just 20 percent shooting from 3-point range and not allowing big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson to get any type of rhythm going down low.

Perhaps even more impressive was the turnover margin in this contest. The Spartans had 13 steals in the game and committed just seven turnovers. On the other side, MSU forced 17 turnovers and Kentucky recorded just one steal in the game.

4. The Spartans can play fast. Very fast.

Heading into the season, one of the top questions facing Tom Izzo was how fast his team would play, now featuring a quicker lineup with the departure of Derrick Nix. Well, if Tuesday night was any indication, Izzo plans to play pretty darn fast this year. Just how fast? The Spartans had 21 points off fast breaks tonight, compared to Kentucky, which had just two points. MSU also had 18 points off of turnovers, while Kentkucky had just nine.

Wasn’t this Kentucky team supposed to be the most athletic group of players in the country?

“They beat us in what we do well, “said Izzo when asked about being out-rebounded. “But hey, we beat them in what they do well too.”

5. The Spartans are a legitimate National Title contender.

We knew Tom Izzo’s club was talented. We knew the Spartans were loaded with experience, returning four starters from last season’s 27-9 team. But the big question was how would MSU respond playing against a team featuring what many consider to be “the most talented group of freshmen ever assembled in college basketball?”

Kentucky gave Michigan State everything they had. But for every punch the Wildcats threw, the Spartans were there to answer with a punch of their own… And then some.

This is a Kentucky team that will be scary-good come March, but so will the Spartans. And if we know anything about Izzo, it is that he always gets his team to play their best basketball at the right time of the year.

About Sean Merriman BTN.com web editor Sean Merriman covers football and men’s basketball and provides original content for BTN.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BTNSean.

Originally from Farmington Hills, MI, I have worked at the Big Ten Network since 2012 and took over my role as web editor and blogger in August, 2013. Follow me on twitter for constant Big Ten updates @srmerriman. Thanks and enjoy!!

9 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (9 Comments)
Steven on 11/13/2013 @ 1:58am EDT Said:

I disagree about Keith Appling
He doesnt get his guys the ball.
He will be the sole reason why this team will not win a Championship.
I dont know why Denzel Valentine is not the point guard. DZ is the key.
Not sure why Izzo doesnt see that.

jordanvandyk11 on 11/13/2013 @ 2:07am EDT Said:

To be fair, Appling was the best player for MSU last year until his shoulder issue began. He was shooting around 45% from 3 early in the season.

Joshua on 11/13/2013 @ 9:27am EDT Said:

Appling has been great so far this year, if anything he’s pass first more so this year than any other time. I know it’s early but if we get this type of performance on a consistent basis and the schedule we play this year tell me where our first loss will be and say it with a straight face.

Eric Dunckel on 11/13/2013 @ 9:39am EDT Said:

To Steve…doesn’t get his teammates the ball…he had 8 assist and so far this season through four games I believe he has over 30, with less then 8 turnovers…don’t think you are correct on this one, Izzo’s system thrives on ball reversal and post entry from the wings, how is he suppossed to get his teammates the ball? I think Appling is a key for Izzo and MSU this season…open your eyes a litte bit! I will agree that I would like to see Denzel at the point a bit more, but you are way off on Appling!

Doug on 11/13/2013 @ 9:39am EDT Said:

Steven, did you watch the game? Appling was the man and while I like Valentine, he did not play so well.

Nick on 11/13/2013 @ 9:41am EDT Said:

8 assists is not getting his players the ball? He was the man of the night in the 2nd half for MSU. Sometimes he will have to take over games like he did at the end.

mistate80 on 11/13/2013 @ 10:24am EDT Said:

uh, Appling had almost as many assists last night as KY had as a team. Valentine still plays too much street ball, making the eye popping pass and then having several instances where he goes up in the air with nowhere to go with the ball.

Spartan in Los Angeles on 11/13/2013 @ 2:01pm EDT Said:

Doug , I have it on good authority that you are right regarding Appling and Valentine.

Spartan in Los Angeles on 11/13/2013 @ 2:08pm EDT Said:

To be the best you got to beat the best Doug you got to kick down that door and enter the Lions den with a spear in your hand screaming where is the son of a beach

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