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.
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.
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.|