Travis Trice is used to bouncing back. Three years ago, in his first season at Michigan State, he missed time with a sprained ankle. The following summer a mysterious virus in his brain cast a cloud over his playing career and life; the next winter a concussion forced him to sit out several games. This past Monday, he was removed from the starting lineup before a win against Indiana while he battled the flu.
And then for a stretch of Thursday night’s game at Iowa, he looked like nothing could stop him.
Trice’s big night, 25 points on 7-of-8 three-point shooting in a 75-61 Spartans win, could be seen as a victory for resilience, for precautionary rest or for simple regression to the mean. A 41.8% three-point shooter in his first three years, Trice had entered Thursday shooting just 36.0% from beyond the arc this season.
But for Michigan State, it was above all else a sizable cause for optimism in a performance that Tom Izzo surely hopes will portend his team rounding into form as the Big Ten gauntlet gets underway.
The Spartans’ five losses are a rarity for early January. The last time they dropped this many games by this date was 2011, when they went 19-15 and were a one-and-done No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament. Before that it last happened during a slow-starting 2003-04. January 2011 was also the last time Michigan State received no votes in the AP poll, as has been the case the past three weeks. That one of this year’s losses was to lowly Texas Southern at home was cause for some trepidation, as was the team’s occasional reliance on oft-fickle three-point shooting for offense; when the Spartans were 4-for-21 against the Tigers or 5-for-22 against Maryland 10 days later, their offense sank.
Yet even if this is not one of Izzo’s stronger squads -- and it is worth noting that despite the losses and down-year chatter, Michigan State entered Thursday ranked 17th nationally in KenPom.com’s overall efficiency -- there is ample room for it to succeed in this year’s Big Ten. Behind runaway favorite Wisconsin sits a void awaiting a clear second fiddle; none among the pack of Ohio State, Maryland, Indiana, and of course, Iowa and Michigan State has offered much of a case for differentiation.
Thursday offered a glimpse of how the Spartans might do just that. While Trice’s hot stretch did little to dispel the notion that they can be dependent on the three-pointer, it was significant that Trice had the hot hand. He had made just four of 22 three-point attempts in his last four games while shooting 14 of 52 from the field during that stretch. A return to his normally accurate ways would, if nothing else, give the Spartans another deep threat alongside Denzel Valentine (who made four treys of his own against Iowa) and Bryn Forbes.
Just as important was the work the Spartans did inside. Branden Dawson, who missed three games in December (including the Texas Southern loss) with a fractured wrist, looked like his usual explosive self, never more than on the put-back dunk that served as the game’s first basket or the transition alley-oop Trice tossed him to tie the score in the second half.
Defensively, the Spartans spent much of the first half getting bullied on the block with Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello forced to the bench with foul trouble. At one point the easy scoring of Hawkeyes reserve forward Gabriel Olaseni, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, prompted ESPN analyst Jay Bilas to joke, "Is it Olaseni or Olajuwon?"
But in the second half, Costello prevented Olaseni from establishing position on the block while keeping himself out of further foul trouble, helping hold the efficient big man to just one field goal after halftime. On the Big Ten’s smallest team according to KenPom.com’s adjusted height statistic, Dawson’s energetic offense and stout, foul-free interior defense will be imperative.
This was the Spartans’ first road game in the Big Ten and just their third of the season, after a season-opening win against Navy and a loss to Notre Dame. For a team still trying to get its feet underneath it after and up-and-down non-conference slate, any quality road win is a nice step in the right direction. That it came against an Iowa team in that same below-the-Badgers tier, and after an 11-point halftime deficit, is even better.
There remains work to be done.
"We showed some character," Izzo told reporters afterwards, "and yet, boy, we've got a long way to go as far as getting consistent."
A steady means of scoring when the outside shots aren’t falling would go a long way.Nine of 12 free-throw shooting from a team that’s struggled from the line was a nice, modest start. But when the shots are falling like they were in Iowa City, and when Trice is shooting like he was, why stop?