Despite Falling to Duke, Michigan State Showed How Good It Can (and Will) Be

Michigan State did not implode in a tightly-contested loss to Duke. The Spartans flashed plenty of positives and showed how much better the team can be as the season wears on.
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CHICAGO—It’s impossible to know how or when a break is going to come. For No. 2 Michigan State in the State Farm Champions Classic on Tuesday, it came 10 minutes into its game with No. 1 Duke.

Marvin Bagley III, the prized Blue Devil freshman and potential top-five pick, was accidentally poked in the eye by a teammate going for a rebound. He laid on the United Center floor for several minutes before standing up and heading to the locker room. He would miss the rest of the game, which Mike Krzyzewski would later say was merely precautionary, opening the door for the Spartans to dominate the paint.

So then it was easy to understand Tom Izzo’s frustration during his postgame press conference after his team allowed 25 offensive rebounds, which led to 17 second-chance points for Duke in its 88-81 win.

“I’m embarrassed that they’d get 25 offensive rebounds, I don’t care how big they are,” Izzo said after the game. Never in a million years did I think we’d get outrebounded like that.”

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Izzo didn’t have to say it, but it was clear that he meant he didn’t think his team would get outrebounded in such dramatic fashion with Bagley on the floor. Duke didn’t have him for 30 of the game’s 40 minutes, and still completely dominated the boards. The Blue Devils 25 offensive rebounds came on 46 missed shots, an astounding 54.3% offensive-rebounding rate. They also limited the Spartans to 11 offensive rebounds, cleaning up their own defensive glass at a 70% clip.

The Spartans leave Chicago with a nagging feeling that if they cleaned up the little things on Tuesday night, they could have scored a win over the top team in the country. That’s likely the largest takeaway from the Champions Classic. In addition to surrendering all those offensive rebounds, the Spartans committed 17 turnovers which led to 19 points for the Blue Devils.

“We had two keys to start the game,” Izzo said. “We said turnovers, foolish ones. We knew we’d get some, they play that zone pretty well. And rebounds. To hold them to 39% [shooting], they were 30% in the first half, 27% from the three, and the only way they scored was on the missed shot for a while.”

Michigan State is eminently worthy of its No. 2 ranking, and there’s no shame in losing to Duke, even with Bagley out for most of the night. The Blue Devils are the younger team—Duke starts four freshman, while the Sparts have just one, Jaren Jackson, who plays big minutes—but it’s still just the middle of November. Most teams in the country are figuring out exactly who they are, and that extends to the coach.

One case in point is the turnovers. Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston turned it over five times apiece, combining for more turnovers than the entire Duke team. Izzo placed some of the blame for those turnovers at his own feet.

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“I played Miles and Cassius too many minutes. I thought the poor substitutions on my part led to some [of the turnovers],” Izzo said. “I thought we looked a little fatigued. It was a lot of minutes for Cassius to play, and we put guys in strange positions.”

Izzo did say that he and his assistants would likely find some positives in the next few days, and they won’t have to look too hard for them. As he said after they game, the Spartans held the mighty Blue Devils offense to 39.5% from the floor on the night. They held them to 30% shooting in the first half, and 27.3% from three before heading into the locker room at halftime. Trevon Duval needed 20 shots to get 17 points. Gary Trent took 14 shots and finished the night with seven points. Only an electric performance from Grayson Allen pulled the Blue Devils out of their offensive doldrums. He scored 37 points on the night, a Champions Classic record, making seven of his 11 attempts from behind the arc, many of which were contested.

“Allen made some big shots. That’s what seniors do,” Izzo said.

Offensively, the Spartans will find plenty of positives, too. Bridges was quiet and passive for most of the first half, but he turned it on after halftime, finishing the night with 19 points and five three-pointers. Jackson and Nick Ward also scored 19 points, and the trio combined to go 22-for-38 from the floor, a strong 57.9% field-goal percentage.

It wasn’t the result Izzo and the Spartans wanted in Chicago, but it wasn’t all bad. And, despite his demeanor in his press conference, Izzo knew that, too.

“We did not play great, but we’re going to get a whole lot better. I can promise you that.”