More than 22,000 took in the Spartan Clash between MSU and Texas. The Longhorns came into the Palace with an unblemished record while Michigan State looked to keep its top-ten ranking alive and well. What might have been two of the Final Four teams come March, lived up to their billings in front of a festive holiday crowd in Auburn Hills.
I took advantage of this match-up some months ago when my brother and I decided to splurge on tickets as a Christmas gift for our father and our Uncle Jim. A fine Christmas gift it was as the ninth ranked Spartans claimed victory on the neutral court (yeah right!!) over fourth ranked Texas 78-72.
MSU was very much in a round-for-round battle early as the Longhorns amassed an eight-point lead in the first half. And then it happened, the Spartans found their rhythm and the 21,800 MSU fans (Texas had 200-300) came alive and MSU started imposing their will.
If you would have told me before this contest that Neitzel would take and grand total of six shots and MSU would be beaten on the boards, then I would have told you all that the Spartans would lose in a blowout. Reality deviated greatly from the stat sheet at gameâ€™s end.
While MSU was outrebounded, it was only part of the story. Texas did hold a +5 advantage on the glass, which is rare for any team against MSU. I am not taking anything away from Texas; they are a good rebounding squad. MSU forced Texas to take NBA range jumpers for most of the game. When MSU sent three or four men to the boards, they were often seeing a bad long range miss find its way to a Texas player around the arc. MSU took the paint away and made 6â€™10â€ Texas center Connor Atchley a non-factor. This was one of the biggest differences in the game as Texas became very one-dimensional.
Abrams and Augustin damn near shot Texas back into the ball game in the final two minutes as MSU was plagued by rare free throw misses down the stretch. Both Abrams and Augustin did their damage on the perimeter as they took the only open looks on the floor, which were mostly behind the NBA arc. Make no mistake about it; these guys are good. They are lightening quick, they have beautiful touch, they are great perimeter defenders and they really took Neitzel out of the game for much of the evening.
There was a little glitch in the Texas game plan. They accounted for Neitzel, they made Morgan sit early with two fouls, they made â€œGâ€ work hard inside, but failed to stop freshman sensation Kalin Lucas. As the pregame announcers â€œgushedâ€ over Augustin (the best point guard in the country), Kalin Lucas decided to put on his Christmas time lights out display in front of his hometown crowd. He turned the corner left, he turned the corner right, he put up one-handed runners, he carved them up with his jumper, he had a beautiful fast-break reverse lay-up and he left Spartan and Texas fans awestruck. They never saw Kalin Lucas coming. I think Tom Izzo did and used Lucasâ€™ fearless, Mateen like dribble-drive skill set to perfection.
Texas did not have an answer for Raymar Morgan. I believe the Texas strategy was to insure that Morgan didnâ€™t take over if they could minimize Neitzelâ€™s production. Morgan was the best all around player on the floor yesterday. He had some isolation plays one-on-one that were just silly. His interior move between two defenders for a spectacular reverse lay-up was absolutely beautiful. It was followed by high-fives all around me in section 113. Morgan is a mismatch for just about anyone we play. He is our poor manâ€™s Kevin Durant. His skills and athleticism are fun to watch.
We have watched MSU limp through some games with self inflicted wounds and turnovers. Tom has made an effort to play his freshman through difficult situations and it paid off yesterday. Lucas and Summers were both difference makers on the floor and Tom is truly finding a way to use all of the weapons in the arsenal. Can you image this team in March with a healthy Chis Allen? Wow!!
Travis Walton was charged with early defensive responsibilities and found himself saddled with foul trouble for much of the game. Last year, this would have spelled disaster for MSU, this year Tom has the luxury of playing three very good guards at the point. Having Lucas, Walton and Neitzel all run the team at different parts of the game is truly a testament to the versatility of this squad.
The substitutions were outstanding and certainly played a factor in wearing the less than deep Texas team down a little bit. Texas could not survive in foul trouble and that took some of their defensive aggressiveness away on the interior.
All around, this was a great Spartan victory. It was a team-win over a top-ten opponent. MSUâ€™s freshmen are finding their place in Izzoâ€™s system. Tom is smiling more than Iâ€™ve seen him smile in a long time. Just watch him beam when Lucas comes over to the bench. Tom puts his arm around him, provides him a little coaching and just canâ€™t stop smiling when his star pupil does something right. I see him enjoying his team more than he has in a long time. He knows that he has the key ingredients to make a deep run in the tournament. He has outstanding point guard play, a senior sharp-shooter, he is five deep on the interior, his has a superstar that can play both inside and outside and he has good kids that compete every play with a blue-collar Iron Mountain mentality. Oh this is going to be fun.