1. The newly slim Rick Jackson* didn't just dominate the Spartans -- he may have single-handedly sent them into a State of Emergency. What was shocking about the Orange power forward's performance here wasn't the raw numbers. He had 17 points and 16 rebounds, but he's had double-doubles in seven of their nine games, and had already established himself as the most valuable, consistent player on a 9-0 team that coach Jim Boeheim described as "erratic" at every other position.
The surprise was that he did it against Michigan State, a team whose identity under coach Tom Izzo has always been blue-collar. The Spartans were embarrassingly soft on Tuesday. They gave up 42 points in the paint (and scored just 24). Their starting front line of Delvon Roe, Austin Thornton and Garrick Sherman combined for five (five!) rebounds in 42 minutes, and backup bigs Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix combined for one rebound in 17 minutes. "[Jackson] manhandled us," said Spartans point forward Draymond Green, the only post player who put up some semblance of a fight, grabbing 11 rebounds of his own. Green said his team played like "girls."
"We haven't played tough as a team, and that's killing us," he said. "That's what our identity used to be, but that's not it anymore, and that's what won us games."
Izzo's assessment was actually harsher; he called it "gut-check time," and one of the most "disappointing" performances his team has ever had at MSU. He walked out of press conference inviting reporters to rip his team -- but not before he said, "It's been a long time since we've been totally manhandled like this. We're a pretty-boy team right now. We're not a smashmouth team."
*Jackson dropped 30 pounds this offseason to get down to 239, a reasonable weight, for the first time in his life. His newfound stamina was on full display at the Jimmy V, as he stayed on the floor for 37 highly productive minutes. Scoop Jardine, who's played with Jackson since youth-league basketball, said this was the hardest he'd ever seen him play. Jardine was also asked to describe what Jackson looked like back when they started playing. "He was fat," Jardine said. "Fat."
2. There's only one thing Michigan State fans can take solace in: The version of Kalin Lucas that's been on the floor thus far isn't the one they'll see in the thick of Big Ten play, or in March. Lucas is still dealing with the after-effects of the ruptured Achilles he suffered in the second round of the NCAA tournament, sitting out of at least a third of State's practices. On Tuesday he didn't have the kind of first step necessary to carve up Syracuse's 2-3 zone off the dribble and create quality scoring opportunities.
Lucas finished with six turnovers and just eight points. Five of his nine shots were threes. He earned just one trip to the free-throw line, and had a lone driving highlight, pulling off a nice misdirection-step move around Fab Melo with 5:16 left in the first half.
"[The Achilles] is starting to get better, but it's going to take some time," Lucas said. "The doctors told me that when the Big Ten season starts, I should be feeling pretty good. But as far as my speed, and me trying to explode to the basket, it's still not there yet."
Izzo took the blame for his senior star's struggles, saying, "You can't not practice and be good, and that's what I'm asking Kalin to do. It's not his fault."
3. Tyshawn Taylor may still be "careless" -- that's Bill Self's word for him -- but the Jayhawks' junior combo guard is worlds better than he was last season. In the summer of 2009, he led the U.S. Under-19 team's gold-medal run in the World Championships and had NBA scouts raving ... then proceeded to get involved in an ugly, on-campus fight in the fall, clash with Self in the winter, and underperform spectacularly, averaging 7.2 points and shooting 43.8 percent from the field.
Things have been different in '10-11. In Tuesday's win against Memphis -- the first team that's pressured 8-0 KU all season -- Taylor kept the Jayhawks from losing their cool. While he did commit four turnovers (and the team had 22), he was the strongest guard on the floor, didn't force much on offense, and played at a steady pace. He was 4-for-8 from the field (and 5-for-8 from the free-throw line) for 13 points. He's shooting 58.3 percent from the field on the season, nearly a 15 percent jump from '09-10. On Dec. 18, KU will add to its starting lineup super-frosh Josh Selby, an amazingly talented offensive player who's bound to be even more careless with the ball than Taylor is. It'll be Taylor's job to make sure the offense doesn't get too out of control.
4. Markieff Morris is such a good defensive rebounder ... that he doesn't even need to box out? Early foul trouble on Tuesday limited him to only 24 minutes, in which he had seven boards, but he entered the game as the nation's leading defensive rebounder. Kenpom.com's newly released '10-11 data had Morris grabbing 36.6 percent of available defensive boards -- such an absurd percentage that I was compelled to ask him his secret. This is what he said:
"I've got quick twitches, you know? Once the ball goes up, I just find out where it's coming off. Most of the time, I don't even block out. Because I've got a knack for just going and getting it. Most of the time I just outsmart them -- go around them, fight around them, things like that."
So there you have it: It's not the fundamentals, it's the quick twitches.
5. Joey Dorsey has become a wise elder -- well, at least sort of -- to the Young Memphians. The former Tigers power forward, a vital part of their '08 Final Four run and now a member of the Toronto Raptors (who are in town to face the Knicks on Wednesday), was one of my all-time favorite interview subjects. He was never known for his advice.
Yet when I finished talking with freshman point guard Joe Jackson, who was slumped in his locker-room chair, sulking after a one-point, two-assist, four-turnover game, I overheard Dorsey counseling the rookie. "Man, don't even think about holding your head down after that," Dorsey said, and then began to try to build back some of Jackson's lost confidence.
The Memphis-born phenom just had his worst game as a collegian, looking at times tentative, at times flustered, and nothing like the kid who'd helped lead them to a 7-0 record heading into New York. I asked him what coach Josh Pastner said to him afterwards. "Nothing," Jackson said. "He's probably pissed off at me. But there's a lot I have to learn. ... I need to come prepared to play, because I didn't even play to one eighth of my ability."
Dorsey said he compared this Memphis team to the one he joined in 2004-05, which had Darius Washington at point guard. "We were just really young then, and we had to start spending a lot of time with each other, holding each other accountable, before we got good," Dorsey said. "Once these guys do that, then they have a chance to be really good."
(That '04-05 team, incidentally, went to the NIT. The Tigers struggled in New York, but there's little chance this team will be gunning to get back to the Garden -- for the NIT Final Four. They'll make the NCAAs, and Jackson and fellow star Will Barton's maturity levels will determine whether they flame out in the first weekend ... or reach their ceiling of the Sweet 16.)