EAST LANSING — Goodbye, East Lansing. Hello, Chicago!
After tonight’s season-opening 98-56 victory over McNeese State, second-ranked Michigan State can now put all of its focus on Tuesday’s Champions Classic matchup against the first-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. However, while McNeese State is done and out of the way, the Spartans have a lot of positives, and negatives, to build off moving forward from the victory.
The Spartans’ (1-0) ability to score in different ways was too much for a McNeese State team that was clearly outmatched in all aspects of the game. Michigan State scored 56 points in the paint, 40 fast break points, got 39 points from its bench, and shot nearly 39 percent as a team from three. That diversity is something senior point guard Keith Appling, who had 11 points, six rebounds and four assists, thinks can not only be a huge benefit against Kentucky, but anyone.
“We got a lot of different guys that can make different things happen in the open court and the half court,” he said. “I feel like that’s at our advantage because we have the ability to wear teams down as the game goes on and make things happen at every position.”
The Spartans had six players with 10-plus points, and even received contributions from freshmen Gavin Schilling, who had four points and five rebounds, and Alvin Ellis III, who many thought Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo would redshirt this season.
“We talked about it two days ago in practice,” said Ellis, who had six points in his Michigan State debut. “We had a meeting and just sat down and talked. I talked to my parents about it. I just decided I wasn’t going to redshirt.”
While Ellis may be able to help down the road, the Spartans didn’t need him tonight because they had three players who recorded double-doubles — Adreian Payne (10 points and 10 rebounds), Gary Harris (20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists) and Branden Dawson (12 points and 12 rebounds) — and junior point guard Travis Trice recorded 11 points and a career-high eight assists.
“A lot of good things happened,” Izzo said. “We went into the game and wanted to do a better job of the dribble penetration; I’d say we were OK at that. We wanted to do a better job rebounding the ball; I thought we did a really good job with that. We wanted to not turn the ball over; I thought that was the worst thing we did all night. We had so many foolish turnovers that first half. Our bigs didn’t go after it. Our guards kind of laid it up there.
“On a positive note, when you get three guys with a double-double, when you get 32 assists on 42 baskets, when you get five or six guys in double figures, and still not playing anybody over 25-26 minute, I think there’s a lot of positives.”
The distribution of wealth is clearly one the more positive things to take out of the season-opening annihilation, but confidence heading into potentially the biggest regular-season showdown in quite some time for the Spartans — which is saying a lot due to the Izzo’s history of scheduling tough nonconference opponents — is as important, if not more important, even though the opponent was at the other end of the spectrum talent-wise.
“I think it gives us confidence,” said sophomore Denzel Valentine, who had 12 points, which all came from his much-improved jump shot. “Playing a Division 1 team — and they play a little bit like Kentucky with the dribble-drive offense — it can help us out a lot.”
The game between MSU basketball and Kentucky is a matchup of differences, but that’s what makes it so intriguing. Experience vs. inexperience. One vs. two. NBA-like size and talent vs. a combination of NBA-like size and talent and four-year stability. A great way to start off the college basketball season.
“I’m looking forward to watching the game (Michigan State vs. Kentucky) on Tuesday,” said McNeese State head coach Dave Simmons after his team lost its season opener against the Spartans.
The Champions Classic also features a big-time matchup between Kansas and Duke, and while historically that is the bigger game, the Wildcats and Spartans are playing for an early-season spot on the thrown.
“We are real excited,” said Payne. “I think this is a great event. It’s always been good. They always have great teams, and it’s good for us to be able to play a great team.”