Abarca: Four takeaways from Spartans’ dominant win against Notre Dame

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State earned its second top-10 win in a week, downing the No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 81-63 Thursday night. The Spartans (6-1) handed the Irish (6-1) their first loss and wrapped up the first part of non-conference play. Leading the way was Cassius Winston, who scored 17 points and dished out seven assists in front of a packed Breslin Center.

1. Cassius Winston is the difference maker

We saw a glimpse of Winston take over games in the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Ore. What we didn’t know is that he can consistently do it.

Winston scored 17 points, nine of them coming in the second half. His three-point shooting pushes the Spartans to an almost unstoppable and unguardable level. His playmaking ability and vision continuously help him find the open player–he led the team again with seven assists. Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford are the offensive catalysts, but Winston has emerged of late.

“We knew he could do this,”  Ben Carter said. “We see it in practice, we saw it all summer. The kid can go. The kid can play. His confidence is always sky-high because that’s how he is as a person. When his shots are falling, it gets even higher.”

With projected lottery picks Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. on the team, there’s no question who the “stars” are. But if there is one guy who will elevate this team into a championship contender, it’s No. 5.

2. A tale of two halves

Michigan State has yet to play an all-around complete game. Their most complete game was against No. 9 North Carolina on Sunday. But even then, they were almost outscored in the second half by the Tar Heels, who shot 25 percent from the field.

There are many times where the Spartans have thrived or sunk in one half or the other. Take DePaul or Stony Brook for example, who had MSU looking flat until the second half. Look at the top 10 matchups they’ve played, where a change of direction in a half decided the game.

Against Notre Dame, the Spartans thrived in the first half. They out-rebounded the Irish 12-1 to start the contest and took a 20-point lead into the break. But the Breslin crowd was in for a scare, as the Irish cut the lead to seven and had every bit of momentum. Those who watched the Notre Dame-Wichita State game in Maui had more of an idea of what could have happened, as the Irish came back from 14 to beat the Shockers.

The Spartans couldn’t keep their foot on the gas and put the Irish away early like they should have. If the Spartans play complete basketball, they will be a force to be reckoned with, even more than they are now.

3. Michigan State’s defense is that good

Yes, Michigan State’s defense is THAT good. Don’t let the second half fool you.

Many were skeptical about North Carolina’s shooting performance on Sunday, the championship game of the PK80 Victory bracket. Not many people gave the Spartan defense its due credit. North Carolina did shoot excessively poor, but the Spartans had something to say about that, as did they against Notre Dame.

The Irish ended the contest with shooting 44 percent from the field. That doesn’t paint an accurate picture of how the first half went – the half that won the game, and gave the Spartans a comfortable cushion, bracing the Irish’s second half blow. Keep in mind Jackson, one of the best Spartan defenders, played only five minutes in the second half because of foul trouble.

In the first half, the Irish shot 38 percent. Irish big man Bonzie Colson, a national Player of the Year candidate, was held to six points in that time. The Spartans had three steals, five blocks and forced six turnovers before the break. This Spartan defense, if playing a full, hard, clean 40 minutes, can be the best in the nation.

4. Spartans are still in the giving mood

The Spartans are best when they share the basketball. A healthy amount of players scored – nine, to be exact. The only players who failed to record a point were Tum Tum Nairn and Kenny Goins. However, Nairn was key with ball movement, as he accumulated five assists. Winston led the team in that category with seven.

In total, the Spartans assisted on 21 of their 31 field goals. Getting everyone involved and having Winston and Nairn lead the charge in assists are the ways MSU will keep winning, especially against highly ranked teams and elite defenses. The sophomores led the charge again–the four of them leading the team in points. None of the sophomores had fewer than 12 points. MSU is at its best when the team spreads the wealth, especially among its leading scorers like they did tonight.