East Lansing, Mich.— In their season opener on Friday night at the Breslin Center, No. 2 Michigan State ran to a 98-66 victory over North Florida.
After a short slow start, MSU went on a 19-0 run early in the first half to put the game out of reach. From 16:03 left in the first half until 7:42 left, North Florida didn’t score. And while they shot well from 3-point range (37.9 percent), the Ospreys couldn’t run with the Spartans.
Michigan State looked like the dominant, national title contender we think they are, and showed improvements in a lot of areas where they struggled last season. And while there were a lot of positives from Friday night, everyone needs to remember that this was a game vs. North Florida and the next team that the Spartans face will be a bit more competitive.
However, I will get to the matchup with Duke later. For now, here are my five positive takeaways from last night’s game.
1).This team has depth.
One of the major issues with Michigan State last year was their bench and what they would do when Miles Bridges and Nick Ward had to sit. This season, fans can exhale a bit when the starters are off the floor, as it seems like Tom Izzo is comfortable playing 10 or 11 guys. While the scoring from the bench can improve, the backups can certainly be trusted in a lot of situations and played well on Friday evening. The second unit should be strong. People may forget it’s mostly upperclassmen coming off the bench. Between Tum Tum Nairn Jr.’s speed and leadership, Matt McQuaid’s scoring and defense and a handful of big bodies, this Spartan bench is stronger than it’s been in a while.
2).The Frontcourt is strong.
Arguably the biggest difference between last year’s team and this season’s is Michigan State’s revamped frontcourt. And while Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman are the only new players in the rotation, this group of Spartan forwards is much better than last year. On offense, the combination of Bridges, Ward and Jackson will be very difficult to defend. The trio drew a lot of fouls early and took a total of 17 free throws. While Ward and Jackson dominated in the paint on offense, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter turned in a stellar performance on defense.
Postgame, Izzo mentioned how well he thought the big guys played on their end. It would be huge if Schilling and Carter can be solid rim protectors off the bench, especially when MSU runs into bigger teams. Also, for two guys that missed all of last season and have never played together, Schilling and Carter had a lot of chemistry with one another on defense. They did a great job on switches and all the forwards played great man-on-man post defense.
3).This team can get out, run and push the ball.
And not only can they do it, they love to. With point guards like Cassius Winston and Narin Jr., it’s no surprise the Spartans want to push the ball and get up the floor. Whether it was off missed shots or made baskets, coming out of their end, the Spartans always were pushing the tempo. One of the great things about this team is that everyone on the floor likes to join the break, too. At one point even Jackson brought the ball over midcourt. A lot of teams have had success over the last few years by controlling pace and beating teams by getting out on fast breaks and racking up easy transition baskets. Between their athleticism, ball movement and slashing ability, this team can easily get 7-10 fast break/transition baskets per game.
4).The Spartans have bought into defense and rebounding.
While they did have a considerable advantage in size, Michigan State was noticeably better on the glass, out-rebounding North Florida 49-26. It wasn’t the amount of rebounds the Spartans got that impressed me though; it was when and where they got them
Multiple times in the first half, a Michigan State player got a rebound off a missed free throw from a teammate. In the second half even when they were up 20 points, Bridges and Josh Langford were flying in from 22 feet out to grab offensive rebounds and get second chance baskets. While Izzo mentioned individual guys playing great man-to-man defense, as a whole, the team really impressed. It felt like every North Florida possession was a turnover, a blocked or bad shot or a three-pointer. As a team, Michigan State finished with 10 blocks, 12 steals and held the Ospreys to 34.8 percent shooting.
5).Miles Bridges looks like an even more complete player.
While you can joke and say, “I didn’t think he could get any better,” it certainly looks like the sophomore has been adding more to his game. If I was defending Miles Bridges in a triple threat stance, I would start to shake. He’s becoming so hard to defend. Aside from his raw speed and athleticism, Bridges has earned enough respect for his jump shot and that has to be taken into account when guarding him as well.
Bridges finished with 20 points and scored from anywhere but three point range, he also added 10 rebounds, two assists and three blocks. The assists may not pop off the stat sheet but don’t be fooled, Bridges did a great job getting his teammates involved. There were two specific passes I remember from the game that 2016-17 Miles Bridges wouldn’t have made. In the first half, Bridges drove baseline and while in mid air under the basket, avoided a block and kicked the ball out to the open shooter in the corner. The other came in the second half, when Bridges threaded a bounce pass just between two defenders leading to a Ward basket inside. Along with passing, Bridges has become even more of a leader. North Florida head coach Matthew Driscoll even said postgame he noticed Miles Bridges coaching his teammates on the floor and how that’s a testament to coach Izzo.
Of course with the positives, there were a few things that could be improved. And while it’s hard to find a lot that went wrong in a 32-point victory, there some small issues with the Spartans game.
One problem is the turnovers. 21 is just too many. It’s early in the season and something like that won’t come back to bite MSU in a game against a team that they can beat like North Florida, but they have to protect the ball later in the season against better teams. It was the first game and that’s something that assumingly can be cleaned up easily.
The bigger issue is the possibility of Michigan State’s offense being too unbalanced. They have so much talent and so many of the guys can score that it can’t come from just one group.
In the first half, the forwards led the way, Bridges, Ward and Jackson had 29 of the team’s 52 points at halftime. Langford got quiet in the second half and while Winston finished with 12 points and went two for two from three, he spent most of the night distributing the ball.
Let me be clear: I am totally okay with Winston feeding the ball inside to the big guys and having Bridges and Langford just slash and shoot from everywhere, but the offense has to be more than that.
The team’s first three-pointer didn’t come until two minutes into the second half and they only finished three for 12 from behind the arc for the game.
The team has enough guys that can shoot the three, so I’d like to see them take some more chances from out there, just to keep opposing defenses honest. If they go to the paint every possession, as good as the frontcourt is, teams will begin to clog up the paint and force the Spartans to shoot.
Michigan State’s next game is Tuesday night in Chicago against No. 1 Duke in the first game of the Champions Classic. The matchup is likely the biggest test for the Spartans all season, seeing how much talent Duke has.
Surprisingly, the Blue Devils have four players who were ranked higher in the 2017 recruiting class than Jaren Jackson Jr., including the top player in the class, Marvin Bagley III. In the locker room after the win on Friday night, Jackson said he’s “excited to play against top competition,” but I’m sure the freshman will have a bit of a chip on his shoulder heading into the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.
Michigan State showed a lot of good with very little bad in their first game, but of course the game against Duke will give the Spartans a good idea of where they are at competitively. The matchup will feature a lot of star power on both sides and could very well be one of the best games we see in college basketball all season.
The win over North Florida was great and it was a nice way to open the season. But, on Tuesday night we’ll get a better idea of how good this Michigan State team really is.