Michigan State and the Michigan gave you everything you could want in a rivalry game: 12 lead changes, trash talking among players, multiple technical fouls, a few minor scraps and other than a few garbage points at the end, a close finish. MSU took the first game of 2017, beating the Wolverines 70-62.
But this rivalry game may signify the period where the keys to head coach Tom Izzo’s Hall of Fame Porsche are handed over to the freshmen. The trio of Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston accounted for 44 of team’s points and controlled the game offensively.
“It’s different,” Izzo said referring to having three freshmen lead the team in scoring. Izzo did note that there is still some work to do before they carry the team. “They can take care of their own but they can’t take care of one another.
“I told Miles, he has to become more of a leader because he is our best player…he’s not great at it yet, but he sure is making some effort. He’s a different kind of great player and one I’m lucky to be coaching,” Izzo said after the game, commenting on a play where Bridges found a slumping Matt McQuaid open for three in the corner.
The game was a slugfest that featured two of the slower moving teams in the country (Michigan is 346th out of 351 teams in adjusted tempo and MSU is 252nd), and with the extra physicality of a rivalry game, each team had to claw for points. But Izzo didn’t see anything too remarkable or too poor that stood out in the game.
“We played good enough,” Izzo said. “It wasn’t like we shot the lights out or did this or that, so we still have a lot of room for improvement.
“I asked everybody to do their job and for the most part, other than a couple of mistakes on defensive coverages, I thought each guy did his part.”
Alvin Ellis and Eron Harris were largely responsible for Zak Irvin scoring zero points and Bridges and Ward did a good job handling DJ Wilson, who is having a career year, only allowing him to shoot 4-of-12.
“They’re just really good at being physical with their defense without fouling,” said John Beilein, whose squad scored 90 against Indiana on Thursday. “It was their defense that was so good.”
The Spartans have preached turning defense into offense but MSU struggled at times in transition against the Wolverines. Consistent guard play has also been an unsolved mystery this season. Harris and Ellis were serviceable, and McQuaid gave hope for games in the future by nailing three shots from beyond the arc, but the victory was largely carried by the freshmen.
Winston is trying to set the tone as the point guard and wants to get his teammates playing faster.
“We want to push it, get early post. I hit Nick for [an] early post a couple times,” Winston said. “If we keep the ball moving up and down we’ll be a better team.”
Other than the freshmen taking over, another sign of new times was the fact MSU had only 11 three-point shots attempted; something that would be unheard of in recent seasons. But Ellis, Winston, and Josh Langford all were forces by driving to the hoop and getting to the free throw line.
“We sustained. We had a sense of urgency for 40 minutes, were locked in for 40 minutes,” Langford said. “That’s something we weren’t doing a good job of in past games.”