Hunt: Down-low presence was key in Spartans’ win over Indiana

EAST LANSING, Mich.–On the tails of an 82-72 loss at the hands of in-state rival Michigan, No. 9 Michigan State took Indiana down 85-57 in East Lansing with an effort that better resembled the ones that earned the team’s No. 1 ranking in the country just a few weeks ago.

After losing two of their last three games and being taken to overtime by Rutgers, all in Big Ten play, the Spartans handed the Hoosiers their eighth loss of the season thanks in large part to their presence down low.

Michigan State dominated the boards Friday, outrebounding Indiana 45-27. Scoring in the paint between the two teams was no different, with the Spartans scoring 38 points down low while the Hoosiers were contained to just 18.

One of the largest presences down low for the Spartans was sophomore Nick Ward, who finished with a double-double: 18 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, redeeming himself after a rough performance in the loss to Michigan. Against the Wolverines, Ward scored just four points and brought in five rebounds but was limited to only 14 minutes on the court due to picking up four fouls.

A new aspect to Ward’s game this time around was his ability to dribble out of the double-team.

“I knew they were going to double,” Ward said. “I was preparing myself for this the whole practice… I think I did good against it. I got two assists out of it”

Defensively, Michigan State had seven blocks, three of which came from freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., who also tallied 10 points and six rebounds in the Spartan victory. After putting up 19 points and six blocks in the Michigan loss, Jackson said the team was able to use their energy to bounce back.

“Honestly…we probably made the same amount of mistakes as [against] Michigan,” Jackson said, “but we just played a lot harder and we didn’t stop playing when we made mistakes.”

Jackson’s three blocks put him at 65 for the season, breaking Deyonta Davis’ freshman school record of 64 with 11 games still to go; he is on pace to break Ken Johnson’s school record of 72 for blocks in a season.

[su_pullquote]“Honestly… we probably made the same amount of mistakes as [against] Michigan, but we just played a lot harder and we didn’t stop playing when we made mistakes.” –Jaren Jackson[/su_pullquote]

Though their down-low presence won them the game, the Spartans ran into a problem that has plagued them this season: holding onto the ball. Michigan State turned the ball over 13 times–five times from Miles Bridges, who scored a game-high 22. This is the fourth game in a row the Spartans have turned the ball over 12 or more times, including the 18 turnovers that were their downfall against Michigan.

“We’re 20-some ahead and Miles Bridges got his butt chewed on those three turnovers in a row,” coach Tom Izzo said in his post-game press conference. “His turnovers were just a little sloppy, and that’s the only thing that really bothered me about it.”

At times during the previous three games, the Spartans appeared lost on the court, giving the ball away constantly and leaving men open on defense. While the issue of turnovers still remains unsolved, Michigan State’s defense found itself in a much better position against Indiana than it had in awhile.

Michigan State will conclude its season with seven of its remaining 11 games on the road. The Spartans’ last away contest was the 80-64 upset loss to Ohio State, but Izzo is confident heading into this road series after tonight.

“Our job is to now get better everyday so we can handle the road,” Izzo said. “What I liked about tonight; they shot 33 percent, 30 from the 3. We outrebounded by 18. That’s all travel-worthy. That goes everywhere.”

[su_pullquote align=”right”]“I’m going to try my hardest to keep pushing that to these guys morning, noon and night, because when we’re moving the ball and we’re running, it’s a fun team to watch.” –Tom Izzo[/su_pullquote]

If the Spartans keep the same mindset and attitude they had against the Hoosiers, they will be a tough team to beat for the rest of the season. A dominant frontcourt was able to dismantle Indiana, and every other team in the Big Ten — and the nation — should be on watch.

“I’m going to try my hardest to keep pushing that to these guys morning, noon and night,” Izzo said, “because when we’re moving the ball and we’re running, it’s a fun team to watch. We have defended 99 percent of the games. Maybe Ohio State shot 52 percent. I don’t know if anybody else shot over 43. We did more good than bad.”

Michigan State will go up against Illinois in Champaign on Monday. The Illini have yet to pick up a Big Ten win, and the Spartans should look to implement their dominance in the frontcourt again in order to claim another win against a conference opponent.