BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—Frustration can set in when a star player or two have an off night for any team in college basketball. It can then turn into panic when three or four stars aren’t playing to the best of their abilities.
But for a team with unmatched depth like this year’s Michigan State squad, those games can still end up in the victory column. Consider the Spartans’ Saturday night squeaker against a scrappy Indiana team as Exhibit A.
Much of the No. 5 Spartans’ talented starting five struggled to get going against the Hoosiers. Cassius Winston only scored seven points—five of which came from the free throw line—and appeared tired on defense at times.
Miles Bridges was shut down most of the game, also scoring seven points on 3-of-7 shooting, while shooting guard Josh Langford went 4-for-13 from the field, scoring 10 points. Both often settled for poor shots away from the basket, especially late in the shot clock.
Nick Ward got in foul trouble early, sitting most of the first half. He made a difference in his return beyond the half, though, making all four of his attempts from the field. Still, his nine points was four shy of his season average.
But the Spartans’ much-acclaimed depth paid off, just enough to push them to a 63-60 win at Indiana’s Assembly Hall. They were propelled by key performances from a freshman in his homecoming game and a guard fulfilling his role on both ends of the floor as the team’s sixth man.
Jaren Jackson Jr., who played high school ball at La Lumiere in LaPorte, Ind., came out and played an inspired first half. His tallied as many blocks before the break (six) as the Hoosiers tallied made field goals.
“I know a lot of people here. I lived here for a little bit, a lot of my friends go here,” Jackson said. “I wanted to beat the people who go here, I didn’t want to lose.”
Jackson also added 10 points in 25 minutes of gameplay after only scoring two on Wednesday against Penn State.
“He’s really good,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “I don’t think he just emerged tonight and said ‘look at me.’ He’s been doing it all year. He’s a dominant defensive player.”
Shooting guard Matt McQuaid also played a key role in the Spartans’ sixth straight win. He went 4-for-5 from the field—all of which were three-pointers—to lead the team with 12 points. Even more, those three’s all came at crucial moments in the game, silencing a rabid Assembly Hall crowd.
“Matt McQuaid, he’s the X-factor of this team,” Miles Bridges said. “If he’s going, nine times out of 10, we’re going to win the game.”
None of his threes were more important than his final one, however. With the Hoosiers making one final run at the Spartans, trailing 58-57 with just over a minute left, Cassius Winston drove the lane looking to create. Once he ran into a double team, he found McQuaid beyond the arc. The junior rose up and hammered home the final nail in the coffin for Indiana’s upset bid.
“Tonight it felt really good, I was in that zone,” McQuaid said. “Those first two three’s in transition, I got wide open because my bigs were running and my wings were running and Cassius (Winston) was putting it on the money… My team really got me open on a lot of those shots.”
It was the just the second time this season that a Spartan bench player led the team in scoring. McQuaid also led the team with 20 points against DePaul in November’s PK80 Invitational.
“Those two or three in a row… that’s the Matt McQuaid that we thought we had,” Izzo said. “I thought he did pretty good defensively too. Matt was the ‘five star’ today, there’s no question about it.”
The Spartans, who will likely move up to No. 4 in the national rankings after current-No. 4 Duke lost a shocker to St. John’s earlier Saturday, will hit the road again Tuesday to play Iowa. Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. ET. Following that game, the Spartans will play host to the top team in the Big Ten, as conference-leading third-ranked Purdue travels to the Breslin Saturday afternoon.