Michigan State-Texas Recap
An analysis of two of the NCAA’s best.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Wednesday night’s matchup between Michigan State and Texas featured two programs that have become synonymous with completely divergent trends. Michigan State has reached the Final Four in 6 of the past 12 seasons, a remarkable streak made even more remarkable when you consider the notorious early-season underachievement that has plagued Tom Izzo’s in recent years. Texas, on the other hand, typically opens the season strong and fizzles in March after a disappointing NCAA tournament performance.
So even after No. 22 Texas’ eye-opening 67-55 win over No. 12 Michigan State in East Lansing, many will dismiss the Longhorns’ impressive road win (which ended the 52-game non-conference home winning streak MSU enjoyed at the Breslin Center) and the Spartans’ steady slide from their pre-season No. 2 ranking as evidence of history repeating itself. Despite its potential, Texas will eventually crumble under the weight of their increased expectations, and despite his team looking awful for 15 games, Tom Izzo will somehow march the 6th seeded Spartans to the Final Four. We’ve been fooled too many times into thinking Texas was for real and Michigan State was done to fall for this again…right?
I’m taking the bait. The Longhorns might have finally turned the corner, and Tom Izzo might have finally met a group of 12 players he can’t get to win 4-6 NCAA Tournament games in a row. Despite what history tells us, it’s time to consider that Texas is really as good and Michigan State is really as mediocre as their current records indicate.
Season after season, Rick Barnes brings in top-5 recruiting classes to Austin, but aside from the 02-03 Final Four season, that McDonald’s All-American talent hasn’t carried over into real March success (a program like Texas should be beyond considering a Sweet 16 appearance, which Rick Barnes has five of, as a success). Recently, the Longhorns’ talent has been as top-shelf as ever, but the pieces have not fit together smoothly. Barnes hasn’t been helped by the early departures of Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustine, and LaMarcus Aldridge, but even with those defections, enough talent was left behind to go beyond the first two rounds of the tournament. Last season, Texas’ monumental collapse from No. 1 in the nation to first round NCAA flameout seemed to be caused by a rift between veterans on the team and the stud newcomers like Jordan Hamilton and J’Covan Brown. This year, Texas is off to another great start (with wins over Illinois, North Carolina, and now Michigan State) but a similar drop off doesn’t seem imminent.
For one, this year’s batch of freshmen seems more college ready than last season’s was. Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph have earned starting jobs with their play instead of being handed them based on high school credentials alone. Secondly, Hamilton and Brown have made huge strides since their mercurial rookie seasons. Hamilton is a legit star now and one of the true breakout players in the country (his line vs. Michigan State: 21 points, 8 boards, 3 dimes, 3 steals, 1 block), while Brown seems to have embraced (at least publically) his backup point guard position behind Joseph. Signs of individual growth and maturation from someone as talented as Brown suggest the entire team has finally embraced the idea of accepting lesser roles. Combine their developed sense of team with scary ability (Texas is, according to Izzo, “the most talented team [Michigan State] has played so far,” which includes Duke, Syracuse, Connecticut, Washington) and you have dangerous squad.
As for Michigan State, they won’t be able to hide behind those six Final Four banners and Kalin Lucas’ Achilles injury much longer. It’s a fact that their losses have come to four of the top teams in the country, but even a couple of their wins (Chaminade, Oakland) should tell us that something is not normal with team. This is a veteran team that clearly thinks it can turn it on whenever it likes (and it’s Dec 31st Big-10 opener vs. No. 16 Minnesota would be a good time to start). Inconsistency, uncharacteristically poor defense, and sloppy ball management can worked on during practice, but Michigan State has holes that can’t be fixed with repetition and that have already been exploited by the marquee teams on its schedule.
The Spartans frontline, while experienced and gritty, is undersized and lacks elite athleticism. Michigan State’s four losses have come to teams with superior length, size, and bounce in the middle. Even Oakland, with NBA-ready big man Keith Benson, gave the Spartans fits down low. Draymond Green (listed at 6-7) is an animal, but is 6-6 on a good day, and the knee problems that have tormented 6-8 Delvon Roe since high school have sadly changed him from a terrifying open court freight train into a more below-the-rim player. Beyond that, inexperienced bigs Adreine Payne, Garrick Sherman, and Derrick Nix don’t provide much of an offensive threat at all.
Maybe I’m foolish for butting heads with history. After all Michigan State was ranked 2nd nationally to start the season for a reason, and with a couple of bad losses, Texas could spiral into downwards in the buzz saw Big-12. But the season is flying by (hard to believe we’re nearly into conference play), so the cut-off point for altering a season’s course is approaching a lot sooner than many realize.