If you were to just base this matchup off of rankings, then you might have expected this outcome. However, if you’ve been following both of these programs closely over the past couple of weeks then you know that the fifth-ranked Michigan State Spartans’ 14-point victory over the Texas Longhorns wasn’t just impressive, it was much needed.
The Spartans (10-1) have dealt with a heap of health issues over the past couple of weeks, and a 14-point loss to North Carolina at home on Dec. 4 stripped them of their No. 1 ranking.
The Longhorns (10-2) have arguably been the nation’s hottest team and they are coming off of a road victory over that same Tar Heels team that bullied Michigan State.
The Longhorns’ fast-paced offense got off to a quick start as they went on an 11-4 run in the opening five minutes of Saturday’s matchup against MSU, but the Spartans eventually slowed down the Texas offense, and big man Adreian Payne displayed his full offensive arsenal and put MSU on his back.
Led by 10 combined points from junior point guard Travis Trice and Payne, Michigan State ended the final five minutes of the first half on a 15-10 run and went into the half trailing 38-36.
Both teams exchanged buckets through the first 10 minutes of the second half, but in the final 10 minutes the game busted open when Harris, who missed the last two games, scored three straight points for the Spartans — the first bucket giving them a 56-54 lead — and jump started a 38-24 run to end the game.
1. PAYNE LOOKS TO BE AT 100 PERCENT
The 6-foot-10, 245-pound big man has been battling a foot injury — more specifically plantar fasciitis — for a good portion of the season and it’s caused him to miss some practices. Aside from the potential damage that could come from the injury, Payne’s conditioning issues were evident over the past couple of weeks, and for a team that’s weakness is interior play, his inability to give it his all was hurting the MSU basketball team.
Well, the questions concerning his health and conditioning were put to rest after tonight’s victory over Texas as Payne had a career-high 33 points and nine rebounds. Payne shot 10 of 13 from the floor and showed of his versatility as he went 2 of 5 from the 3-point line.
With all the involvement Payne had on both ends of the floor for the first 30 minutes, it was the last 10 where it was visible that he is back at 100 percent. There were no signs of the foot being an issue, and if fatigue was a problem he did a good job of hiding it. Payne scored 12 of his 33 in the final 10 minutes.
With senior point guard Keith Appling struggling, Harris working his way and no major scoring presence from big men, the Spartans needed Payne to be dominant, and he delivered.
2. GAVIN SCHILLING IS IMPROVING
It hasn’t been a long career by any means, but Michigan State freshman Gavin Schilling played his best game as a Spartan tonight. Schilling’s minutes have increased as of late with sophomore Matt Costello suffering from mononucleosis, and the indefinite suspension of redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski has left the front court light for Tom Izzo’s ball club. Schilling only had four points but his five rebounds and activity in the paint on both offense and defense was very significant.
He did a good job of defending Texas’ big, and for a guy that’s so young — just turned 18 — and has that much upper-body strength, it seems like he’s starting to get a handle on how to cover and use his athletic build to his advantage at the college level.
3. HARRIS LOOKS TO BE HEALTHY, JUST RUSTY
Harris, a usual starter, came off the bench in his first game back since playing against UNC and it took him a while to get into the flow of things. But a nifty reverse layup on the baseline in the first half was the first in-game evidence that his ankle is back at 100 percent.
He finished the game with 19 points and five assists, and while it was clear that he wasn’t quite the Harris that scored 20 points against Kentucky earlier this year, it wasn’t the ankle that was hindering him, it was just the rust.
4. APPLING IS STARTING TO FORCE MORE OFFENSIVELY
Yeah, Harris and Payne may be the best NBA prospects for the Spartans, but if you ask a group of MSU faithful who the MVP through the first few weeks of the season was I guarantee a good majority of them will say, “Appling.”
The former shooting guard turned point guard looked as if he had finally made the jump to one of the nation’s elite early in the season. Through the first seven games, Appling had five game with five-plus assists and four games with 15-plus points. He was distributing and then taking his looks as they opened up. He was letting the game come to him.
In the Spartans’ last two games, that mindset and go-with-the-flow patience that Appling possessed early in the year has disappeared. He’s shooting 4 of 19 — 2 of 11 today — with just six assists in those two games and he seems to be looking for his shot even when it’s not necessarily there. Creating and facilitating is arguably the best quality a point guard can possess, and those are arguably Appling’s best qualities, however, he’s starting to lean towards creating for himself again rather than the create-for-others-first mentality that opened up the game for him and his teammates earlier this year.
5. WHEN YOU HAVE DENZEL VALENTINE AND DAWSON ON THE FLOOR TOGETHER, THIS CAN HAPPEN…