On their way to the best start in school history, the Michigan State Spartans — minus senior big man Adreian Payne — defeated Illinois 78-62, and handed the Fighting Illini their fourth consecutive loss.
Also, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo surpassed Illinois’ Lou Henson with 215 all-time Big Ten victories — placing him fourth in wins in Big Ten history.
Aside from outrebounding Illinois 38-25, the Spartans (17-1, 6-0 Big Ten) shot nearly 56 percent from the field as a team while the Fighting Illini (13-6, 2-4 Big Ten) only shot 38 percent.
Here are five takeaways from the matchup:
1. GARY HARRIS IS HEALTHY
If there was any doubt that Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris still had lingering effects from his severe ankle sprain that he suffered early this season, it’s safe to say that the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Indiana native hushed the skeptics with his performance in the State Farm Center on Saturday night.
Harris arguably had his best offensive game of the season as he had a game-high 23 points and four assists. He went 7-for-9 from the field and 2-for-4 from the 3-point line in the victory, and while his 78 percent shooting percentage isn’t something to forget, it was Harris’ aggressiveness attacking the rim that showed he is at full strength.
For the past couple of games, Harris was often jacking 3-point shots and not attacking the rim in halfcourt situations. Maybe that was due to his lack of trust in his ankle, or he was just settling. Regardless, Harris showed that his explosiveness and confidence has returned, and a healthy Harris makes Michigan State a completely different team.
2. MATT COSTELLO FINDING WAYS TO BE PRODUCTIVE OFFENSIVELY
Even before Payne missed the Spartans’ last three games with an apparent foot sprain, MSU was struggling to find a post presence opposite of Payne at the center position. And while sophomore center Matt Costello still has a lot of work to do when it comes to post moves, he showed that he is as effective in pick-and-roll situation as anyone on Michigan State’s team.
Costello found the basket numerous times in Saturday’s victory by simply screening, and then rolling. He went 4-for-5 from the field for eight points, and the majority of those came off simple pick-and-role action.
If the Spartans can continue to work Costello into the offense using different pick-and-roll scenarios, then that not only adds another weapon offensively, but it opens up penetration to the basket for the ball-handler and opens up the 3-point line as well.
3. DENZEL VALENTINE IS BLOSSOMING INTO DRAYMOND GREEN
This comparison isn’t new. It’s been pretty evident over the season — and last season at times — that Denzel Valentine is becoming the do-it-all player that Izzo once had in Draymond Green. While Valentine isn’t yet the shooter Green ended up being before he left campus, his improved jump shot is one of the more noticeable individual upgrades from last season to this year.
On his way to a double-double (15 points and 11 rebounds), Valentine went 2-for-3 from behind the arc, and put together one of his better defensive performances of the season. Valentine may not be the most polished player, and he’s clearly not the most athletic, but there’s no question that he’s the most versatile, and if there was one game to sum up his contributions as a basketball player, this would be the one.
4. EVEN WITHOUT PAYNE, THE SPARTANS ARE STILL REALLY GOOD
One could make the case that Payne is the Spartans’ best player — you would hear no argument from me — and yet, despite being without him for the past three games, Michigan State has shown that it can still compete at a high level. While getting Payne back at 100 percent will be the deciding factor on if they are going to make a serious national championship run, for the time being, the Spartans can handle themselves.
Filling Payne’s contributions isn’t pretty, and it doesn’t look as easy as he makes it look, but the activity of Costello, the jump shooting of big man Kenny Kaminski and the feet of Alex Gauna, all transform to make up a huge portion of what Payne brings on game day. Also, having him out allows these three guys, along with freshman Gavin Schilling, to continue to get experience and develop into the players that Izzo is going to need them to be once Payne is gone next season.
The Spartans need Payne if they want to cut down the nets in March, but until then, they have shown that they can handle themselves until he’s ready to return at full health.
5. KEITH APPLING IS WHAT MAKES THIS TEAM GO
If you’ve been following MSU all season, and watched Saturday’s matchup, then I could see you saying “He’s been playing this well all season,” and I would agree with you 100 percent. However, there was something different tonight. There was a lot more smiling going on. There was a lot more interaction with teammates. He’s finally understanding that when you let the game come to you, let go, and have fun, then you have seasons like the one he has been having.
Appling closed the game for the Spartans. When it was time for them to put their foot on the throat of Illinois, Appling scored nine of his 15 points in the final six minutes. I’ve noticed the major improvements from Appling, the player, all season long, but today, it was the improvements from Appling, the man, that were glowing.
His new mindset, outlook, or whatever it is, has not only changed his game, but it’s contributing to the growth of his teammates. And as he and the Spartans continue their success, it’s only going to get better and better from here for all parties.