EAST LANSING, Mich.–Michigan State is more than OK with the way it beat Louisville.
And that’s fine. It’s still early in the year. There isn’t one team that has reached its peak, and Michigan State is miles from getting anywhere near its apex.
After a dreadful 0-for-6 start from the field, the No. 3-ranked Spartans regrouped at halftime and found a way to string together a 71-67 come-from-behind win Wednesday night over the Cardinals, who Spartans coach Tom Izzo promises to be “top-10, top-15 team.”
“I was so impressed with them for two-thirds of that game…,” he said while addressing the media after the ACC-Big Ten Challenge clash at the Breslin Center. With 6:47 to play, Kenny Goins gave the Spartans their first lead of the game, 55-53.
Louisville owned the paint, outscoring Michigan State 40-24. Louisville hustled a lot more, too–especially during the first half. Typically, 50-50 balls belong to the Spartans, who out-rebounded the Cardinals, 40-30, but Wednesday night was different.
“I thought we did a poor job,” Izzo said. “I thought they got every loose ball, early–big credit to Rick (Pitino) and his team. I thought they… God, ball was loose–they got balls on missed free throws. They got balls everywhere. Everywhere the ball bounced, they got it…
With tonight's 71-67 victory over Louisville, Michigan State has jumped out to its first 8-0 start since 2000. pic.twitter.com/vTpkElmHcZ
— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) December 3, 2015
Izzo even went as far to compare his eighth win of the year to a “blessing.”
Yeah, he felt good about getting lucky. Really good.
“I feel fortunate to win,” he said. “I mean, I almost feel like we stole it. And yet, you’ve got to do that to have great seasons. You’ve got to win some games that maybe… I won’t say we didn’t deserve to, because I thought we fought back, but I thought they played awfully well for a long period of time in that game.”
During the other part, the time Louisville didn’t play well, the Spartans took advantage from the perimeter, hitting nine of 23 attempts from 3-point range. Paired with Kenny Goins’ 10 defensive rebounds, those long-distance strikes proved to be difference-makers.
Of course, those shots wouldn’t have been possible without Bryn Forbes, who scored a season-high 20 points, and Denzel Valentine, who scored 25 points in addition to grabbing five rebounds and dishing seven assists. Together, they made eight of the 3-pointers.
Forbes had five of those makes.
“Well, we started screening for them a little bit better and we started moving the ball (in the second half),” Izzo said. “We got into the middle of that zone, which we tried to do early, but we did a much, much better job in the second half, getting it in there.
We got Bryn, and we hit some big-time passes from the high-post and into those wings, and Kenny (Goins) did some of that too, so a lot of positives once we got the ball moving.”
Izzo wasn’t sure what had happened versus Louisville. He knew his team beat a good team. He knew he out-coached a great coach. But there were still a few remaining questions.
Michigan State has barely scratched the surface of its true potential. Izzo’s still finding ways to maximize his personnel.
Tonight's game was MSU's 200th against a ranked opponent since the 1997-98 season, the most of any team in the nation.
— Spartan Basketball (@MSU_Basketball) December 3, 2015
“We were either stagnant or they made us stagnant–I don’t know which one,” he said. “I’ll have to watch the film to decide. But like I said, I’m sitting here happy with a win but more impressed with Louisville than Michigan State at this point just because I thought they played so dog-gone hard.”
From tipoff to 6:47 to play in the second half, the Cardinals led–and midway through the first, they led by 13 and looked like they were going to run the Spartans out of their own gym.
That’s because Damion Lee acted like he was playing at his place, scoring a team-high 23 points while protecting his zone from intruders. Lee, a lengthy, 6’6,” 200-pound wingman, did a decent job guarding Valentine during the first 20 minutes. He helped momentarily contain Forbes, too.
“They did a lot of good things–a very, very well-coached team,” Izzo said. “They did a lot of things. They trapped him, they moved him and then we started adjusting to it as the game went on…”
Really, Izzo is satisfied that his team almost let one slip. He’s happy that Valentine and Forbes, both seniors, gutted it out in the name of appeasing the home crowd. Getting five timely points from Eron Harris were an added bonus for Izzo, who continues to watch each piece fall into place.
“I think we learned a lot about our team, and I think we learned a lot about executing and missed free-throws and different things that almost cost us,” said Izzo, who coached his way to the 500-win plateau while winning the Wooden Legacy Tournament this past week in Fullerton, Calif.
Despite winning an early-season championship, one of their goals, the Spartans made a lot of mistakes out west.
“That’s something that we’ve got work on, putting two halves together,” said Forbes, who “absolutely” agrees with Izzo’s “we stole it” assessment of Wednesday night. “We struggled in the first half against Providence (Wooden title game), and then in this game–so we’ve got to find a way to put two halves together.”
Forbes later added: “I can’t remember a time this season that we’ve put two great halves together.
Shooting is the strength of Michigan State. That’s not up for debate. Valentine called Forbes “the best shooter in the nation” and Izzo has routinely called this year’s team his best shooting team, not to mention deepest, in at least 10 years–if not ever.
But Michigan State didn’t feel that it had to dig itself from a hole by shooting. It was just a coincidence that things happened that way.
“I think it was more of like we had to do what we had to do to win,” Forbes said. “You know, and what was open for us, I think we were moving the ball pretty well. Guys were driving and kicking and bigs were making plays for us–setting great screens and different things like that.”
That’s just what opened up for us. Luckily, (shots) fell.”
Valentine said he was the fifth or sixth best player for Michigan State versus Louisville. Despite scoring 25 points, he insists that he actually put his team behind once or twice. But that’s why the Spartans have depth on depth. That’s why Valentine, who is undoubtedly one of the best in the game, doesn’t feel he has to do everything all of the time.
“I think with the type of team we have, we’re so deep, that as long as we see, ‘Alright, somebody’s bringing it,’ then the rest will follow–and that’s what we did tonight,” he said.
The rest followed? As in they helped with the heist?
“We kind of stole the game, like coach said. We stole it,” Valentine said, grinning. “But hey, every game is not going to be pretty, and we’re not going to just come out and just dog the team and come out and make plays, so you know, we had to do what we had to do.
We came out, made stops, made shots, showed we had courage and came out with the win.”
File this win under “March reference material.” It’ll probably be dug up several times prior to the tournament–along with the win over Kansas and the Wooden Legacy title.
The Spartans are deep.
But they’re only beginning to scratch the surface.