In a single word, No. 8 Michigan State’s performance against No. 4 Michigan Tuesday night in East Lansing was dominant.
Four Spartans scored in double figures, on their way to a 75-52 win at the Breslin Center and the right to claim sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
Behind 16 points and five rebounds from senior Derrick Nix, Michigan State used a multifaceted approach to hand Michigan its worst loss of the season. Before tonight, the Wolverines’ largest margin of defeat was an eight point loss to No. 3 Indiana.
But Tuesday’s game says more about Michigan State, which will likely gain its share of bandwagoners after this performance.
For as much as Michigan has been praised for its number of offensive weapons, Michigan State has a similarly loaded arsenal, though with one key difference: interior depth. Whereas Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan can’t be counted on for consistent offensive production on a nightly basis, Nix and Adreian Payne are assets just waiting to be utilized.
Payne had four points Tuesday, but forward Branden Dawson helped to fill in the gaps with 10 points. If two of those three are active on any given night, in concert with the backcourt of Keith Appling and Gary Harris, the Spartans are tough to beat.
With Tuesday night as an example, the interior and transition approaches are the sparks for Michigan State. Once Nix got involved against a thin Michigan interior, the perimeter opened up as well. Harris finished with 17 points and Appling overcame a slow first half to finish with 11.
Against other Big Ten teams and into the NCAA tournament, the ability to play at different paces and still win is crucial. Having a range of offensive weapons helps accomplish that. The Spartans have shown the ability to do so, having won 49-47 over Wisconsin and 59-56 over Ohio State, but also showcasing the offensive power to hit the 75-point mark in five Big Ten victories.
But the true test will come in a grueling stretch from Feb. 19-March 7 for the Spartans. It is in that window that Michigan State meets No. 1 Indiana, followed by road games against No. 13 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan, before returning home to meet No. 20 Wisconsin.
Tough schedule or not, it has typically been unwise to bet against a Tom Izzo Michigan State team, come March. This year might be another example.