Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Michigan State’s loss to Duke and the dueling narratives of a team still trying to find itself

2 Comments

CHICAGO — Tom Izzo has never been a man to hide the way he feels.

For better or worse, he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and that certainly was the case on Tuesday night in the minutes after his No. 2-ranked Michigan State Spartans lost, 88-81, to No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic.

He blew through the handshake line, already making his way down the tunnel by the time the last player on the bench had finished shaking Duke hands. He gruffed his way through his postgame press conference, getting snippy with reporters he doesn’t typically get snippy with. He was not happy, and you couldn’t blame him for it.

With all the hype surrounding what has annually become the best night of non-conference college basketball, his Spartans had handed Duke a win on a silver platter.

That’s how the Spartans see it, at least.

They beat themselves.

“It was all about what we did,” Jackson said. “We fell apart from the game-plan, especially down the stretch. We played our worst.”

They were the ones that gave up 25 offensive rebounds to a Duke team that was missing Marvin Bagley III for the final 30 minutes. They were the ones that turned the ball over 17 times. They were, quite frankly, the team that struggled to do the same things that they struggled to do a season ago, when the Spartans lost 15 games, struggled to find a way to beat ranked teams and got worked by Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“We were right in the game,” Izzo said. “But we should be. We have a great team.”

And therein lies the frustration for Michigan State.

As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, and after Michigan State’s ballyhooed 2016 recruiting class struggled to live up to expectations, the fact that the four most important names on last season’s roster all opted to return to school generated a level of hype for the Spartans that is generally reserved for their three Champions Classic counterparts.

When Miles Bridges announced on April 13th that he will be returning to school, this season became about immediacy. Michigan State doesn’t have the time to let Cassius Winston or Josh Langford grow into the player that they have the potential to be. Tom Izzo needs them to be their best selves this year, this March. That’s when the window for these Spartans as a national title contender closes, when Bridges and Jackson likely head to the NBA.

Which is why Izzo, his team, his coaching staff and his fan base were all so frustrated last night.

Because aside from the addition of Jaren Jackson, Michigan State didn’t look like a team that was all that much different than last year’s team.

Winston finished with 11 assists, but he still found a way to turn the ball over five times and provide all of three points on 1-for-5 shooting. Langford shot 3-for-9 from the floor and tallied nine points.Bridges had four turnovers. Nick Ward had five turnovers and opted not to keep Duke off of the offensive glass and Jackson has never really been a bruiser. These are the same issues that plagued the Spartans last season.

There are still 29 more regular season games and two postseason tournaments left to play, but the early returns are in: There was no sophomore jump.

Now there are two ways to frame this narrative:

1. Michigan State blew a golden opportunity to land a marquee win. Bridges doesn’t quite know how to take over games the way Grayson Allen does, and, as a result, the Spartans just simply have not learned how to “win the big one”. They are, after all, still a young team, one whose core is now 20-16 in their careers whose only wins over ranked opponents came against then-No. 24 Minnesota and then-No. 16 Wisconsin last season.

This was a game they should have won once Marvin Bagley III went out, and they couldn’t get it done. Maybe this is just who they are.

Or …

2. What it required for Duke to get this win is not something that is going to be replicable. Michigan State’s front court did look dominant on the offensive end of the floor, even if they struggled to keep Duke’s big men off the offensive glass. Winston did hand out 11 assists even though the Spartans did not prepare to play against Duke’s 2-3 zone for 40 minutes. Miles Bridges had an off-night and still finished with 19 points, five boards, four assists and four blocks, hitting a handful of big shots down the stretch.

Oh, and should I mention that Duke’s best player put forward the single-best performance of his career and what may end up being the single-most dominant individual performance we see on a big stage this season?

Think about it like this: With three minutes left, Javin DeLaurier grabbed an offensive rebound, kicked the ball out and got Gray Trent Jr. an open look from three. Trent hit the shot, Duke took a 78-75 lead they would never relinquish and the game was lost. But what if the Spartans had been able to corral that rebound and got a three of their own at the other end of the floor?

My point is that that is how fine the margins were in this game.

Against the No. 1 team in the country.

There is no doubt that the Spartans have issues that need fixing.

No one can win with any kind of consistency giving up that many offensive rebounds and turnovers.

But the fact that they were a play or two from winning despite all those mistakes while playing college basketball’s best team is also significant. They’re not that far away.

I say all that to say this: We won’t know how this game fits into the narrative of Michigan State’s season until we see how the rest of the season plays out.

So don’t go burning your season tickets just yet, Spartan fans. All is not lost.

Rutgers lands upset win over No. 15 Seton Hall

Elsa/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Corey Sanders scored 22 points and Deshawn Freeman added 12 points and 16 boards as Rutgers landed the biggest win of the Steve Pikiell era to date, erasing a 13-point deficit to knock off in-state rival No. 15 Seton Hall, 71-65.

The Scarlet Knights finished the game on a 17-2 run over the final six minutes of the game, answering a 9-0 Seton Hall run that put the Pirates up 63-54. Rutgers did not lead until a free throw from Sanders with 2:22 left put them up 64-63.

The win was the first for Rutgers over Seton Hall in four tries, roughly the time frame that the Pirates have been relevant nationally, and it is precisely what Pikiell needed to continue building a program in Piscataway. Rutgers is now 10-3 on the season, but their three losses have all come to teams are in – or getting votes in – the top 25: Florida State, at Minnesota and Michigan State. As the saying goes, it isn’t really a rivalry until both teams have a chance to win the game, and this win proves just that.

But that’s not the only reason to be bullish on this program. Rutgers is also starting to recruit a little bit better. They sold out the RAC for this game.

He still has a long way to go, and building something out of nothing in the Big Ten is never going to be simple, but Pikiell has this thing going in the right direction.

As far as the Pirates are concerned, there is some reason to be worried here. A team with this kind of veteran presence should not be getting rattled and blowing leads down the stretch. Khadeen Carrington, who is making the adjustment to playing the point this season, was 4-for-17 from the floor with five turnovers, and he struggled to make plays when Seton Hall needed them in the final minutes. Angel Delgado finished just 3-for-9 from the floor.

I’m not sure this is the kind of situation where you need to be worried about their long-term prospects, but it is something to monitor.

No. 17 Purdue takes down Butler in Crossroads Classic

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

The annual Crossroads Classic opened with No. 17 Purdue running past Butler for a solid 82-67 win on Saturday afternoon. The Boilermakers continued a recent strong stretch of play with another road or neutral win against a power-conference opponent.

Here are three takeaways from this one.

1. Purdue is the second best team in the Big Ten (and the gap might be growing).

The Big Ten is a mess so far. Only Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State are 2-0 in league play. The Buckeyes aren’t expected to maintain their surprising hot start. Obviously, others in the Big Ten like Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern could all be dangerous. But those four teams have also been underwhelming and have a lot of glaring holes.

For the current moment, Purdue (11-2) clearly looks like the second best team in the Big Ten. And the gap seems to be getting wider during a seven-game winning streak. Outside of a weird two-game stretch at the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Boilermakers have put together a solid stretch that now includes road or neutral wins over Arizona, Maryland and Butler in the last few weeks.

Purdue has experience, unique size with 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, and capable perimeter shooters who can space the floor. The Boilermakers have good defenders at multiple positions. They outplayed Butler in nearly every facet of the game during a solid win on Saturday. Carsen Edwards (18 points) has matured as a solid leading scorer and plenty of players around him are double-figure scorers.

Butler isn’t likely to be a second-weekend NCAA tournament team, but they’re a solid postseason-caliber group that the Boilermakers made look silly for much of the game. Purdue knows itself. The Boilermakers know their personnel and they’re a veteran group. There’s a lot to like about Purdue at this point in the season.

2. Butler struggles mightily against length

Butler’s offense couldn’t get much of anything going on Saturday. The Bulldogs were ice-cold from the perimeter (7-for-22 from three-point range) and they didn’t fare much better when they tried to go inside (26-for-69).

The Bulldogs haven’t been a very good perimeter team in general this season — entering Saturday’s game with only 31 percent three-point shooting — and those problems were very apparent against Purdue. Without an ability to space the floor, attackers like Kelan Martin (15 points) and Kamar Baldwin (13 points) struggled to get anything going with the drive as the Boilermakers had a great defensive game plan to limit Butler’s looks. Senior big man Tyler Wideman (seven points) also had a hard time finishing over the length of players like Haas and Haarms at the rim.

Paul Jorgenson (15 points) had a big second half and he has been solid at times this season as a floor-spacing threat. The Bulldogs need more help for him on the outside. Sean McDermott has been labeled as a perimeter specialist, but he’s also returning from a recent injury and the Bulldogs are slowly bringing him back.

Butler’s offense is at its best when they can rely on Martin and Baldwin to attack. That wasn’t even close to the case on Saturday as both struggled to get going. It meant Butler didn’t stand much of a chance.

3. Purdue has some late-game turnover issues

Purdue has been generally solid with closing out games this season but they weren’t able to do so against Butler on Saturday.

It looked like the Boilermakers were going to cruise to an easy win before turnovers became an issue and Butler crept back in this one. While Purdue maintained most of its defensive intensity, its offense took a foot off the gas as Butler’s aggressiveness defending on the perimeter led to 18 Boilermaker turnovers.

Purdue is great at closing out games from the free-throw line if they need to. But their ball handlers need to limit turnovers and continue to run good offense if they build up a lead.

Purdue had trouble at times defending late leads last season. They’re now 10-0 this season when they have a halftime lead. Could this be an issue that comes back once again? It doesn’t seem likely but the second half on Saturday brought some ugly flashbacks.

VIDEO: Miami’s Lonnie Walker skies for ridiculous putback dunk

(Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Miami freshman guard Lonnie Walker timed this one perfectly.

The 6-foot-4 McDonald’s All-American came from across the floor to hammer home a left-handed putback on Saturday as Walker showed why many consider him to be a potential one-and-done prospect.

After a career-high 26 points in a win over Boston on Tuesday, it appears that Walker might be gaining confidence as ACC season approaches.

VIDEO: Memphis’ Jimario Rivers catches lob on Louisville’s Anas Mahmoud

ESPN screengrab
Leave a comment

Memphis senior forward Jimario Rivers caught a tough one-handed alley-oop on Saturday as Louisville senior big man Anas Mahmoud found himself on the receiving end.

This is one of the better lobs we’ve seen this season. Rivers got way up there for this one.

Northern Colorado basketball placed on probation by NCAA

Harry How/Getty Images
1 Comment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA placed the University of Northern Colorado men’s basketball program on three years’ probation among other sanctions Friday after finding academic fraud and recruiting violations by ex-coach B.J. Hill and some of his assistants.

The violations by Hill and eight members of his staff over a four-year span included completing coursework for prospects, paying for classes prospects needed to become academically eligible and arranging off-campus practice sessions with an academically ineligible student-athlete.

In addition to probation, penalties in the case include a one-year postseason ban (already served) for the men’s basketball team; a financial penalty; scholarship and recruiting restrictions; and a vacation of records.

Seven coaches received “show cause” orders, including a six-year penalty for the head coach, five years for two assistant coaches, four years for another assistant coach and three years for two assistant coaches and the graduate assistant. During the show cause periods, if an NCAA school hires the coach, that school must demonstrate why restrictions on the coach’s athletically related duties should not apply.

The NCAA concurred with the university’s self-imposed one-year postseason ban last season, a reduction of three scholarships and recruiting restrictions. Also, the school must return all proceeds from its 2011 NCAA Tournament appearance.

The rules violations spanned four years under Hill, a first-time head coach who personally completed coursework for a prospect and enlisted an athletic director to do the same, the NCAA found.

The NCAA said Hill recruited ineligible players, then broke rules to get them on the court.

Hill was fired last year when the NCAA began looking into the violations. He had gone 86-98 with two postseason appearances in six seasons after taking over the program in 2010 following a stint as an assistant in Greeley to current Colorado coach Tad Boyle.

The NCAA commended the university for its “exemplary cooperation” in the case and said Hill “admitted that he failed in his responsibilities to promote an atmosphere of compliance and monitor his staff.”

The panel said two assistant coaches violated ethical conduct rules for lying to investigators and a third failed to cooperate with the probe.