On the heels of their worst defensive showing of the season in a 13-point loss at Iowa, No. 1 Michigan State rebounded Saturday afternoon with a 69-61 win at Minnesota.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans limited Minnesota to 33.8 percent shooting from the field and 5-for-20 from three, a far cry from the numbers Iowa was able to produce Tuesday night. The Hawkeyes shot better than 48 percent from the field, the best a Michigan State opponent has shot this season, routinely finding quality looks and outworking the Spartans on both ends of the floor.
That wasn’t the case against Minnesota. And while it is clear that Iowa has more talent than Minnesota, getting back to playing the hard-nosed defense their head coach demands of them is a positive response from a Michigan State team still playing without its leader in Denzel Valentine.
Offensively Michigan State did what it had to do in order to pick up the victory, but they’re still a bit disjointed without the versatile senior playmaker. Michigan State committed 11 turnovers, resulting in 14 Minnesota points that helped Richard Pitino’s team stay in the game. In three games without Valentine, Michigan State is averaging 14 turnovers per game, nearly three more than their average in the 12 games Valentine’s played in (11.2 tpg).
When the Spartans took care of the basketball Saturday they were able to produce points more times than not, shooting 49 percent from the field and 17-for-20 from the foul line.
Bryn Forbes led four Spartans in double figures with 20 points, and Matt Costello added 17 and 15 rebounds with fellow big men Gavin Schilling (eight points, five rebounds) and Deyonta Davis (ten points, four rebounds) also being solid performers. It goes without saying that there’s a clear difference in this team with Valentine off the court; it would be incredibly difficult for any team to not skip a beat with their best player out of the lineup.
With Valentine sidelined the “little things” become that much more important for Michigan State, and after being outworked in Iowa City the Spartans were closer to their true selves against Minnesota.
No. 1 Michigan State’s trip to Boston to take on Northeastern wasn’t expected to be an easy one, as the Huskies are an experienced and talented group that picked up a win at No. 15 Miami earlier this season. And that’s how things played out at the start, with Bill Coen’s team dominating the boards and controlling the tempo.
But after a sloppy first ten minutes Tom Izzo’s team played at the level one would expect of the nation’s best team, going on to win 78-58 in a game shown on NBCSN.
At one point in the first half Northeastern had more offensive rebounds (nine) than Michigan State had total rebounds (five), with Zach Stahl and Kwesi Akabah proving particularly difficult for the Spartans to keep off the glass. But once Michigan State’s front court managed to complete defensive possessions with a rebound the Spartans were able to get out in the open floor and increase the game’s tempo, turning a tight game into a comfortable victory by game’s end.
Denzel Valentine accounted for 17 points, five rebounds and six assists, and by game’s end Michigan State finished with more second chance points than Northeastern (14-13). Add in 14 points off of 12 Northeastern turnovers, and Michigan State moved one win (12-0) closer to producing the best start in program history. Offensively the Spartans shot nearly 56 percent from the field and had three players reach double figures, with Bryn Forbes (12 points) and Tum Tum Nairn (11) joining Valentine.
Also of note for Michigan State was the return of forward Gavin Schilling, who missed the first 11 games due to injury. Schilling played just 11 minutes, producing four points and three rebounds, but he was the team’s best big man during their summer trip to Italy and his return gives the Spartans another option to call upon inside. That will be key for them moving forward, as he’ll join a rotation that includes fellow veteran Matt Costello and freshmen Deyonta Davis and Kenny Goins.
Michigan State’s first-shot defense was very good Saturday afternoon, as Northeastern shot just 37.3 percent from the field with David Walker scoring 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting. But the game didn’t change in their favor until the Spartans got back to cleaning up the defensive glass as they had in the 11 games prior, and that attention to detail will be key as Michigan State plays games of even greater magnitude later in the season.