Well Irish fans, the #5 ranking was fun for the week that it lasted.
I, along with 3 MSU alumni that I call friends every day of the year except yesterday, made the 2-hour drive to East Lansing to catch the action in-person, looking forward to a clash of two top-5 teams.
What we got was a weird game full of runs and huge momentum shifts, with the Spartans having the vast majority of the momentum and ultimately blowing the Irish out down the stretch.
Below are my recap and observations from inside the newly-renovated Breslin Center at MSU, which I have never seen before and thus none of the renovation had any impact on me whatsoever.
We didn’t get into town until 6-something PM, and because we stopped to grab a quick bite to eat at Conrad’s (we went to Crunchy’s but realized we would miss tipoff if we waited to eat there — I got to hang out in the Crunchy’s alley for a few minutes, though, which was pretty cool!!!), I did not see any of the pregame festivities.
We hopped into our seats after the national anthem and introductions, and the game started immediately after that.
The Fighting Irish followed up their slow 1st half start against Wichita State last week in the Maui Invitational title game with another massively slow start in East Lansing. The Spartans, on the other hand, came out firing, with G Cassius Winston knocking down a three on the first possession of the game and F Nick Ward getting himself a bucket to make it a quick 5-0 lead for MSU.
By the under-16 timeout, Michigan State had already scored 14 points to Notre Dame’s 8, which was mainly propped up by 5 points from sophomore TJ Gibbs and a 3-pointer from junior Rex Pflueger.
During the under-16 timeout, the MSU dance team performed a dance, and I couldn’t believe that they didn’t bring pom poms out only to toss them aside to the delight of the student section, just as the ND pom squad does. Someone should tell them what the fans want, and maybe there’d be more excitement about their performances. Also during this timeout, I saw the kid in the gold jacket and hat who is in the front row of all the ND football and basketball student sections. I was very pleased that he made the trip.
Less than 2 minutes after game action resumed following the first media timeout, Notre Dame found themselves quickly down 20-8, and Mike Brey called a timeout to try to settle down a team that was playing sloppy offense and very porous defense while doing next to nothing rebounding the ball (they had just one rebound as a team essentially halfway through the first half. ONE!!!).
At this point, it was clear that the team needed Maui Brey to get inspired enough to take on such a huge, athletic, physical team as the Spartans. They were taking away everything the Irish wanted to do on offense, with BONZIE being neutralized by Jaren Jackson Jr.’s length and shot-blocking ability and guys like Winston, Joshua Langford, and Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. pestering Matt Farrell and Gibbs on the perimeter. Furthermore, Ward and co. were absolutely CLEANING UP on the glass.
And none of what I said even included future NBA lottery pick Miles Bridges, who is as good as advertised when he wants to be. Bridges was held relatively in check by Rex Pflueger and by the ND zone defense on the night, held to just 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting. But he still made tons of plays, served as a great decoy to allow guys like Langford to have huge nights, and delivered on multiple awesome alley-oops, including one in the first half in transition that nearly brought the house down, and, which replays showed, was a dunk that was thrown down on top of his own teammate, Ward, who was also looking to get a bucket of his own in transition as he saw the pass hurtling toward him.
Miles Bridges alley-oop. Nasty pic.twitter.com/1sOSJV0wgK— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) December 1, 2017
Long story short: Miles Bridges is the real deal, and Rex Pflueger deserves plenty of credit for keeping him contained for most of the game. Bridges needs to be more aggressive attacking the hoop, but it’s still very evident how good he is and how good he will be in the NBA next season.
At the under-12 timeout, MSU held a 27-11 lead and Langford was leading the way for the Spartans, catching fire in the first half from mid-range.
During that timeout, MSU did a panoramic photo of the arena. I held a thumbs up for a good 15 seconds before getting tired of doing so. Hopefully the camera panned over me during that time.
As the half continued, BONZIE continued to struggle to get shots up down low with the size of Jackson Jr., Ward, etc. Luckily for him, Jackson Jr. got into foul trouble in both halves, giving BONZIE the opportunity to not have his shot absolutely swatted away like what happened when he and other Irish teammates tried to shoot near Jackson Jr. on a couple different occasions. If it weren’t for the foul trouble that limited him to just 14 minutes, I think Jaren Jackson Jr. gets a lot more than the 3 blocks he accumulated.
ND went on a blistering 4-0 run to cut the deficit to 16, but a couple MSU free throws made it 33-15 at the under-8 first half timeout.
This led us to MSU’s first T-Shirt Toss Time, which went not quite how I expected. At Purcell, you always see tons of grown-ass adults jumping up and clamoring for a free t-shirt they definitely don’t need and which might not even fit them. But at MSU, the majority of the adults I could see were not excitedly begging for a shirt to be shot out of a cannon at them.
However, one of the friends I was with — we will call him Nate (because that’s his name) — did stand up, anxiously trying to wave down the t-shirt tossers. Unfortunately he was not rewarded with a t-shirt, and was visibly upset. I asked him for a comment:
“The trajectory of the t-shirt shooter was heading my way, but abruptly stopped and was taken back to the locker room, or wherever they keep it. We’re still winning, and that’s all that matters, and it’s also an honor to be sitting next to you tonight.”
Nate was indeed correct, as MSU extended its lead further, up 39-20 with 4:30 left in the half. The Spartans were shooting very well from the field, but more importantly were owning the boards and doing a great job on Notre Dame’s best players.
At halftime, with a 46-26 lead, Michigan State had held BONZIE COLSON to just 6 points in the half, and Matt Farrell hadn’t scored at all. The Irish were led by Gibbs’ 11 points and Pflueger’s 7, but shot just 38% from the field and 27% from deep.
Meanwhile, the Spartans shot a respectable 51% from the field in the half while also crushing the Irish in the rebounding department, out-rebounding them 24-11.
Per usual, I studied the halftime entertainment intently, readying myself to rate it on a scale of 1 to Red Panda, where Red Panda is the greatest possible halftime entertainment of all-time.
Michigan State, for its biggest non-conference home game and potentially only home game against a ranked opponent until February, trotted out a half-hearted musical chairs game with a bunch of fans. Basically, people who I think were students pulled out of the Izzone were given basketballs and told to dribble around a set of chairs (6 people, 5 chairs) as music was played. When the music stopped, they all had to run to a hoop, make a shot, and run back to the chairs, where they had to sit in one and claim it as their own.
This was a pretty uneventful exercise as they narrowed the field a couple times, removing a chair each time, as one does in musical chairs.
Eventually, though, with 3-4 people left, we had some drama. The final chair for the round had yet to be claimed, and the remaining two folks had both just made layups, but on opposite sides of the court. What ensued was an all-out sprinting race to the final chair, and the more aggressive of the two people threw his body into the chair and into the other person who was running at the chair at full speed, decking them and falling over themselves while sitting in the chair.
This was pretty entertaining, and the next round, a similar situation happened with the same kid who decked the kid last round and another kid. This time, the other kid knew he would lose that game of chicken, and swerved at the last second to let the aggressive kid win again.
I do not remember if the aggressive kid won, but he made it a little fun for a bit. I would have probably given this a 2 rating, but because that kid was so aggressive in a game of musical chairs in front of thousands of people, I’ll officially give it a 3.
He may not have been in Maui Brey form, but ND coach Mike Brey clearly used halftime to make some key second half adjustments, as the Irish came back out and immediately cut the deficit in half in less than 4 minutes of play, making it 50-40 at the under-16 timeout.
As the game moved on, though, the Irish still struggled to stop Langford, who kept coming up with big shot after big shot to kill ND’s momentum and stop them from stringing together baskets and stops. Langford finished with 17 points on the night on 7-of-13 shooting and was one of the most crucial players on the floor for MSU throughout this one.
Still, ND persisted, cutting the Spartans’ lead to as little as 7 at one point. With about 10 minutes left in the contest, it was 57-49 MSU, and the Irish seemed to be making the same kind of comeback they pulled off against Wichita State.
From there, the gap between the two teams increased to 11-12 and hovered around there for a while. At the under-8, MSU led 63-51.
At this point, I’d like to briefly discuss the music selection at Breslin, as it was almost* always great and seemed like the DJ was actually me, picking songs from Spotify. They played “Timber,” Pitbull and Kesha’s timeless anthem that is easily my favorite banger ever, and the MSU band played “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers, which had me belting out the song amongst a bunch of MSU fans who looked at me funny, because they are lame and don’t sing along to “Mr. Brightside.”
*This asterisk serves as a call-out that the Breslin Center put up a dance cam on the video board, and proceeded to play the theme song from Friends. Now, I’ve only ever seen a few episodes of the show, so my appreciation of the song is certainly less than others. But, I cannot for the life of me understand why that song was chosen for a dance cam. That’s not a song you put on to dance to, and even if it sort of was, you have one or two dance cams per game. Maybe pick songs that are sure-fire dance-bangers and not theme songs from TV shows that were never on the air in the lives of the current student body. Okay, rant over, thanks for listening.
During this particular timeout, the DJ threw on Flo Rida’s hit from a couple years ago, “My House.” My friend Nate tried to sing along, but he definitely does not know the words.
When play resumed, a Winston 3-pointer and a Bridges dunk in transition extended the MSU lead back out to 15 with 6:30 left. ND would get it to 12 by the 4:30 mark, but from there it was all MSU, as the Spartans went on another run while the Irish couldn’t get shots to fall.
With a 74-59 lead during the timeout, my friend Nate was very content with the game, and turned his focus to other important issues — i.e., the mini-basketballs they were tossing into the crowd. Nate once again got on his feet and attempted to sway cheerleaders (who don’t know he exists and can’t hear him) to shoot/throw a mini-basketball his way. Again, unfortunately, Nate came away empty. Maybe another day, Nate.
MSU closed out the game strong, and as Nikola Djogo and Matt Gregory got scant amounts of playing time in the final minute, the Spartans celebrated a dominant 81-63 victory over the #5 team in the country.
The Irish ended the game with shooting percentages of 44% from the field (meh) and 44% from 3 (not too shabby!), and made 7-of-10 free throws. BONZIE COLSON, unencumbered by Jaren Jackson Jr.’s long arms while Jackson Jr. was on the bench in foul trouble, finished the game with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 5 steals, and 4 blocks. However, he did struggle some shooting on the evening, making just 6-of-19 from the field.
Rex Pflueger had 15, Farrell had 10 points and 7 assists, and Gibbs had 11. Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben added 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a couple classic Geben dunks. The Irish bench, meanwhile, contributed next-to-nothing offensively, with an Austin Torres layup being the only 2 points scored by ND non-starters, as most of them did not play very many minutes (DJ Harvey led the way with 16 minutes).
Michigan State finished the game having shot 52% from the field and 43% from deep, making 71% of their free throws along the way. Langford and Winston each had 17 points.
Winston chipped in 7 assists and 5 rebounds along with his game-lead-tying point total, and was probably the biggest reason MSU was able to hold off ND’s run and then extend its lead late in the second half, as he hit 5-of-6 from deep and just had a very efficient and productive game overall. Bridges had 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists, and Ward had 12 and 5 to add to the collectively strong effort from Tom Izzo’s squad.
Oh, and Michigan State out-rebounded Notre Dame overall 42-21. That’s a HUGE stat from this one, folks.
Stray Thoughts and Observations
- I was really impressed with Rex Pflueger last night. The guy had the task of guarding future lottery pick Miles Bridges whenever the Irish weren’t in zone, and he also had a really nice offensive game, showing a much more aggressive and confident side that we haven’t yet seen this season. If he can keep channeling that, it will be HUGE for this team
- Similarly, I thought Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben looked great. He was a little shaky in the first half going up against all of MSU’s bigs, but he played tough, efficient basketball in the second half and was showing a ton of confidence/swagger, especially when he swatted a couple shots down low. He dunked the ball hard a few times as well, and so I think games like Wichita State and this one have been huge in the development of Geben into being a major contributor in ACC play and in the postseason
- BONZIE struggled to score down low for the first time in a while (not sure I can remember at all, actually, when he struggled that much). It was almost exclusively due to Jaren Jackson Jr., whose size and length and timing on blocked shots was just completely altering how BONZIE scores in the paint. That kind of length makes shots at the hoop nearly impossible and makes the patented COLSON fadeaway mid-range jumpers much more difficult.
Luckily, Jackson Jr. didn’t play many minutes due to foul trouble. Additionally, I don’t think BONZIE will see too many bigs like Jackson Jr. the rest of the way, but teams like Duke and UNC do have similar types of guys who could give BONZIE issues. Still, BONZIE’s game is versatile enough where he should be able to get buckets in mid-range and from deep when down low is a struggle.
- Mike Brey wasn’t given much choice based on how they played, but it’s clear that he does not trust his bench much right now. Austin Torres saw about 6-7 more minutes than I expected him to see (he played 9), which shows just how ineffective Elijah Burns and John Mooney were. DJ Harvey got to play down the stretch, which will probably pay dividends later in the year. However, last night, he looked shaky and clearly being a true freshman in that environment was not an easy or successful experience.
- Matt Farrell needs to get going sooner. He can’t go scoreless in the first half if this team doesn’t want to dig itself into a hole every game. He ended up playing a solid second half and hitting a few shots, but he HAS to do more early on to get the team moving.
- At the end of the day, the biggest takeaway for Irish fans needs to be this: MSU is just really, really good. Along with Duke, I would say they’re on a whole other level in terms of talent, depth, size, and physicality.
They’ve got a future NBA starter in Miles Bridges, a great wing scorer in Josh Langford, hefty and long and tall bigs who do all the dirty work while also bringing polished offensive games (Nick Ward, Jaren Jackson Jr.), and very talented guards (Cassius Winston can do a little bit of everything, Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn is an excellent defender, passer, ball handler, and leader, Matt McQuaid is a very strong outside shooter). Put simply — I think this is Tom Izzo’s best team in a LONG time. Losing to them by 18 sucks, but it was in East Lansing and the Irish showed a lot of fight and the ability to make a run and get it close against one of the best teams in the country. That bodes well for the rest of the season.