Jan. 14, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
It's not readily known when Michigan State took the detour to Bizarro World.
However, the signposts marking the Spartans' current route couldn't have been clearer than they were Sunday night during a 66-56 victory over undermanned Nebraska in the Breslin Center.
The strange manner in which No. 22 MSU (14-3, 3-1 Big Ten) won the game had nothing to do with freshman guard Gary Harris finally breaking it open with a 3-point field goal with 1:49 remaining. After all, Harris is a highly trained shooter who was recruited to ignite 9-0 runs that result in 10-point leads, as he did against the Cornhuskers (9-8, 0-4).
The peculiarity of the situation has everything to do with Harris' triple being the last of just four baskets made by him and fellow guards Keith Appling, Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice, who together hoisted 26 shots in the general direction of the rim.
Furthermore, Harris had missed each of his 10 previous attempts before knocking down the game's biggest shot.
Meantime, big men Derrick Nix, who went 6-for-9 from the floor to lead Michigan State with 17 points, Adreian Payne (6-for-6, 14 points) and Branden Dawson (6-for-7, 12 points) combined for 18-of-22 accuracy and 43 points.
The Spartans made four 3-pointers in all, and even one of those belonged to Payne, who improved to 1-for-2 from behind the arc this season and 2-for-5 for his career.
"There were some backward things that happened tonight," said head coach Tom Izzo. "It just doesn't make sense. How can our bigs shoot 90 percent and our guards 10? This is the weirdest 14-3 (start), while playing a pretty good schedule, that I've ever been involved with here.
"It doesn't mean it's awful; it's just different."
And yet, there was nothing at all odd about the way Harris continued to take shots into the double digits until he made one, or that Izzo called the play that accounted for his only "make" of the game. Harris was so desperate to get off the schneid he even drove forcefully to the basket, only to see his prospective dunk clang off the front of the rim.
Nevertheless, Harris wasn't taken aback when Izzo didn't choose to stay with Payne's hot hand, which produced two silky fadeaway jumpers and a pull-up jumper during a three-minute sequence in the first half. And, it didn't occur to Harris to remind Izzo that he wasn't exactly shooting the lights out.
"No, it wasn't a surprise at all," Harris said. "Coach has faith in me, and so do my teammates, and I was able to knock down the shot. You've just got to have a short memory and keep playing."
Harris did make all six of his free throws to finish with nine points and although Appling made just 1 of 6 shots from the field and ended up with only eight points, he matched his career-high with nine assists.
"I didn't feel like the guards brought enough energy," Harris said. "I thought we came out a little flat. That's something we can control, and we've got to be better at that. Our bigs picked us up when we were down, so I think that's good.
"We're moving in the right direction."
Harris resumed wearing a brace on his left (non-shooting) shoulder, which he injured in November, but didn't blame it for his shooting woes.
"I think it's more mental than anything," he said. "I don't think it affects me that much. I'm back with the brace for good so I don't have to worry about my shoulder popping out anymore. It's precautionary."
Said Izzo, "It had nothing to do with the brace. That was the first time he shot that poorly all year, but he still played great defense and played 36 minutes. He had seven rebounds and was 6-for-6 from the line. Our lack of good screening and their good defense was the main reason. In no way am I worried about Gary Harris."
Izzo's concern meter did red-line when Dawson, who's playing on a surgically repaired knee, went down with 14:01 remaining. As Dawson writhed in pain on the court, Izzo said, "I was scared to death the kid did his knee again."
Izzo stressed that the mishap was not caused by a Nebraska player, and that after Dawson jogged from the locker room back to the bench, he was relieved that the diagnosis was only a minor tweak.
In another crazy twist, at least Dawson came out of the incident knowing a little bit more about what his knee is able to endure. And while Izzo was miffed by the way Dawson jammed a lob pass from Appling for an unnecessary showy dunk with one second remaining, he came out knowing Dawson didn't lose any of the explosiveness he was gradually bringing back to his game.
With the Spartans coming upon a torrid stretch of games, Payne wasn't about to carry the topsy-turvy theme that played out against the Cornhuskers too far. For example, he had no plans to lobby Izzo for time at shooting guard to help get the backcourt going.
"I wouldn't mind, but I think that would just be more pressure on me by taking me even more out of my comfort zone," Payne said. "But I'm not worried about it. Our guards are going to start playing better and once they do, we're going to be a much better team.
"The one thing we've been talking about as a team in our meetings is that we haven't had everybody play well in one game. Once we get that going, we're going to be a much better team, and the light will go on."
Throughout his 18 seasons, Izzo's had teams that have had to win in almost every way imaginable. He's had plodding teams that had to walk the ball up the court just to have a chance; there were times when MSU's best offensive option was a missed shot, an offensive rebound and a putback; there've been clubs that could win track meets; and recently Izzo had a couple that had to grind for everything they got.
This edition of the Spartans may be the one that proves to him he still hasn't seen it all.
"Our guards aren't going to shoot this bad again," he said. "I really believe that. It's been a different year, and I still think we haven't played near our best yet. I don't think we've had three or four guys play well together.
"The guys have been great and they've worked pretty hard, but I worry that maybe we're looking at (the records of the opposition). I guess we've got one more game (Wednesday at Penn State), and then we've got seven games in a row against ranked teams or whatever. So, maybe we'll play better then, but we've got to play better Wednesday to win on the road."