Nov. 10, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State is off and running.
Literally, with a varnish-peeling fast break, and figuratively, toward stated goals only a handful of teams around the nation dare speak out loud with the confidence they'll be taken seriously.
The No. 2-ranked Spartans' 98-56 season-opening victory against McNeese State in the Breslin Center Friday night served as a tease for Tuesday's nationally hyped showdown against No. 1 Kentucky in Chicago.
If one game against a smallish team that finished 7-11 last season in Southland Conference said anything about MSU, going into its stakes race against the thoroughbred program from Lexington, it's that it can get up and down the floor, share the ball, shoot and rebound.
"When you get three guys with a double-double, when you get 32 assists on 42 baskets, when you get five or six guys in double-figures, and still not playing anybody over 26-27 minutes, I think there's a lot of positives," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
The Spartans weren't, by any means, perfect.
But from the time Gary Harris sunk MSU's first shot of the season for a 3-point field goal, to Branden Dawson's back-to-back dunks that kept the crowd invested despite the 47-point bulge with five minutes to play, they oozed personality.
"One thing this team does do for you, is it's been a fun team to be around so far," Izzo said. "Let's face it, it's going to get a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot tougher, and I don't mean just Tuesday, but from here on out.
"But, they do kind of stick together. Hopefully, our identity is (that we're) going to run, but the other parts of the identity is we've still got to rebound so we can run, and I think we have to defend better."
The Spartans did that against the Cowboys with a 66-29 rebounding margin, 40 fast-break points and 10-for-26 shooting from 3-point range.
Harris, the sophomore shooting guard and Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, was dazzling with 20 points and a career-high 10 rebounds. However, Dawson, the junior forward who spent all last season looking for another gear while coming back from offseason knee surgery, saw his RPMs increase significantly with 12 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high five assists, while senior forward Adreian Payne chipped in 10 points and 10 rebounds.
It was the first time MSU produced three double-doubles in the same game since Steve Smith had 23 points and 12 rebounds, Ken Redfield had 22 and 10 and Jesse Hall put up 14 and 11 against the University of Detroit in 1988.
Nevertheless, Harris said, "We have a lot of room for improvement. We kind of got sloppy with it today, with 15 turnovers. So we have to clean that up. But when got to running, we got dunks and that definitely gets us going."
Even so, 15 turnovers would have been a sigh of relief for Izzo last season when managing giveaways was a constant challenge, and likely will be against Kentucky's talent-laden, but young, lot.
"The focus for all of us, especially our upperclassmen, is to try to come out and do what we're supposed to do," Payne said. "It was us just trying to get comfortable with the pace. We were trying to get our break going, get the ball up the court fast and run our offense."
Dawson looked like a different player, or rather, the player he was before getting hurt in the final regular season game of his freshman year. There was no trace of the tentativeness that would have kept him from matching up athletically with Kentucky last season.
"We didn't run anything for him, and he was unbelievable," Izzo said. "He just made a lot of things happen. He got a lot of loose balls, he was the only guy in there rebounding at times, tipping balls, running the lane, passing.
"That's the Branden Dawson I thought we'd see. I'm happy for him. The kid has been through a lot, but I think he learned something tonight, too. A motor is an interesting thing and when he turns that thing up and cranks it up, he's a pretty good player."
Izzo has never made a secret of his desire to get a lot of points in transition, even though the playbook for his halfcourt sets is as thick as the New York City Yellow Pages. If the Spartans aren't able to beat teams with an up-tempo attack this season, it won't be due to a lack of depth.
"We just kept running `em and running `em, and we saw that they were kind of tired, so we just kept running," Dawson said. "We just ran the floor. When I walked up to the bench (Izzo) said, `That's what I'm talking about, that's the kind of player you are. You can change the whole game.'
"It's kind of nice. I feel good and my body's 100 percent. I'm not thinking about the injury anymore."
"When we looked at it, we didn't know they were that great in transition," said McNeese State coach Dave Simmons. "They talk about up-tempo, and the kind of style we want to play is exactly what they did. From top to bottom, they're just a very deep basketball team and you can't underestimate anybody who's coming off the bench because they can play.
"I'm looking forward to watching their game on Tuesday."
Not nearly as much as Izzo.
"Now we get to do something that I've been waiting a long time to do," he said, "and that's to get a chance to play in a big game early in the season. This is kind of what your dream of when you have a job like this.
"You dream of having opportunities to play the best and see where you are. This is going to be an epic. I can't wait."