Couch: 3 quick takes on Michigan State basketball's 64-60 win over UConn at Battle 4 Atlantis
1. MSU was in big trouble against UConn. Then showed us something.
For the first time this season, we saw Michigan State go up against a more athletic opponent, one with length and shooters and a big man better than the Spartans’ own. And when Connecticut found its legs Thursday, MSU looked like it was in big trouble. For quite a while, other than Gabe Brown, the Spartans didn’t have much of a response. Even Brown disappeared for a bit in the second half.
MSU, though, showed something in the final five minutes — a fight, an unwillingness to let a seven-point deficit balloon, character things that matter. And enough basketball acumen, defense and free-throw shooting to get it done, 64-60, in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals in the Bahamas.
You learn a lot about the roster when it runs into a legitimate squad and finds itself on its heels. We saw the best we’ve seen yet of A.J. Hoggard (five assists, one turnover) and Julius Marble (15 points) down the stretch. We saw Gabe Brown again look like an alpha dog scorer and shot creator (16 points). We saw smart defensive play at the end, including a great steal by Malik Hall on an entry pass in the final seconds.
This MSU team, even at 5-1 and soon to be ranked, has a ways to go. They were overwhelmed for much of the second half. They’ve got to get more consistent scoring from folks other than Brown. But if you’re learning these lessons and learning about yourself while beating a UConn team that will likely be around for the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, then you’re on the right track.
2. Another significant showing by Marcus Bingham, who can learn from this
Marcus Bingham Jr. had his worst statistical showing the season. And yet I think it was again another revealingly and relatively positive performance — against the best big man he’s faced this season. UConn’s Adama Sanogo is a 6-foot-9, 240-pound load, with good skill around the rim. He had 30 points in the Huskies’ double-overtime win over Auburn on Wednesday. Against the Spartans, he had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. He took over the game in the second half for a while, including scoring a couple times against Bingham, who seemed to wear down a bit. But Sanogo was 1-for-6 against Bingham at one point in this game. That was a big part of MSU's early edge. Bingham has to learn from this. And so does MSU’s coaching staff. Bingham hasn’t needed any help yet this season. He did Thursday. They needed to help get the ball out of Sanogo’s hands earlier than they did.
At the end, for the first time this season, Bingham wasn’t the best option at center. It was Julius Marble, who continues to play with great confidence, especially on the offensive end. He’s a heckuva backup big man. But Bingham remains the key to a lot of MSU’s season. It’s probably good for him to finally lose a battle. Let’s see how he responds Friday.
3. Freshman thoughts – the UConn edition
I didn’t think we’d get a Pierre Brooks sighting in this one. He’s been firmly out of the rotation all season. But he looked ready for his moment when he checked in in the middle of the first half for an eventful three-minute stretch. He confidently drove the baseline and knocked in a floater on his first possession, turned the ball over on the drive the next time down the floor and, on the next possession, buried a 3 from the corner that put MSU ahead 24-14 after UConn had scored twice in a row.
That last 3, with no hesitation, was a significant play on a dish from A.J. Hoggard. Because UConn was beginning to find a rhythm offensively and Brooks’ 3 truly felt like an answer, worth more than the points it provided. That’s got to feel good for Brooks. And getting him involved in competitive games against big-time competition, even in short spurts, I think is important. It lets him know he’s part of things and perhaps on the cusp of a greater role. And, Thursday, he showed a little of what he can bring.
Max Christie struggled shooting the ball again, hitting just 1 of 9 shots, but MSU was plus-six with Christie in the game. He seemed to struggle with UConn’s length. Remember, Kansas played with a diminutive backcourt. Loyola isn’t overly long. This is the first real athletic length Christie’s had to deal with. Christie is still a smooth player, even when he’s not shooting well. His off-the-dribble pass to Bingham underneath on the first possession of the second half is the sort of play that only he and MSU’s point guards probably make. Then, however, you saw the frustration and the freshman in him, when he took a guarded 3 that just about missed everything and led to an alley-oop dunk the other way. And later, he turned it over with an errant pass as he ran into trouble on the drive. Christie will be fine. He’ll be better for games like this. It’s just a matter of how many of them he’ll have this season.
Jaden Akins, when he plays within himself, is already an asset to this MSU team. You can see it, especially on the glass. He has a knack for the ball. Where he gets into trouble is when he tries to do too much on his own offensively. He’s been pretty disciplined about that, however. And that’s why he’s seeing consistent minutes. Someday, Akins is going to be a big part of everything MSU does. This season, his role is defense, hustle, rebounding and taking open shots only.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.