If this year's version of Michigan State basketball was to live up to their lofty preseason expectations, then Saturday's game in Austin, Texas against a formidable Longhorn squad was one they had to win. The Spartans lived up to the billing in their first true road test of the season. In a game that could conceivably get overlooked, with the gauntlet that is the Big Ten season looming, Tom Izzo's club proved their maturity in the second half behind strong games from future first round picks: Adreian Payne and Gary Harris. While Harris is the more touted prospect in NBA circles, this game belonged to Payne.
Until Travis Trice nailed a three-pointer almost seven minutes into the contest, Payne had recorded all nine Spartan points to keep the game close as Texas started fast on their home floor. From then on the 6'10" senior just continued his dominance. Payne's final line of 33 points on 10-13 shooting and netting 11-12 free throws doesn't do justice to the impact of his performance. His presence was needed more then ever in the absence of production from fellow senior Keith Appling, who has battled a hip pointer since taking a hard fall against North Carolina in the beginning of the month. Payne, who has been dealing with planter fasciitis himself, gutted through the pain to carry the Spartans in the second half after Michigan State trailed by two at recess.
CBS color commentator Greg Anthony rightfully pointed out the "luxury" the Spartans had in being able to throw the ball into their senior leader and let him go to work when other key players were struggling. Payne bullied Texas center Cameron Ridley in the paint en route to scoring 19 of his 33 in the second half. Other good news for the Spartans was what looked like a healthier Gary Harris. Harris, who has battled a bum ankle in recent weeks, had noticeably more lift on his jump shot and used that to score 19 points as well as five dimes.
In the end, the Spartans were, as they always have been, dominant on the defensive end of the court. After Jonathon Holmes ripped the ball from Branden Dawson and finished the layup to put Texas up two with 11:02 to play Izzo's club answered and never looked back. Overall, Michigan State outrebounded the Longhorns, who had been averaging nearly ten more boards per game then their opponents, 25-13 in the second half. Combine that with holding Texas to under 40% shooting after the break and the result is the Spartans cruising to a comfortable 92-78 win in Austin.
The lasting image of Saturday's win was Denzel Valentine's off-the-backboard assist to Branden Dawson in transition. However, what to take away from the most lopsided win by Michigan State in this series' history is more prevalent. This team is really deep, and really well coached. The latter is a given, but considering Tom Izzo's starters, minus Adreian Payne, combined for just 23 points on 10-29 shooting there is much to be excited about in East Lansing as this squad continues to heal.
The Spartans wrap up non-conference play against New Orleans on Saturday before facing a gauntlet to start Big Ten play with 4 of their first 6 games on the road with 4 of these matchups including Ohio State, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota. This win should provide much confidence for MSU going forward.
(Note: This article was written by Andy Creal.)