We got our first taste of the Michigan State Spartans without Eron Harris, and the result was a dominating 88-72 win for Izzo’s bunch.
While a win over Nebraska isn’t necessarily a massive resume boost, any and all wins are important for a Michigan State team straddling the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Spartans looked the part Thursday night, pushing the tempo and controlling the paint in their third-highest scoring game of the season.
Here’s what we took from Michigan State’s win over the Huskers:
What We Learned:
1. The Eron Harris injury didn’t linger.
When Eron Harris went down with a gruesome knee injury on Feb. 17 at Purdue, it sucked the air out of Mackey Arena and certainly the Michigan State sideline.
Harris was third on the team in minutes (22.9) and points (10.7). He was also a 39 percent 3-point shooter.
More importantly, though, Harris was a senior guard that head coach Tom Izzo said spent more time in the gym than anyone on the team. So replacing Harris was a tall task for Michigan State.
It showed early Thursday. The Spartans couldn’t find any offensive rhythm in the opening minutes and had as many turnover (3) as points in the first four minutes. Michigan State also shot just 27 percent from behind the arc for the game.
About midway through the half, though, Tum Tum Nairn, Jr. pushed the tempo and dictated the pace of the game the rest of the way. Michigan State finished with 12 transition points and 22 points in the paint in the first half.
Once the pace of play increased, the loss of Harris became less of an issue as the rest of the Spartans filled the gaps.
2. Bridges and Ward are bullies.
We’ve known about Miles Bridges all season long. He opened the season with 21 points and seven rebounds in a 2-point loss to Arizona, and he’s established himself as Michigan’s top threat and leading scorer at 16. 1 points per game. He does most of his damage inside but still shoots 41 percent from 3-point territory.
After the Spartans got off to a slow start Thursday, Bridges led the charge to push MSU to a 49-31 halftime lead. He blew by defenders for easy layups and fooled them with quick post moves.
Then, he caught an alley-oop of the glass on a fast break that electrified the Izzone. He immediately followed the throw down with a corner 3 on his way to a game-high 20 points.
Joining Bridges atop the scoring column was big man Nick Ward, another freshman who plays more mature than his age. Ward averages 12.9 points in 13 less minutes than Bridges. He’s scored in double digits in six of his last seven games — he had just 6 against potential Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan.
Bridges is a projected lottery pick, but Ward is becoming a Robin to Bridges’ Batman and causing plenty of problems around the room. And he’s flying somewhat under the radar in the process.
3. Michigan State should be safe.
It’s been 20 years since Tom Izzo hasn’t taken a team to the Big Dance. Don’t expect that streak to be snapped next month.
Michigan State’s 2017 resume isn’t as illustrious as it typically is. The Spartans’ record is just 17-11, and their most impressive wins are against Minnesota, Michigan and Northwestern. Maybe Wichita State.
They also lost to Northeastern by 8.
But they’ve also played the 14th toughest schedule in the country. The Spartans finished 19-15 in 2011 and earned an at-large 10-seed — lost by 2 to UCLA — and they were 27-12 two years ago on their way to the Final Four.
It’s tough to count out a Tom Izzo team, and their tough early-season schedules tend to help them in March.
A win over Nebraska doesn’t guarantee a tourney berth, and the eye test isn’t always a determining factor, although the Spartans met that test Thursday. A win over Wisconsin and/or Maryland in their final three games would be the resume boost they need, but they’re moving already moving comfortably in the right direction away from the bubble.
Thursday’s win certainly showed what the Spartans are capable of, even with the loss of the senior Harris. Michigan State plays two of their final three games on the road, including one against #24 Maryland to go with a home game against #16 Wisconsin.
Wins over one or both of those ranked teams could scare a lot of Big Ten teams heading into the conference tournament and bring out the Sharpies on a few selection committee members’ brackets.
Nebraska won’t be enjoying a trip to the Big Dance, but they’ve done a good job of making things tough on plenty of conference foes. They’ve been a steady nuisance this season and are a couple strong recruits away from making it back to the tournament.