Exactly one year ago--to the day--Texas beat Michigan State at the Erwin Center to move to 11-0. It was a well-played and entertaining game, and it seemingly validated all the hype over the talented Texas squad. Furthermore, that win against MSU was preceded by a similarly impressive win against North Carolina only a few days earlier. Incredibly, last year's game against the Spartans turned out to be the last time Texas defeated a ranked opponent; despite the Horns' early-season success, they went 0-6 against ranked teams to close out the season.
Tonight, with a 67-55 victory over the Spartans, Texas once again pulled off the impressive feat of beating North Carolina and Michigan State in the span of a few days. Even more impressively, they won both games on the road. In fact, tonight's victory ended Michigan State's much-publicized streak of 52 consecutive home victories against non-conference opponents. Essentially, Texas was the first non-con team to win a game in East Lansing in the last 7 years. This was exactly the type of game--against a good team and hostile crowd--that young teams can be expected to lose. But we didnt. Tonight was a virtuoso win, even if wasn't exactly a virtuoso performance. Texas did enough to win, but, unlike last year, I doubt this will be their best performance of the season. To put it more simply, the win tonight feels bigger and more important than our actual performance, which was really-good-but-not-great.
If you didnt see the game, the last few sentences might be confusing. After the jump, I'll try to provide some clarity...
Game Narrative: Considering that Texas trailed for less than one minute of the entire game, the player notes from tonight are far more meaningful than an extended recap of the two halves. In watching the game, the narrative tonight is fairly simple. Texas built up an early first-half lead, blew it over the last 4 minutes, and then delivered a total beatdown in the second half. More specifically, if you take out the last 4:00 of the first-half, Texas outscored the Spartans 64-44 over the other 36 minutes.
However, an even simpler explanation for tonight's game--which dominated the ESPN post-game analysis--is that Michigan State did not play very well. A lot of their poor performance had to do with Texas's pressure, intensity, and tenacity on the defensive end, but both halves contained a plethora of comedic misses and miscues from the Spartans. As one of my friends put it during the game, "for an experienced team, they are making some pretty ridiculous mistakes." In the first half, the Spartans shot an even-worse-than-it-looks 29% (11-37), a feat which continually seemed to perplex Jay Bilas. MSU threw away several passes, made some really terrible decisions with the basketball, and, at one point, even caused Tom Izzo to do one of the most epic facepalms in the history of facepalms.
However, while the Spartans' first half performance felt pretty egregious, their second half was even worse. Texas out-everything'd the Spartans over the last 20 minutes, including holding a 22-20 rebounding advantage. Perhaps most impressively, Texas had 8 steals in the second half, several of which led to dunks in transition. Similar to the first half, Michigan State missed several point-blank shots, and actually shot an even lower percentage (28%) in the second half.
All that said, I dont mean to diminish tonight's win in any way. Texas played some really spirited basketball tonight, and the victory can hardly be called a fluke. As a Texas fan, this game was a lot of fun to watch. We flat-out beat Michigan State on their home court. We beat them bad enough that their fans booed them during the second half, and many of them left the game early. Road wins of this magnitude just dont happen very often.
Onto the player evaluations...
Jordan Hamilton: Another big-time opponent, another 20-8 performance from Jordan Hamilton. It really amazes me how he can score 20 points in games where it doesnt even feel like he has everything working. Tonight, Jordan took 4 three-pointers in the first 5 minutes and seemed to be hanging on the perimeter for most of the first half. Not his best effort. Then, as we've seen him do a few times, Jordan just had a monster second half. He drilled some jumpers, worked harder to diversify his offense, and even dished out a few nice assists. His 14-6-3 line over the last 20 minutes is why he's going to make a lot of money in a few months.
J'Covan Brown: You really cant make this stuff up. In the first half, JCB started out as his "good" version. He dished two assists in his first minute on the floor, including a pretty alley-oop to Hamilton. His next two minutes, he grabbed a rebound and blocked a shot. Then, after avoiding any silly mistakes during his first stretch on the floor, JCB launched a ridiculous 25-footer that immediately got him pulled from the game. In the second half, he entered the game with Texas holding a 13-point lead. On the first possession after he entered the court, he launched another three-pointer with over 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Then, two possessions later, he turned the ball over. Then he sat down the rest of the game. So it goes. Anyone concerned that JCB is now shooting about 25% from behind-the-arc for the season?
Gary Johnson: Really nice effort from Gary tonight, who scored some really tough baskets. He played hard, he fought hard, and he defended hard. Which is exactly what we've come to expect from him.
Tristan Thompson: Interesting game from Thompson tonight. Obviously, he had a monster line of 17-15, but he really struggled with his post moves tonight. In fact, if you take out his 3 dunks, then he only shot 3-10 from the field. If you break it down even further, he had 3 dunks, 3 layups, and he missed all 5 of his jumpers. But that's really just nitpicking. He was a beast tonight, especially on the glass, and it wasnt surprising to see Texas make a concerted effort to feed him the ball in the first half.
Cory Joseph: CoJo didnt have another monster offensive game tonight, but he had a few shots that rattled out. I'm more impressed by his decisions with the basketball, largely exemplified by the fact that he only had 1 turnover in 36 minutes. He also received a high compliment from Jay Bilas, who referred to him as a "bigger version of DJ Augustin."
Dogus Balbay: Not a lot of minutes from Dogus tonight, who racked up 4 fouls in 13 minutes. As expected, MSU immediately demonstrated they were going to sag off of him. Texas has continued to push the pace when Balbay is in the game, which has really helped minimize his deficiencies.
Matt Hill: Hill played really well tonight and was heavily praised by Barnes in his post-game comments. In his season-high 22 minutes, Hill did a lot of things that wont show up in the box score. In particular, he played active and smart defense, yet avoided receiving fouls when challenging the MSU players near the basket. While not as eye-popping as Wangmene's game against UNC, tonight's performance was a step forward for Matt Hill.
Alexis Wangmene: Consider his game the opposite of Hill's. Unlike Hill, Wangmene took a step backwards tonight. After his fantastic performance against UNC, I was interested to see if the Wingman could build off of it. He didnt. To be fair, Wangmene didnt get a ton of minutes tonight, but he did pull his trademarked move of having a great pass clang off his iron hands.
Jai Lucas: If you blinked, you missed him. Which, for the most part, is a good thing.
Free Throw Watch: Texas hit only 11-21 free throws tonight. Thankfully, it didnt matter.
Rick Barnes: Kudos to Rick Barnes for having this team ready to play tonight. After the win on Saturday, it would have been easy to let this team get complacent with a 1-1 road trip. My favorite move by Rick Barnes tonight was when he called a timeout with 5:40 left with a 59-50 lead. MSU was in the midst of a 6-2 run and had just missed a wide-open three-pointer and putback that would have made the lead start feeling uncomfortable. After the timeout, Texas went on a 6-0 run to ice the game. Well played, sir.
UCONN Watch: I just bought my tickets to the UConn game tonight. The 4th-ranked Huskies will be coming to the Erwin Center on January 8th, and, two-plus weeks out, the game is still not sold out. Consider this your heads-up.
Next Game: December 31st against Coppin State at 2 PM