No one can dispute the following: Illinois' 42-41 vinegar-in-your-eyes victory against Michigan State was ugly.
In arguably one of the ugliest shooting Big Ten games in history* (Illinois shot 32.6 percent while MSU shot 24.1 percent), one fact many are overlooking is Michigan State's defense played awfully well. Illinois' defense played well, too, but it's not secret to anyone who watched the game that the Spartans missed at least a dozen point-blank layups. Case-in-point: While Illinois hadn't taken a shot due to a pair of turnovers in the game's first two minutes, the Spartans were 0 for 8 from the field with seven offensive rebounds.
The game really came down to two defensive plays: Leading 40-37 with slightly more than two minutes remaining, the Spartans were smothering Brandon Paul so he couldn't get the ball off a screen. On a high ball screen, Travis Trice really sagged off Illinois' Tracy Abrams and, despite probably not being the team's No. 1 option on the play, Abrams drained a triple to knot the score at 40.
The Spartans sagged on screens all day, daring Illinois to shoot 3s. Undoubtedly, it was part of Tom Izzo's game plan as his No. 1 key was to stop Meyers Leonard's easy looks in the post.
However, despite being 2 of 16 from 3-point range at the time, Abrams hit what, in my mind, was the biggest shot in the game. A miss coupled with a MSU rebound would mean the Spartans would have had a 3-point lead and been able to milk clock and play with that little cushion. Nevertheless, Abrams' triple proved to be a dagger even though it only tied the game.
The second play was Paul's late-in-the-shot-clock drive that somehow drew a whistle on MSU's Branden Dawson. I watched the replay a dozen times and I thought Dawson's defense was perfect. He never reached and there wasn't any more body contact than had been going on all game. To Dawson's dismay, he was whistled for a foul and Paul sunk both free throws, the second proving to be the game winner.
Still, those two plays shouldn't mask the fact MSU's overall team defense was incredible. Check out the Defensive Score Sheet below. (For a recap on what the numbers mean and how they're calculated, read this previous post).
5 Takeaways from Illinois 42, Michigan State 41
1. Draymond Green is more valuable than anyone can imagine. A debate if MSU win's this game if Green is healthy (he was suffering from the flu and had been vomiting all day) stays out of foul trouble (Green picked up his second foul coupled with a technical foul with 10:56 left in the first half), and doesn't get hurt (With four minutes to play, Green suffered what appeared to be a fluke ACL/MCL injury and couldn't return) would be never ending. What can't be disputed is that, in the limited time he was on the floor -- a season-low 16 minutes -- Green was seemingly did everything on defense. He grabbed five defensive rebounds, forced three missed field goals, forced a turnover and a foul only resulted in a split pair of free throws. I'm curious if there has been a lower DRtg in any game this season. At 57.6, Green is far superior to the team's DRtg of 72.8. As much as MSU fans were worried about the offense sputtering without Green, it's the defense that would take the biggest hit.
2. Dawson was sensational, again. The bogus foul call late, which resulted in two free made free throws, pushed Dawson's DRtg from 68.7 to 71.8. It really doesn't seem like a big difference, and it's not; but the key here is that Dawson played phenomenal defense once again and it's the freshman sensation, not Keith Appling, who seems to be the team's best on-ball defender.
3. Get ready for some Travis Trice-Brandan Kearney offense-for-defense substitutions. Yes, Trice is dealing with a hip/groin injury, but he was a defensive liability before the injury. He'll be needed offensively to spell Appling, but don't sleep on Kearney's ability to run the point for a few possessions. Plus, Kearney's length (6-foot-5 compared to Trice's favorably listed 6-0 frame) helps him defensively. Trice has proven he's a little slow on screens as well as his vulnerability when a great athlete like Paul can dribble right by him.
4. "Stone Cold Steve Austin Thornton" will have good games and bad games; live with it. The former walk-on is going to play valuable minutes this season. Some games he's outstanding and reminds MSU fans of Tim Bograkos; others he's brutal and resembles Anthony Hamo. This wasn't one of Thornton's most memorable games. His poor defensive rotations resulted in some cheap fouls and he, like Trice, was picked apart on high ball screens and curls.
5. Adrian Payne is the defensive X-factor. While Derrick Nix had a great game, I said before Nix's defense really doesn't impact the game's result. Payne's defense, however, plays a key role. In 16 minutes -- the same number as Green played sick mind you -- Payne grabbed one defensive rebound, allowed three made field goals (that's 20 percent of all of Illinois' field goals) and a foul resulted in two made free throws. He did force two misses on his own and played 1/3 of a role in another. He also split a turnover with Thornton. Nevertheless, Payne needs to own the paint. If he's a shot-blocking menace near the rim, he'll force teams to take ill-advised jump shots while he or teammates can snatch up the boards. But, if he's late at rotating and more like a lovable Shrek near the rim, he's borderline worthless on defense.
*I mentioned above this was one of the worst games in Big Ten history. It can't be the worst for the following reasons:
January 12, 2008: Iowa 43, Michigan State 36
February 18, 2009: Penn State 38, Illinois 33
March 11, 2011: Penn State 36, Wisconsin 33
I watched every one of those above games and I'm suffering from it today. Believe it or not, while the Illinois-MSU game from Tuesday night was ugly, it is, at worst, No. 4 in this group.