LAHAINA, Hawaii - What's been the common problem for Michigan State in its last three games, each of which were unimpressive?
The Spartans failed to defeat an opponent on the boards again Tuesday night in the Maui Invitational semifinals. This time it helped cost Michigan State a victory as the No. 2-ranked Spartans went down 70-67 to Connecticut. Michigan State will play Washington in the consolation round, Wednesday.
Rebounding has been a staple in MSU's rise as a national power under Tom Izzo. Last year, Michigan State led the nation in rebounding margin. But the Spartans have been out-rebounded in two of their last three games, by Chaminade and South Carolina, and were equaled on the boards by UConn in this game, 40-40.
"We were beating teams by 10 in boards and now we are looking to tie them," Izzo said. "That's not good."
Most damaging, UConn pulled down 18 offensive rebounds on 37 missed shots, good for 48 percent. Those numbers are sacrilege against Izzo's Spartans.
Michigan State was a bit better in the halfcourt than UConn, but the Huskies manufactured points with put-backs and transition runouts. MSU committed 14 turnovers, a manageable number, but at least half of them went the other way for "touchdowns," as Izzo calls them. Credit UConn with being athletic and skilled enough to finish the fastbreak opportunities, but some of the blame goes to bad caretaking of the ball by MSU.
Kemba Walker scored 30 points for UConn, equaling his sizzling season average. But he was a lukewarm 11-of-20 from the field and 4-of-11 from 3-point range.
Six-teen of Walker's points came in transition, or while being fouled in transition. That gets back to the "turnovers for touchdowns" issue, which was more unforgiveable than the occasional rain-making shots Walker made in the halfcourt.
In the half court, three of his four 3-pointers were highly-contested and well-defensed.
In the halfcourt, his signature ability to score off the drive was curtailed by quality Spartan defense.
"He's good but we made him earn everything he got today," Izzo said.
Despite the problems, MSU tied the score at 66-66 on a Garrick Sherman jump hook with 3:41 remaining. But that would be the final field goal of the night for the Spartans.
"I was disappointed because our key guys did not execute at the end and theirs did," Izzo said.
Green finished with a career-high 22 points, and 12 rebounds. He stretched the floor by going 2-of-3 from 3-point range.
"He played his butt off," Izzo said. "But when we had to execute down the stretch, we were trying to go through him and all the sudden we (other players) start jacking up 3s. Not a very good things for an experienced team, so that part was disappointing."
After Sherman's hook shot, MSU's last eight possessions went like this:
Green went 1-of-2 from the foul line, giving MSU a 67-66 lead.
Kalin Lucas missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:57 left.
Keith Appling missed a 15-footer off the dribble from the right wing with :18 seconds left on the shot clock, probably not the look MSU wanted.
Lucas forced a contested 3-pointer from the left wing of a baseline in-bound play with :38 seconds left in the game and :25 left on the shot clock, with MSU down 68-67. Izzo didn't like Lucas's decision.
With MSU down 69-67, Green was fouled down low. He missed both free throws with :20 seconds left.
With :03.3 seconds left, and MSU still down 69-67 thanks to missed UConn free throws, Lucas turned it over on an attempted drive and kick pass to Durrell Summers. Replays show that a UConn player touched the ball twice before it went out of bounds, but the officials got the play wrong and MSU didn't get a chance to tie or take the lead with a late in-bound play at the buzzer.
Instead, after UConn went 1-of-2 from the foul line, Green's halfcourt shot narrowly missed.
"We just didn't answer the bell in the last three minutes and they did, and that's what winning and losing is all about," Izzo said. "But we played a lot better than we did yesterday and it will give us somethig to build on cause it's sure not going to get any easier."
As for MSU's problem with missed free throws, Green took the blame.
"We don't have issues, I do," he said. "We went 15-20 and I missed 4. It's my issue."
One night after Lucas scored a career-high 28 against Chaminade, he had one of his worst games as a Spartan. Still not fully recovered from last March's Achilles tendon injury, Lucas had trouble getting full horsepower when playing for a second consecutive night. He was 4-of-12 from the field with 1 assist and 5 turnovers, often looking awkward on missed shots and errant passes.
"It's a learning experience, it's a great game for the tournament, and we played better than yesterday," Izzo said.
The Nix Angle
MSU started Austin Thornton at the wing, and moved Green to his 2009-2010 role as the sixth man. Izzo credited Green with sacrificing staring glory for the team, but also called out Derrick Nix to grow up and rejoin the team. Nix complained to Izzo about his unclear role earlier in the week, said he would like to consider transferring, and Izzo left him at home for some soul searching.
"You know, Draymond, the guy's all about winning," Izzo said. "I don't know what else to say. We talked to him about it last week, we're just not happy with our rotation right now, and the rotation (issue) is because we're short guys. And Nix has got to wake up and figure out what the deal is, and that's up to these guys (Lucas and Nix). You know and we'll make a decision whether he's coming back, not coming back or what he's doing. But some people are very immature and some people have got to grow up. And you're right, it definitely cost us a lot this weekend. But I'm not about weekends. I'm about programs. And right now, Day-Day came off the bench, more or less because other people let us down. He is definitely, the two guys sitting here (Green and Lucas) are my two best players. So what coach would be dumb enough (not to start) his best players? Me right now only because I'm finding a way to win. And he obliged, and for that I'm grateful."
The UConn Angle
UConn was hungry, energetic and emotional, seeing this game as a chance to make a statement after missing the NCAA Tournament last year.
"We just showed the world we can play," Walker said.
Boy, did they.
Connecticut (4-0) fought the Spartans every inch every minute, refusing to be pushed around by a team projected to be a national title contender.
Walker's biggest shot was a fallaway jumper with 52 seconds left, over Sherman's help defense, seconds after UConn gained an offensive rebound off a missed free throw. It was the fourth point of the night for UConn after collecting a missed free throw.
Center Alex Oriakhi dominated inside for 15 points and 17 rebounds. UConn was good defensively, too, holding one of the nation's best teams to 40 percent shooting, bothering the Spartans with five blocks and several altered shots.
"This is an absolute tremendous team win," Calhoun said.
"I'm very disappointed with the way we finished," Izzo said. "We had some things that just didn't work out way."
Green was at his do-it-all best most of the game, finishing with 22 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. He kept Michigan State in it with his offensive rebounding in the second half, but was kicking himself for missing those two free throws with 20 seconds left.
"Basically it falls on my shoulders," Green said.
Michigan State opened the tournament by escaping Chaminade's upset list, using a big second-half run to pull out a take-a-deep-breath 82-74 win over a Division II team that had one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history 19 years ago.
Connecticut had a quality win in its Maui opener, getting 29 second-half points from Walker to pull out a four-point win over up-and-coming Wichita State by four.
Even with the Huskies in rebuilding mode, this was a big early season matchup, physical, powerhouse teams from power conferences meeting in paradise.
The atmosphere, quiet in the day's first two games, was juiced for the first semifinal, fans from each team separated by a set of stairs chanting and screaming with every twist, making the high school-sized Lahaina Civic Center feel like an NCAA tournament game.
They got to see the kind of gritty, back-bending defensive game you'd expect from teams in the Big East and Big Ten, too; super athletic players knocking each other to the floor and piling on like offensive lineman for loose balls.
Walker took one of the hardest shots, flying into the photographers behind the basket on a driving layup in the first half. He's used to that kind of contact in the Big East, though, and returned minutes later to knock down a step-back 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer, ending up with 14 points by halftime.
The opening 20 minutes of the game was all about the counterpunch; nine ties and four lead changes, neither team able to make a run.
The first half ended, fittingly, tied at 34-all after UConn's Shabazz Napier dropped in a long, desperate 3-pointer at the buzzer, setting up the final, tension-building flurry that the Huskies pulled out.
"I thought it was an NCAA tournament game or a Big East tournament game - it was that caliber of a game," Calhoun said.