I’ve rerun the final play of No. 9 Michigan State’s 58-57 loss to fourth-ranked Michigan in my mind a thousand different times. Rewatched and rewound the replay from different angles as well. Listened to my postgame interviews with Tom Izzo and the principal players over and over. Talked about it ad nauseam with colleges after the game.
Still, so many things don’t make sense.
First, let’s be clear. Gary Harris’ turnover as time expired didn’t cost MSU the game, nor did Keith Appling’s 25 seconds earlier. The Spartans crumbled after halftime by allowing the Wolverines to erupt for a 14-4 burst over the first nine-plus minutes of the second half. That portended their death knell.
We also know what happened in the final minute (and in case you missed it, here’s my story on the frantic finish). Appling got stripped of the ball by Michigan’s Trey Burke en route to his game-winning dunk with 22 seconds to play.
So let’s fast forward to 4.9 seconds left.
Izzo called a timeout after Adreian Payne rebounded the ball and boldly dribbled up the court. It was the right call by Izzo – you don’t want your big man to turn it over there, especially with three Wolverine defenders closing quickly on him. Payne said he was never looking to do anything but get the ball toward half-court and was awaiting his coach to call time to set up a play.
Timeouts in that situation are customary and expected from the Spartans. What happened next, in the huddle mapping out the final possession, is where things get strange.
Cue Izzo: “I didn’t know where Keith was (mentally) at the time. He was frustrated from turning the ball over, so I thought I’d go to Gary.”
So the Spartans turn to junior point guard Appling to pass in the ball on the sideline out-of-bounds play, placing freshman shooting guard Harris on the right low block.
Oddity number two. Normally, it’s Harris passing it and Appling coming to get it. This time, it was vice versa.
Said Appling of being the passer, “This is one of the rare times I did. I’d never done that before. That’s just how the play was drawn up.”
Here’s the anatomy of what happened on the inbound pass (and a good overhead video of the entire final 4.9 seconds):
* Denzel Valentine starts on the right wing and sets the first screen for Harris, and Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III switches and follows Valentine. Tim Hardaway Jr., who was on Valentine, follows Harris up the left side of the key
* Payne – who began the play in front of Appling near the MSU bench – then cuts across the lane to deliver the second screen near the right elbow. Hardaway hops around it.
* Derrick Nix looks like he’ll set a third screen for Harris at the top of the key. However, he’s positioned about a foot inside the arc, and both Harris and Hardaway go wide of Nix before he can recover to make contact. Harris catches the pass from Appling a half-step from midcourt.
Izzo explained that the first option was for Harris to get a shot at the top of the key. The second, both he and Harris said, was for Appling was to float into the corner after inbounding the ball and to be ready for a return pass. Appling said he was open in the corner, and he was momentarily.
Payne and Valentine, after Harris gets the ball, fill almost the same spot on the right wing, bringing both of their defenders (Robinson and Caris LeVert) along with them. Nix popped out and stationed to Hardaway’s right for a pick. Harris dribbled once to his right, then crossed over toward his left.
Appling started drifting into the left corner, with Burke shadowing him some but also watching in case Harris cut toward the middle. As Harris neared the 3-point line with about 2 seconds left, Burke takes one hard step backward to fake like he’s going to cover Appling. Instead, he plants his right foot and hops right in front of Harris.
Harris appears to lose his handle on the ball, then tries to make a last-ditch pass to Appling. Burke leaps and gets his hand on the ball, then pulls it in right in front of the Spartan bench as the buzzer sounds. MSU doesn’t even get off a shot.
Here’s what Harris said: “I just turned the ball over. If I didn’t have a shot, it was gonna be give-and-go and (Appling) was gonna get a shot.”
And Izzo: “We didn’t run it right. We had a couple freshmen in there, and we struggled with it. That’s my fault. … We did the right thing, we just didn’t execute it right.”
Here’s where my feeble mind gets confused on a few points.
* Appling says he’d never made that inbounds pass before. He’s usually the guy getting the ball to run the offense in end-of-game scenarios. Izzo not trusting his junior captain and point guard to receive the pass there is perplexing, regardless of the previous turnover.
* That means Harris has not run the offense in an end-of-game situation as the point guard. And the right-handed Harris is deployed to his weaker left side. That’s a difficult position on a difficult possession for a freshman unaccustomed to creating off the dribble and as a facilitator. It is possible that he was supposed to go right off Nix’s screen, but that would make for an awfully long and dangerous cross-court pass to Appling as the second choice to shoot.
* All three – Appling, Harris and Izzo – say that Appling shooting a fadeaway 3-pointer from the corner was one of the two primary options. However, Appling had made just 2 of 14 shots in the previous two losses and finished 3 of 9 on Sunday, missing all three of his 3-point shots. He’s now 2 of 26 from behind the arc in MSU’s last five games.
* Payne, conversely, has made five of his last 10 3-point attempts, including 2 of 5 against Michigan on Sunday. Could he and Nix have switched roles on that play, giving Harris one more outside option to his right side?
* And then there’s the most head-scratching thing of all: Why did the entire play revolve around a 3-pointer or long shot with MSU needing only a 2-pointer to win?
It’s certainly an overload of questions, a lot of nitpicking and micromanaging one play and 5-second sequence well after the fact (with the luxury of multiple camera angles). I’m not sure if either Izzo or his players really knew the right answers in the immediate aftermath. Clarity in sports tends to come with time and the ability to rewatch the tape over and over to breakdown who did what right and who erred.
My guess is Izzo will have a firm grasp on it during Monday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference and even more of an explanation when he reconvenes with the media on Tuesday.