Other than the hockey team off, this was clearly one of the busiest weekends in the MSU sports calendar for the season. And despite some trepidation in a few sports, it was also a very successful one. Let’s look at it sport by sport.
MEN’S BASKETBALL: Sure, there were 20 disconcerting turnovers in Sunday’s 63-60 win over Louisiana-Lafayette, just as there were the same amount against Oakland on Friday, but the 15th-ranked Spartans escaped the weekend at home as a 5-1 team. That doesn’t mean changes aren’t afoot.
Coach Tom Izzo talked about two key components where things could be altered Wednesday against Miami (Fla.): slowing down the offense and limiting playing time if his youngsters don’t stop making mistakes.
The first would be a temporary move with Travis Trice and Gary Harris out, a way to cut down on the 16.5 turnovers a game that the team is averaging so far. It might require limiting the amount MSU would break out in transition in the full-court, but that slower tempo also could help junior point guard Keith Appling avoid fatigue late in games. He had a few uncharacteristic give-aways, and a few near slip-ups, finishing with four turnovers that helped keep Louisiana in it.
The second part would also be a temporary fix to a temporary situation. With starting two-guard Harris and backup point guard Trice out, MSU is relying on freshman Denzel Valentine and sophomores Russell Byrd and Brandan Kearney to contribute important and extended minutes. Those three combined for 13 turnovers in the game.
Valentine bookended two that Izzo talked about – a throw-away on MSU’s first possession and his abysmal decision with a minute left that let Louisiana make it a two-point game. Kearney and Byrd combined for three on three straight possessions at the end of the first half, then added to the Spartans’ woes with a few more after they twice built a 10-point lead.
Valentine and Kearney – even with Izzo’s frustrations – should be safe because they add a lot of other assets to the equation at both ends of the floor. Captain Byrd, however, could be on borrowed time until Harris and Trice returns because his primary value is as a 3-point shooter – and he isn’t doing that, either, while making just 3 of 17 (17.6 percent) from beyond the arc.
“Byrd’s just got to play better,” Izzo said. “I mean, I don’t care if he makes any shots – he’s just got to not turn the ball over like he is. And if that’s asking too much, sorry.”
WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: It was another staunch defensive effort as Suzy Merchant’s team improved to 5-0 with a laughable 68-35 victory over Robert Morris. The Spartans held the Colonials to just 25.5 percent shooting for the game and just 12 first-half points.
It’s been a relatively easy early go for a team that’s without two top players due to suspension and two others to season-ending injuries. Things get tougher, though, on Thursday when MSU travels to North Carolina State as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Merchant admitted the lighter-than-usual nonconference schedule has helped ease her young team through the transitionary period without guard Kiana Johnson and Akyah Taylor, who are scheduled to return in about two weeks from their nine-game NCAA-mandated suspensions. The sixth-year coach also said the game against the Wolfpack will give her team a glimpse at some stronger competition.
VOLLEYBALL: MSU will travel to Los Angeles to face San Diego on Friday in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans are 26-9, with all of their losses coming in Big Ten play and seven of those coming to teams that also are in the NCAA postseason.
FOOTBALL: It’s looking like the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 29 in Tempe, Ariz., is more and more becoming MSU’s postseason reality, though the Gator Bowl remains a very remote possibility. Winning at Minnesota on Saturday showed just how much Le’Veon Bell means to this year’s team and the program as a whole. A third straight 200-yard game gave him the Big Ten rushing title and could catapult him into the NFL, should the junior choose for forego his final season in East Lansing. But he assured himself – and the Spartans – of at least one more game together after leading them to a sixth straight bowl berth.