North Carolina didn't log another blowout win against Michigan State – the Spartans' strong finish prevented that – but the 89-82 result sure felt like it.
Especially to Michigan State players and to coach Tom Izzo, who's now dropped five straight games to Roy Williams and UNC since 2005. Ouch.
"It's getting pretty sickening," said MSU sophomore Draymond Green. "They're a top program in the nation, but so are we."
No one's denying that, Draymond. No. 9 Michigan State (5-2) will still be in the hunt for the Big Ten title and possibly even a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But it's clear the Spartans don't have any room for error when it comes to playing a loaded squad like Carolina. If Kalin Lucas or Raymar Morgan turn in sub-par games, MSU's behind the curve.
That's a not a statement on Michigan State – most teams struggle when their stars languish – so much as an illustration of what Williams has in Chapel Hill. Namely, a team that can kick it into high gear despite losing four starters and a key sub from a national title team.
As evidence, I submit the final 10 minutes of the first half, when the Heels turned a 21-21 game into a 53-34 halftime lead. Ouch.
This graf from Rush the Court sums it up:
Michigan State, for some reason, seems to think that it can run with Carolina, and as they learned for the third time with the same core of Lucas, Morgan, et al., they cannot. Why do they try?
"I've said all along we're not where those guys are yet, and I think it's evident," Izzo said. "It's OK to lose to them, but it's the first time we've really competed in the last three games. So maybe that's a start in the right direction, but you've got to win games too. Our program's not where theirs is, but our program's not where there's moral victories for being close. Some guys have to step up. I was really disappointed in a couple of guys' performance."
Yet, for some reason the Spartans got the Heels at their offensive best. Again. UNC shot 57 percent from the field and boasted an eFG% of 62.3. That's ridiculous (and better than either of its wins vs. MSU last season). Conversely, Michigan State's eFG% was just 44.3, which is worse than it shot in the title game (and in all but 7 games last season).
It was almost like the Spartans were trying to make up for both losses last season in one night, especially Lucas and Morgan. From The Only Colors:
With the amount of experience MSU has among its perimeter players, they needed to do a better job of knowing when to push things and when to step back and let the game settle down. Kalin Lucas made more out-of-control plays than he has since he was a freshman, taking ill-advised off-balance shots (6-17 from the field) and narrowly avoiding turnovers after dribbling into crowds in the lane.
Offense has never been the reason why Izzo's teams win, though. They don't turn the ball over, rebound and force opponents into taking low-percentage shots. It's worked pretty well for the last 14 seasons, too.
Yet, that defense is still adjusting to playing without Travis Walton – the perimeter stopper – and savvy post player Goran Suton. That inefficiency is killing them, and will continue to be a problem until they adjust.
As for Carolina (7-1), the game no doubt gave guards Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland a confidence boost, which will be crucial with a trip to Lexington looming this weekend. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe will be just as big of a defensive challenge.
Still, it's only March. Everyone's simply working toward the Big Dance, including the defending champs.
"It's still early, early in the season," Williams said. "We're not going to make too much of this game. It's one game.
Mike Miller (@BeyndArcMMiller) allooks forward to March every year. But maybe that's because his birthday is usually during the NCAA tournament.