5 Things We Learned from Michigan State's Win over Harvard

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2014

5 Things We Learned from Michigan State's Win over Harvard

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    Less than a month ago, the Michigan State Spartans were in huge trouble. They dropped seven of 12 games down the stretch in the Big Ten, and they lost home games to Nebraska and Illinois—Illinois—in ignominious fashion.

    Never mind that head coach Tom Izzo had one of the best track records in the country and that the Spartans had been a preseason favorite. By all accounts, Michigan State displayed all the focus of a 2 a.m. drunk.

    There was plenty of finger pointing in the locker room, but the Spartans suddenly got their act together and that practice came to a halt. They survived and have advanced to the Sweet 16 following an 80-73 victory over Harvard.

    Here are five things we learned about the Spartans in that win.

Spartans Have Front-Court Versatility

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    Branden Dawson was proud of front-court mate Adreian Payne for his 41-point performance against Delaware in the Spartans' first game of the NCAA tournament. But he showed he could make his own contribution in the Spartans' victory over the Crimson.

    Dawson, who is averaging 11.0 points per game, came through with a 26-point, nine-rebound effort to key the win. He played a big role in the Spartans' ability to jump out to a 16-point lead by scoring 20 points in the first half. 

    The Spartans' front-court combination of Dawson and Payne should cause big problems for upcoming opponents in the tournament.

Harris Is a Finisher

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    Gary Harris knows how to close out a basketball game. 

    The Spartans had everything going for them in the first half and early into the second. They built a 49-33 lead in Spokane, Wash., and they appeared to be on their way to a blowout win over Harvard. However, the Crimson have a very tough and physical game, and they decided to engage the Spartans in the second half. They clawed their way to a 62-60 lead when Harvard's Laurent Rivard made a three-point jumper with 7:13 remaining.

    The Spartans could have crumbled at that moment. Instead, they fought back with a run of their own. Harris keyed it by scoring seven points down the stretch, including a huge three-pointer that extended the Michigan State lead to 68-62 with 5:34 remaining.

    Harris scored 14 points in the second half and 18 in the game. He demonstrated that he is the kind of clutch performer that Izzo can count on when the game is on the line.

Sharp Passing Punishes Crimson

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    Izzo is known for his emphasis on fundamentals, and there has been no letup in his approach over the last 19 seasons at Michigan State.

    His players are asked to get the ball to the open man on a relentless basis in practice, and it pays off in games. It certainly did against Harvard, as Michigan State was credited with 17 assists.

    The Spartans don't rely on individual talent to make plays throughout the game. They work the shot clock the way the world champion Boston Red Sox work the pitch count, and they will always look for the open man.

    No player was better at it against the Crimson than Denzel Valentine, who had a game-high six assists. 

Appling Is Not Right

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    When he's at his best, Keith Appling is an excellent point guard capable of leading the fast break, directing a patterned offense and taking the ball to the hoop and scoring himself. However, Appling has been troubled by a wrist problem throughout the season.

    While it seemed like the Spartans were coming back to full health in last week's Big Ten tournament and against Delaware in their first NCAA tournament game, they still have some problems.

    Appling is not at the top of his game, and his wrist is keeping him from playing his best basketball. He played just 22 minutes against Harvard, and he only scored two points. Appling was 0-of-2 from the field and handed out just three assists.

    It's going to be hard for this team to advance into the Elite Eight if Appling can't make a bigger contribution.

Spartans Are Gold from the Line

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    You've seen it time and time again in college basketball: When one team has a lead heading down the stretch, its opponent has to resort to fouling to stop the clock and get the ball back

    That strategy came into play for Harvard against Michigan State, but the Spartans were not about to let the Crimson get back into the game a second time. Michigan State made 8-of-9 free throws in the last 7:13. The Spartans were 17-of-22 from the line for the game, and they were led by Harris's 6-of-6 free-throw shooting.

    Good teams make their free throws during the stretch run, and the Spartans showed they were prepared for the heat of the moment against Harvard.