Though it's early in the NCAA men's basketball season and many things can happen between now and March, tonight's matchup between Michigan State and Gonzaga had all the feeling of a Sweet 16 game.
The play was perhaps sloppy at times, but the intensity was high from the start, with players hitting the floor for loose balls, banging down low, and challenging on the perimeter.
The last time these teams met was in an epic confrontation in the 2005 Maui Invitational that went to triple overtime, with Adam Morrison and the Zags prevailing in an unforgettable early season battle.
So coming into this one, I really had the feeling this was a trap game for MSU.
They are ranked uncomfortably high given the injuries sustained at several key positions, and Gonzaga (though somehow unranked) has got to be considered an elite program at this point.
This is just the type of game that the Spartans tend to lose early in the season, even when they go on to have impressive runs later on.
It turned out that Gonzaga is even better than I thought. They are really good—I mean top 10 good—and I have no doubts that they'll be ranked at least that high by the end of the season.
At various times the Zags had their 7'5" center Will Foster on the floor to complement their other seven-footer Robert Sacre, who may have the best-looking jump hook that I've seen from a man his size in quite some time.
They can get up and down the floor too.
Add to this long athletic guards in Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray, a spark plug point guard in Demetri Goodson, and the multitalented Elias Harris, and they'll have a hard time finding anyone in the West Coast Conference that will be able to match up with them.
Michigan State, the No. 2-ranked team in the nation, had trouble matching up with them all night.
This is one of the reasons that I think this was a particularly impressive win for the Spartans. They didn't match up well up front, had a hard time reaching the defensive glass in the first half, and for much of the game were throwing the ball away and looking rather tentative on the offensive end.
Gonzaga came steaming out of the gates, building up a 13-point lead largely because of their superior play inside led by Sacre, who had 17 points in the game. The Spartans, on the other hand, looked lost in their offensive sets, turning the ball over a Tom Izzo-hair-tearing 20 times to accompany early foul trouble.
From a Spartan standpoint the first half wasn't pretty, but amazingly, even though they were badly outplayed, the Spartans made a late run before intermission to cut the lead to five. Their scrappy defense never let up, and even though they made their share of mistakes, it was enough to keep them in the game.
The second half was a classic and somewhat of a role reversal.
It was the Spartans who started out hot and the Zags who committed some early and pointless fouls. This ended up being a large factor in the game, as it kept Sacre on the bench, and his low-post game was the one thing that the Sparty D had no answer for.
And Izzo had his team crashing the boards.
State ended the game with a 43-30 rebounding advantage even though they were giving up significant height at all positions on the floor. Draymond Green pulled down 10 boards, and Durrell Summers led all players with 11 boards from his guard position.
In the end it was Spartyball that won it for them.
Some great late-game coaching by Izzo got the offense clicking, and a suffocating D made things tough on Gonzaga. Kalin Lucas turned up the heat and ended with 19 points, while Summers added 21 to complete his monster double-double.
But all that said, the Zags never backed down.
They played at a high level through the end, and given the number of young players on their team, I find it pretty impressive the way they walked into East Lansing and gave the Spartans all they could handle.
They'll be a legitimate contender by the end of the year, if they aren't already one now, and will have plenty of chances to prove it during their brutal preseason that includes the likes of Wake Forest, Duke, the Maui invitational, Washington State, Oklahoma, and Davidson among others.
By the time they start West Coast Conference play, they should be rolling.
I also can't help but be impressed with the Spartans, as they didn't play particularly well, still have major injuries to contend with, and still clawed out the win.
And somehow it felt inevitable.
We learned a lot about both teams tonight.
We learned that the Zags are for real, and we learned that State can beat a team like that playing shorthanded and sloppy.
Later in the year that will certainly catch up with them, and I guarantee that if they meet Gonzaga come March on a neutral court, tonight's effort would not be enough.
But State has lots of room to grow too, and I can't wait to see how the year unfolds, as this game already has provided a tourney-style atmosphere that had me on the edge of my seat.
College basketball is back!
In the end it was a prelude to the Dance, as both these teams will be boogieing come March Madness time, and it just may be that they find themselves partnered again.
Between then and now, I recommend that the Spartans learn a new step or two.
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