Michigan State shuffles lineup, tops Minnesota to get 'back on track'
Minneapolis — After Michigan State lost its second straight road game at Indiana earlier in the week, coach Tom Izzo hinted at some changes.
Those changes came to fruition Sunday afternoon as No. 11 Michigan State played at Minnesota. Freshmen Rocket Watts and Malik Hall were moved into the starting lineup and sophomores Aaron Henry and Marcus Bingham were moved out.
It proved to be the right move as the Spartans overcame another sluggish road start to earn the 70-52 victory at Williams Arena, ending a two-game road skid.
“It was huge to kind of get back on track and get a road win against a really good team,” senior guard Cassius Winston said. “To split the week, that’s not all bad and we had to play some good basketball.”
Going .500 for the week allowed Michigan State (15-5, 7-2 Big Ten) to move back into a first-place tie in the conference with Illinois as the Spartans head back home to take on Northwestern on Wednesday before hitting the road again to face Wisconsin on Saturday.
Before that, though, the Spartans were busy working out some kinks and looking for the right rotation.
Winston scored 18 points and handed out eight assists while Xavier Tillman scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Watts chipped in 10 points and clamped down defensively on Minnesota guard Marcus Carr.
Henry, coming off the bench for the first time this season, responded. He scored nine points, had four rebounds and collected four steals for the Spartans while also taking his turn limiting Carr.
“It’s kind of fun and I can give Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry a lot of credit because they had to guard Carr and Carr just came off another monster game and that kid’s gonna be a hell of a player here,” Izzo said. “We put a lot into him, but I thought Rocket Watts for the first time having to really guard a great player showed some things and then Aaron Henry could have sulked when he came off the bench and maybe had one of his better games.”
Carr was limited to 11 points on 3-for-14 shooting while sophomore center Daniel Oturu, who entered the game second in the Big Ten in scoring and first in rebounding, scored 19 but had just six rebounds. Gabe Kalscheur added 15 points for the Golden Gophers, who were coming off a road win at Ohio State earlier in the week.
“Well, obviously, give credit to MSU. They just physically wore us down, not just rebounding, but defensively, offensively, and we just couldn’t make a shot,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “Disappointing game but we appreciate the fans … but disappointed that we couldn't have a better outcome. Credit to Michigan State, they just slowed us down with everything.”
While Michigan State started slowly by making just two of its first 10 shots, Minnesota (11-9, 5-5) was equally cold from the field. The Golden Gophers were 9-for-32 in the first half, including just 3-for-18 on 3-pointers.
The Spartans took advantage by shrugging off the rough start with a 16-2 run midway through the first half to begin to take control of the game. Hall was active, scoring on a putback, grabbing an offensive rebound and feeding Winston for a 3-pointer then converting a three-point play which gave Michigan State a 22-9 lead to cap the run.
“We kept rotating guys in there, it's musical chairs,” Izzo said of the power forward spot where Hall and Bingham also shared time with Thomas Kithier and Julius Marble.
“We’ve just kind of got to get some consistency there. I think we're going to be playing all four of them one way or another, that’s just the way it is. But I thought Malik, for his first start, was pretty good, and I though Julius came in and did OK.”
A flurry of late turnovers kept Michigan State from pulling away. Minnesota nailed a 3-pointer from the corner to cut the Spartans’ lead to 30-22 headed to halftime and the Gophers shook off the poor first-half shooting to pull within 39-33 less than three minutes into the second after a Winston four-point play had pushed the Spartans’ lead to 12. But Michigan State responded as Gabe Brown and Henry each hit 3-pointers to put Michigan State ahead, 49-36, with 13:18 left in the game.
Minnesota did not go away, pulling within nine at 54-45. However, the Spartans scored the next seven points and eventually took an 18-point lead, 66-48, with 4:33 to play.
“That’s huge, especially at their home gym,” Winston said of pushing back Minnesota’s runs. “You get a little momentum going and it can turn into a 16-point run that can hurt you. So to have me and X dominating parts of the game for the most part is huge.”
It was enough to calm any potential concern after two straight road losses and it was enough to keep the Spartans in front in the Big Ten.
“We’re resilient,” Tillman said.
They were for one game. The key now is getting that on a consistent basis.
It’s the reason Izzo shuffled the lineup and it worked. However, it might not be the end of the tinkering as Izzo keeps pushing buttons to find the perfect formula.
“We changed the lineup and it wasn't (that we were) scrambling,” Izzo said. “I'm trying to find a consistency button. Aaron has actually played pretty good, but he's got to be the guy. That's the third guy. I mean, you gotta have three guys if you're gonna win big and then you can have some role players, but we've had two and a half at times.
“So I just loved the way he responded, but I'm not done with figuring out how to keep that on a consistent basis right now.”