East Lansing – When Michigan State struggled to defend Indiana a little more than a week ago, it was primarily because it couldn’t keep the Hoosiers guards from getting into the lane.
And in the second half of Sunday’s victory over Michigan, it was guard Derrick Walton Jr.’s ability to penetrate the lane and draw fouls that kept the Wolverines within striking distance.
So as Michigan State gets set to take on Nebraska at Thursday night in Lincoln, Neb., it will have its hands full trying to slow the guard tandem of Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr., who are two of the top five scorers in Big Ten games this season.
“That’s probably the biggest thing,” Michigan State freshman guard Cassius Winston said. “If we guard our guy we’ll be all right in this game. We have to stay in front of them. They’re aggressive, they’re playing well and they’re two good guards. They can shoot and can get to the basket, so we’ve got to stay solid, rely on our help a little bit and we’ll be all right.”
While Nebraska finally ended a five-game skid by beating Purdue on Sunday, teams in the Big Ten have had trouble trying to slow Webster and Watson. Webster, a senior, is having a big year, averaging 19.7 points in nine conference games. He’s scored in double-figures in all 21 games this season, including a 28-point outing at Michigan earlier this month.
Watson, a sophomore, is scoring 17 a game in the Big Ten and had a 34-point performance in a win over Iowa.
“They’re two great guards,” Michigan State junior Tum Tum Nairn said. “We’ve got to do the job defensively. They’re both averaging more than 17 points. We’ve got to do the job staying in front of them and making them take tough shots.”
It’s something Nairn has excelled at throughout his career, but it’s been a work in progress for Winston. While he’s shown flashes of how good he can be, the youngster has had his share of issues defending.
Nairn has worked with his younger teammate on a daily basis to help him improve on the defensive end and there has been progress. Finding consistency and balance between his offensive and defensive games is the next step for Winston.
“It’s difficult but from where I was to now I’ve gotten a lot better,” Winston said. “So you keep doing it. You’ve got to study film more, got to watch their tendencies because you’re not going to become a great defender overnight, but you can learn little things about them to help yourself out.
“Really (the focus is) on the defensive end first. I can’t be a liability to the team. I’ve got to be able to check on that end. So if I take care of that end my offense will take care of itself.”
Defending guards like Webster and Watson isn’t all on Nairn and Winston. With senior Gavin Schilling out for the season with a knee injury, the Spartans are without their best ball-screen defender. It’s been a slow process for freshman Nick Ward to become proficient on ball screens while sophomore Kenny Goins fares a bit better.
It’s all got Tom Izzo and his coaching staff thinking hard about how to be better defensively.
“Can we stop dribble penetration?” Izzo wondered. “If they penetrate, No. 1 they can get your big in foul trouble. No. 2 they can make a layup. No. 3 they can miss a shot but because your guys helped they get a rebound and put it back. No. 4 they can kick out. So it still seems like it’s a lot safer to defend inside-out.
“Sometimes I think we gotta be a little bit better at that as a coaching staff explaining it to our guys and sticking with what really matters to us. Now we have a couple guys that don’t guard the ball as well so we’ve cheated some. When you cheat some and make up for that, it leaves other holes open.”
Leaving holes against Nebraska wouldn’t be wise. The Cornhuskers started Big Ten play 3-0 and have suffered their share of close losses. Playing at home helps, not to mention the fact the Cornhuskers have won three straight over the Spartans.
On top of that, Nebraska is coming off an upset of Purdue. However, Izzo doesn’t think that grabbed his team’s attention. That’s tough to do when every game is a big one.
“I think my team’s on high alert,” Izzo said. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet. Who have we beaten? We have not put any consistency together yet at all. I don’t think we needed that win to do it. They’ve played everybody so tough. … We’re trying to approach it as this is a good team that’s got very good guards that do some things, but we have to keep getting better and do a better job.”
Michigan State at Nebraska
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Thursday, Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Neb.
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 13-9, 5-4 Big Ten; Nebraska 10-11, 4-5
Outlook: Nebraska has won three straight in the series, including a 79-77 win in 2015, the last time the teams in Lincoln. … Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges is averaging 20.2 points and nine rebounds over the last five games. … Nebraska guard Tai Webster is the only Big Ten player to score in double figures in every game this season.