What was expected to be the game of the night Wednesday did not disappoint as Michigan State was pushed hard by Louisville before ultimately pulling out a 71-67 decision in East Lansing.
National player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine scored 25 points and knockdown shooter Bryn Forbes added 20 in the win for the Spartans, who pushed their record to 8-0 for the first time since their Final Four appearance back in 2001.
While the Spartans ultimately won the game, it’s hard to really come away with anything other than positive thoughts from both of these teams.
1. Even in the loss, Louisville proved itself as a team to reckon with this season
There were a lot of questions about Louisville coming into this game due to quality of competition. The Cardinals’ best win to this point had come against North Florida, as the schedule just hadn’t given them any sort of challenge thus far. But in this game, Louisville proved more than up to the task against one of the five best teams in the country.
Louisville’s depth was impressive in this one early, as the Cardinals overwhelmed the Spartans with their athleticism and effort level. The Spartans came out a bit flat — which makes sense, given that they’ve had to play seven games in 15 days while traveling around the country — but that doesn’t take away from the impressive Louisville defense, which confused the Spartans with a lot of different looks. They forced 11 turnovers in the first half and held what has been a remarkably efficient offense to 29 points. The Spartans’ experience took over in the second half as Tom Izzo made some adjustments in attacking the defense, but overall it was a good showing for Louisville.
2. Damion Lee is having no issues adusting to a higher level
Valentine had his 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists in this game, but he upped that point total late with some (clutch) free throws. For my money, the best player on the floor in this contest was Lee, the fifth-year graduate transfer from Drexel. He was pretty good defensively, typically staying in front of his man and forcing turnovers with his five steals. He also was the aggressor on offense for Louisville, scoring 23 points and really having his way with Valentine, who couldn’t stay in front of him in either on-ball screen or slashing situations. His play has to be encouraging for the Cardinals going forward, as he looks like an all-conference player even at the higher level.
In fact, the entire Louisville backcourt looks strong. Cleveland State transfer Trey Lewis scored 21 and Donovan Mitchell showed flashes with his explosive athleticism and knack for putting the ball in the basket. The key for the Cardinals this season will be getting more from the frontcourt, as Chinanu Onuaku, Jaylen Johnson, Anas Mahmoud and Raymond Spalding only combined for six points in 61 minutes of play. Mangok Mathiang was strong, but they’re going to need someone to pair with him.
3. Michigan State finally gets a bit of a break from its excellent yet hectic start
As mentioned above, the Spartans really struggled to get their legs early in this contest. On Sunday following Michigan State’s win in the Wooden Legacy event in Anaheim, Izzo noted that Louisville could be a bit of a trouble spot just due to the amount of games and travelling his team has had to do early on. He was proven right, but ultimately MSU still came out on top.
Now the Spartans get a bit of a respite from the insanity. They only have two games over the next nine days, and both come at home (Maryland Eastern-Shore, Binghamton). That should allow the team to get a bit of a break before another tough home game against 6-1 Florida on Dec. 12.
But the Spartans’ start cannot be overlooked. This is the team with quite clearly the best résumé in the country right now, and it wouldn’t be a stretch if you ranked them No. 1 as they have three wins over current Top 25 teams and another over a solid Boise State group. This is a legitimate national title contender positioning itself well for a No. 1 seed already.