No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 10 Michigan State at Champions Classic

INDIANAPOLIS — If this is what Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are going to be against big-time teams, Michigan State doesn’t have quite enough to be one of them. Perhaps it’s a lot to ask, but it’s go time for both of them in their college basketball careers. 

Winston, who knows he can’t turn the ball over, did so five times, several times carelessly in No. 10 Michigan State's 92-87 loss to No. 1 Kansas. Too often when the game was being decided in the first half, Langford was just kind of out there, on both ends of the floor.

Tom Izzo has made no bones about it — Langford’s play is critical to this Michigan State basketball season. He has to be an impact player, a shot-maker, part of a formidable backcourt, with Winston.

When Langford got involved in the second half, good things happened for the Spartans. At this level of competition, MSU can’t win without him being aggressive and smart on offense and locked in on defense. Kansas’ Quentin Grimes hit a few of his six 3-pointers over defense from Langford that could have been more attentive.

Langford finished with a team-best 18 points — 15 in the second half. If he’s that second-half player offensively all season, MSU can win games like this. Kansas got its separation in the first half, when Langford was mostly an on-court observer.

Turnovers crushed MSU Tuesday night. The Spartans had 18 of them. Winston set that tone. That’ll bug him. He had 13 points — including a late old-fashioned 3-point play that helped make the final couple minutes interesting — and 11 assists. Be he’s got to be a better caretaker. It starts there.

2. The positives for MSU

There were promising signs from Michigan State on Tuesday night. Among them:

– Kenny Goins’ 3-point shooting: One of the first things Goins said at MSU’s media day was that many of the shots he was taking in practice were from beyond the arc. I was skeptical about how many he’d actually take — or make — in games. Tuesday was a heckuva start. MSU’s senior power forward, a limited offensive player known for his defensive versatility, hit 3 of 7 3-pointers and scored a career-high 17 points. When he was open, he let it fly. His shot looked good. If he keeps making them, opponents will have to account for it and perhaps choose to pull a second defender away from Nick Ward.

– Matt McQuaid’s confident and aggressive play: It’s no secret that the key to McQuaid’s game is in his head. McQuaid scored 12 points, took six shots. You could feel his impact. He was willing to shoot from deep and seemed keen on attacking on the drive. He also had five rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. He ran the point briefly, pushed the ball effectively and looked like a player who belonged in this setting. He’s a senior, so he should. But that wasn’t a given. And it’s a good sign for MSU.

– MSU didn’t go quietly: You didn’t expect a fairly veteran group to curl up and get run off the court. Still, it’s always a positive when you see some grit and fight when things aren’t going well. The turnovers didn’t stop. The missed free throws were a killer. The backcourt play was often uninspiring. But MSU kept this thing from getting out of control when it could have, and then made things interesting into the final minute, right up through a Kyle Ahrens 3-pointer that cut the deficit to three. That’s sweat equity and a character trait that gives this team a chance. 

– Foster Loyer got his feet wet and survived: MSU’s freshman point guard played just four minutes. But he got a second stint and made his only shot attempt with the game still in doubt. By the time MSU goes to Las Vegas and plays UCLA, I think he’ll be a bigger part of things, in more of a true backup role.

3. Unfortunately for MSU, the Champions Classic is often telling

College basketball teams do evolve over the course of the season. For MSU, however, the Champions Classic has been telling of what’s to come. MSU’s late surge Tuesday should provide hope. Because history says Tuesday was a forecast of the season.

In an 88-81 loss to top-ranked Duke last year, MSU star Miles Bridges didn’t look as if he had killer instinct as part of his basketball personality or the ability to take over as part of his game. That turned out to be among MSU’s issues all season.

Two years ago, MSU’s heralded freshman-led roster was overmatched and not quite ready for No. 2 Kentucky, which whipped the Spartans by 21 points. That MSU team was never close to Kentucky’s class all season.

The year before that, Denzel Valentine announced his arrival as a college superstar with a triple-double in a win over No. 4 Kansas. Those sort of performances carried through all season and MSU, ranked No. 13 entering the Champions Classic, spent time at No. 1.

In November for 2014, the Travis Trice and Valentine-led Spartans were overmatched by Duke’s batch of McDonald’s All-Americans. Until Trice caught fire late in the season, MSU was never in that league. And, in the end, it wasn’t when it faced Duke again.

A year earlier, Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Co. schooled a young and hyped Kentucky squad, grabbing the No. 1 ranking. That team, before Appling’s wrist injury and loss of confidence, was the best in college basketball. It nearly made the Final Four anyway.

And, two years before that, in the first Champions Classic, an unranked MSU squad, led by a senior named Draymond Green, hung close with Duke. The Spartans lost by five, but Tom Izzo knew he had something that night. He did. Green led MSU to a Big Ten championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

So, it’s not that MSU can’t become something that it wasn’t Tuesday night. It’s that history says it won’t.

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