Who’s ready for another fun, wacky, tongue-in-cheek Indiana men’s basketball column?
At the risk of reading like a 1980s ABC Afterschool Special, we’re going to play this one a bit straighter than usual. Eight days after a shooting at Michigan State claimed the lives of three students and injured five more, the Spartans defeated the No. 17 Hoosiers 80-65 in East Lansing. It was Michigan State’s first home game since the shooting.
This is not a commentary on the tragedy nor on the capacity of sports to alleviate human suffering. There is no novel insight or opinion I can express in this article that hasn’t already been put far more eloquently by someone else.
But these columns are nothing if not an exploration of the emotions crammed within 40 minutes of college basketball. To overlook this game’s harrowing backdrop would be like ignoring Indiana senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis’ stat line or Michigan State’s perimeter offense.
Speaking of which, Jackson-Davis logged 19 points and seven rebounds, an impressive but relatively underwhelming outing for the star big man. Of course, Jackson-Davis averaged over 38 minutes in his previous six games, so it isn’t terribly surprising that he looked a little tuckered out.
Still, Jackson-Davis’ bloodstream could have been 70% Red Bull by volume and he probably couldn’t have done much to stop Michigan State. The Spartans shot 47% from the field and a blistering 10-of-21 from beyond the arc.
While the final score suggests wire-to-wire dominance, Indiana actually got off to an uncharacteristically hot start. Especially in road games, the Hoosiers often start out uncontrollably fast on offense, lollygag on defense and appear to be playing an entirely different, much uglier sport than their opponent. Tuesday night, Indiana sprinted to a 12-3 lead in the first five minutes while shooting 75% from the field.
Of course, there’s a reason the Spartans came into Tuesday night’s contest with a 23-2 record against the Hoosiers at the Breslin Center since it opened in 1989. Michigan State outscored Indiana 23-12 in the last 10 minutes of the first half, storming to a 35-29 halftime lead.
The Spartans hardly looked back in the second half. Nothing Indiana head coach Mike Woodson threw at Michigan State brought the game within fewer than 5 points.
On one particularly ill-fated possession midway through the second half, Michigan State junior center Mady Sissoko blocked Indiana freshman forward Malik Reneau’s layup so hard that the ball flew into freshman forward Kaleb Banks’ face, then bounced back into the hands of Reneau, who at that point had a foot out of bounds. The result was obviously a turnover, but credit Banks for really keeping his head in the game.
The Hoosiers committed 13 turnovers and surrendered 13 second chance points, never fully finding their footing in a tough road environment. In turn, the Spartans capitalized on opportunity after opportunity, sending the home crowd into a frenzy with rainbow 3-pointers and acrobatic layups.
When the final buzzer sounded, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo held his head in his hands. Behind him, a sea of students in white “Spartan Strong” T-shirts appeared to bask in a moment of elation.
Michigan State’s victory doesn’t erase the unjust deaths of Arielle Anderson, Alexandria Verner or Brian Fraser nor dramatically alleviate the suffering of their families, friends or classmates. Maybe the game offered two hours of respite; maybe it didn’t. I’d certainly like to think it did.
It’s easy to frame Tuesday night as a massive emotional and spiritual victory for a community reeling from tragedy. In some ways, I’m sure it is. But whereas most demonstrative victories in sport must be matched by an equally crushing loss, I’m not sure Indiana fans have anything more to regret than another notch in the loss column.
Even if it is just a game, sports have long been a source of tremendous passion. Usually that flows from the spirit of competition, the glorious battle of us versus them.
While this contest featured as much passion as you’ll find in any game, I imagine the hearts of both fan bases were beating in unison Tuesday night.