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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, January 08, 2019 10:10 pm

Halftime: No. 6 Michigan State 39, Purdue 26

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

EAST LANSING – Big Ten basketball is back.

Of course, the conference has been playing league games for more than a week now, but the first half tonight was the epitome of the national stereotype of the Big Ten hoops. The game was physical and low-scoring. The defense was mostly dominant and shooting was poor, but there was some solid passing for easy baskets. 

These teams came in with a combined 11 wins in a row, but it would be difficult to discern that from the way the first half played out. Especially in the early going, there was plenty of ugly basketball to go around, with both teams shooting below 40 percent through the first seven minutes and turning it over eight times in that span. Most of the baskets that were scored came on broken plays and there were several jump shots that missed everything. The "beautiful game" it was not.

Still, that plodding, sloppy style wasn't the worst development for Purdue. The underdog Boilermakers led for a large portion of the first half and stayed within striking distance throughout thanks to decently solid defense and some timely 3-pointers. The Boilermakers are just 4 of 16 from beyond the arc, but all four 3s have been in big spots. Outside of those long-distance shots, however, Purdue's offense has been mostly stifled by the physical Spartans, who have blocked five shots and have limited the Boilers to an anemic 31-percent shooting.

Purdue has brought plenty of energy on the defensive end and are flying around the court, but Michigan State has 10 assists on 14 made baskets anyway. The Spartans' ball movement has been sublime at times and it has been helped along by a few missed Purdue rotations.

The Boilermakers have decided to send a double-team at MSU big man Nick Ward when he gets the ball in the post. That's not the worst decision, since Ward is a crafty operator down low and averages more than 16 points per game. The problem is there have been several times when the double team has not been followed by the correct rotation, leaving shooters open for the Spartans while two Boilermakers mistakenly guard someone else. Ward is a good passer out of the post and has kicked the ball out several times for open 3-pointers.

If Purdue wants to keep double-teaming Ward – which it should, to be clear – it will have to be more fundamentally sound and communicate better in the second half. Michigan State is too good of a passing team to let the Boilers get away with sloppiness in that area.

Before the game, I wrote that Purdue would have an opportunity to prove its toughness tonight against one of the more physical teams in the country. It has acquitted itself well so far, remaining within striking distance against a talented team and not backing down from the physical play. If the the Boilermakers can hit a few more 3-pointers in the second half, this game could be winnable.