EAST LANSING — The Breslin Center was wrapped in white, Spartan after Spartan filling every one of the steep seats that comprise the home of the Michigan State basketball team.
The student section, dubbed the Izzone, filled up the entire lower bowl of the arena, a sea of howling fans that were on their feet and screaming more than an hour before the game started. And before the tip, they put their arms over the shoulders of their brethren and rocked back and forth, creating a rocking, shaking, sea of white.
Even with earplugs, the noise levels were incredible — quite a setting for the first start of freshman forward Mitch McGary’s career.
It had been coming for a couple weeks now, McGary outgrowing his role as the first Wolverine off the bench. He was the spark and the sixth man, a fan favorite, known for pumping up the student section as much as his actual play on the court.
Even when the usual starting center, redshirt junior Jordan Morgan, injured his ankle in late January, McGary continued to play the role of the sixth man. Michigan coach John Beilein said he liked having the energetic freshman come off the bench, even if he ended up with more minutes than the Wolverine starting in place of Morgan, redshirt sophomore Jon Horford.
Yet, on the road against a Michigan State frontcourt that averages almost 30 combined points per game, Beilein couldn’t wait for the spark of energy off the bench. He needed it on the court from the beginning.
But McGary, like the rest of the fourth-ranked Wolverines, didn’t look or play the part. Before Morgan subbed in four minutes into the game, McGary had missed a jumper, gotten beat in the paint for a basket by Spartan center Derrick Nix and turned the ball over on a bad pass out of the post that led to a Michigan State basket in transition.
The stage was set for McGary’s first big starting performance. He wasn’t ready, and neither was Michigan in a 75-52 loss on Tuesday night.
“He’s still learning, and he’s thrown in there and has to learn,” Beilein said. “With Jordan’s injury — he’s not himself — we were just looking for some type of energy to replace him right now. Mitch had some bad turnovers but he’ll improve on it.”
Perhaps most concerning for Michigan, though, is that McGary wasn’t the only big man with a rough game Tuesday night. It wasn’t just him; nobody else was ready either.
As a unit, the Wolverines took a pounding from the Spartan forwards and centers, routinely getting out-muscled and out-worked in the post.
At the end of the first half, Michigan State had a 38-24 lead and had outscored Michigan, 24-8, in the paint. The Spartan frontcourt had scored 24 points and missed only three shots, while the Wolverine big men had scored just seven. The game was basically over at that point — Michigan’s deficit continued to grow as its forwards and centers continued to get outplayed.
By the end of the game, Michigan State’s frontcourt scored 28 points, compared to eight for the Wolverines. The two backup centers, Horford and Morgan, combined for only one point off the bench.
The matchup of the night was Nix vs. whoever was trying to guard him. He finished the night with 14 points and didn’t miss a shot until just under two minutes in the first half. His game wasn’t flashy either — Nix is listed at 270 pounds and used every ounce of it to get positioning in the post against his Michigan counterpart. He made hook shots, finished on spin moves and made a tip in off what looked like a volleyball tip.
“He’s a big body,” Morgan said. “He just has a way of getting himself deep in the paint, you can’t let him get deep in the paint because he’s got a good touch around the rim.”
It’s hard to blame Morgan, because even though he said after the game that he felt good enough to play without restrictions, Beilein disagreed and said his big man wasn’t 100 percent.
It’s hard to blame McGary, because the Breslin Center is as tough as an arena there is to play in the country, especially against a very talented Spartan frontcourt.
It’s hard to blame anyone, and maybe that was the biggest problem. If a whole unit falters, is it fair to blame each individual cog?
After the game, Morgan slumped against a wall, his 6-foot-8 frame shrinking into the concrete below him. He was visibly frustrated and upset, almost in disbelief of what had just transpired in East Lansing.
Looking down at the ground, he shook his head and muttered what could be the answer.
“I don’t think we were prepared for what they brought tonight.”