College basketball rankings: Michigan State No. 1 in coaches poll, Virginia tops AP

College basketball rankings: Michigan State No. 1 in coaches poll, Virginia tops AP
Couch: Jaren Jackson separates Michigan State from most of the best of college basketball
nMINNEAPOLIS – When Tom Izzo talks about his team’s raw talent, when opposing coaches mention Michigan State’s high ceiling, they’re talking about one thing, or person — Jaren Jackson Jr.

He’s the raw talent with the most room to blossom. He’s the ceiling that’s so dang high. 

Minnesota had few answers, and after cutting the margin to 12 late in the first half, the Gophers never challenged. Isaiah Washington scored 18 to lead Minnesota (14-14, 3-12) while Jordan Murphy added 16 points and Nate Mason scored 14. The Gophers played without Amir Coffey (shoulder) and Dupree McBrayer (leg) as Reggie Lynch remains suspended.

He’s what makes MSU different from most of the rest of college basketball, from anything MSU has ever been before. 

Couch: Jaren Jackson separates Michigan State from most of the best of college basketball
Couch: Jaren Jackson separates Michigan State from most of the best of college basketball

And while that begins with being statistically the best rim protector in the country, his evolving offensive game is what makes the Spartans dangerous beyond what we’ve seen yet. Or at least what we’d seen before Tuesday night’s 87-57 win at Minnesota.

‘Special player’ Jackson leads MSU in rout over Minnesota

Jackson dazzled “at three levels,” as Izzo put it — “(from) 3(-point land), the post a couple times, (and) we got it to him in the midrange (area) a couple times where he made some moves and drove and spun.”

Jackson’s stat line was ridiculous: 27 points, 10-for-14 shooting, 5 of 8 from beyond the arc, six rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots. And, for the first time since his sixth birthday, no fouls. 

Let’s be clear, the matchup helped tremendously. The Gophers are depleted, demoralized and short. Jackson knew that. It helped him stay out of foul trouble, he said. But he made Minnesota look and feel every ounce of its shortcomings.

“He puts a lot of stress on the defense,” Minnesota power forward Jordan Murphy said. “Being able to knock down shots like that, then also when he drives left, he’s just going to finish over you. It definitely puts a lot of stress on the defense and definitely a matchup nightmare for regular 4s (power forwards) in the league.”

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Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. led Michigan State with a career-high 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the field, including 5-for-8 from three-point range. The Spartans (25-3, 13-2) kept rolling after jumping out to an 18-6 lead on 6-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc. They shot 10-for-12 from long distance (14-for-22 for the game) to lead 43-25 at halftime.
Michigan State's Jaren Jackson sets career-high for points on foul-free night
Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson sets career-high for points on foul-free night

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“You could tell how frustrated they were,” MSU point guard Cassius Winston said. “(Jackson) would make a good pass or if they didn’t double(-team), he would dunk the ball. It’s hard on a team just to figure out how to play a person who can shoot outside and score the inside.”

Michigan State’s Hall of Fame coach didn’t like the criticism he was hearing about his young counterpart at Minnesota during a rough season. But the No. 2 Spartans didn’t take it easy on the Gophers, who saw their losing streak reach eight consecutive games after falling 87-57 on Tuesday night in front of 12,218 at Williams Arena.

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It’s more than that, though. It’s the hoops acumen. It’s how he plays off of Winston.

All-America candidate Miles Bridges, who had 20 points and the game-winning three-pointer Saturday against Purdue, was held to only five points on 1-for-7 shooting. But Michigan State still hit 14 threes and dominated the paint. Jackson and sophomore forward Nick Ward combined for 40 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks.

“I’ve played with him 20-some games,” Jackson said. “It kind of just happened naturally. Whoever is shooting well at the time, which honestly was both of us (Tuesday), we try to get that person the ball in the right spots.”

“Probably patience, knowing the ball is going to find me at different times — and me not forcing shots.”

On Tuesday night, the ball found Jackson all the time. And he began trusting that it would, for good reason. There were little plays that made a difference. For example, Kenny Goins had an open 3, but swung it over to Jackson, who took the shot instead for a 39-20 lead. That might seem like an obvious play, but Goins had the better look.

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo's postgame press conference after the Spartans beat Minnesota, 87-57, on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. Chris Solari/Detroit Free Press

Injured guards Amir Coffey (shoulder) and Dupree McBrayer (leg) have missed a combined 15 games. Center Reggie Lynch has been suspended for 12 games. The Gophers have won only once shorthanded, when they beat Penn State 95-84 on the road in overtime on Jan. 15.
'Special player' Jackson leads MSU in rout over Minnesota
‘Special player’ Jackson leads MSU in rout over Minnesota

Izzo, now trusting what he’s seeing out of Winston and Miles Bridges, sees Jackson and Joshua Langford as the two players whose games can find another level consistently between now and March. 

Michigan State when on a scoring drought of four minutes and 31 seconds before Gavin Schilling made a free throw at the 4:20 mark, but Minnesota was only able to score five points in that stretch. With 3:41 left, Kenny Goins gave Michigan State its first field goal in almost five minutes, and Jackson followed with another 3-pointer to give MSU its biggest lead of the half to that point at 36-18. The Spartans would only continue to extend the lead, though, as Jackson hit yet another 3-pointer — his fourth of the half — and then gave MSU a 43-22 lead before Nate Mason hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds.
'Special player' Jackson leads MSU in rout over Minnesota
‘Special player’ Jackson leads MSU in rout over Minnesota

“If we’re going to take another step to get this team to one more level, which it has to get to another level, I think Jaren and Josh are very important,” he said.

Although Michigan State was on fire from distance, the Spartans struggled some on the interior. They finished the first half 10-for-12 from 3-point range but went just 4-for-14 inside the arc. MSU also had nine first-half turnovers, and Nick Ward, who struggled mightily with double teams, accounted for six of them. With Michigan State up 30-15, Ward turned it over on back-to-back possessions. He had consecutive turnovers again a few minutes later, and the second one was an offensive foul that was his second of the half and sent him to the bench for the final 5:09.

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Izzo continued to challenge Jackson Tuesday even during the best game of his short career at MSU.

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“He’s not going to let me settle, even if I’m having a great half,” Jackson said. “Because, if I get complacent, that half can turn into something really ugly, really quickly.”

“He’s got to become even a better passer,” Izzo said, “because he’s so big he can look in. He missed Nick (Ward) a couple times. I thought he did a pretty good job stepping up on ball screens, but we talked late, a couple times he didn’t. When he got tired, some of that game went down. But this was definitely his best game as far as on both ends of the court.”

Freshman phenom Jaren Jackson Jr. scored a career-high 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range. Jackson made all four of his first-half 3-point attempts, as did sophomore point guard Cassius Winston, who finished the game with 12 points and five assists. Nick Ward bounced back from a brutal first half to score 11 in the second and finish with 13 for the game to go with a team-high nine rebounds.

Jackson was most effective Tuesday during the 11 minutes he played center. He can’t do that against everyone — Purdue’s Isaac Haas, for example, would pummel him — but, against those he can, it presents new lineup possibilities for Izzo and new headaches for opponents. Winning the NCAA tournament is all about winning matchups six times in a row. Jackson playing the 5 is one more matchup likely to go in MSU’s favor.

It was over When: When Minnesota couldn’t capitalize at all on Michigan State’s one major scoring drought of the night in the first half, it was clear the Gophers just didn’t have enough to beat MSU. When they had a chance at making a run after cutting the Spartans’ lead to 13 to start the second half but then let Michigan State push the lead back to 20 in the next five minutes, it was pretty much over.

“He gives us a high ceiling, especially when we can play him at the 5,” MSU associate head coach Dwayne Stephens said Tuesday night. “There are not a lot of 5s that can guard a pick-and-pop 4-man. And that’s what happen tonight, we put him at the 5 some, it allowed us to be a little more versatile. That’s how he was able to get some of those open looks.”

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It’s important to keep in mind that, just three days earlier in MSU’s most important game of the year, Jackson tallied two points, five rebounds and one blocked shot in 13 foul-plagued minutes against Purdue.

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Foul trouble, for the rest of the season, threatens his impact. He’s had four or five fouls in 15 of MSU’s 28 games this season. He’s got long arms, and he likes to use them.

The Spartans need him on the floor — and causing stress for others — against the opponents who can actually challenge them. That probably wasn’t going to be Minnesota on Tuesday night with or without him. Still, any upset-minded team early in the NCAA tournament will find their odds longer facing MSU with Jackson. Think of Middle Tennessee State two years ago and their forwards hitting all those outside shots. That doesn’t happen against Jackson’s length. If anything, it’s more likely to happen to them. 

“This is one of the games you haven’t seen out of him before,” Winston said, of Jackson. “If he plays like that, this team takes another whole step forward.”

Minnesota (14-14, 3-12 Big Ten) suffered one of its worst losses of the season — a 30-point blowout at the hands of No. 2 Michigan State (25-3, 13-2 Big Ten) by a score of 87-57. Both streaks survived for another game.

Contact Graham Couch at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.  

“[Jackson is] a very talented player. I mean, he puts a lot of stress on the defense,” Murphy said. “Being able to knock down shots like that, and then also when he drives us, he’s just going to finish over you.”

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The Gophers will look to get out of their losing rut on Monday when they head to Madison to play Wisconsin (11-16, 4-10 Big Ten). The Gophers have three games left in the regular season.

MINNEAPOLIS – Jaren Jackson Jr.’s box score line on Tuesday night featured plenty of impressive numbers: a career-high 27 points, 5-for-8 3-pointers, three blocks.

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Perhaps the most impressive number, though, was a zero in the column for personal fouls.

The Spartans’ freshman forward played a foul-free 22 minutes in Michigan State’s 87-57 win over the Gophers on Tuesday night. For a player who has often been foul prone in his 28 collegiate games, that was a relief.

Michigan State blows out Minnesota behind 27 points from Jaren Jackson Jr.

“It’s great. I don’t have to come here and talk to you guys about foul trouble,” Jackson said afterward as reporters crowded around his locker.

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On top of not having to talk about fouls, Jackson said playing regular minutes and not having to spend an extended stretch on the bench made him more mentally into the game.

The result was Jackson’s best offensive game in a Michigan State uniform. His 27 points marked a career-high, as did his 10 field goals and 14 field goal tries. His five 3-pointers tied a career-high.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo said Jackson was also strong on the defensive end and called the game “definitely his best game on both ends of the court.”

Izzo said he was impressed specifically with how versatile Jackson was offensively, hitting 3-pointers, midrange shots and layups. He credited other Michigan State players for setting up that offense.

“I was really excited about how he played at three different levels,” Izzo said. “The 3, the post a couple of times, but we got it to him in the midrange a couple of times where he made some moves and drove and spun. I thought we hit him at all three levels, which is what we wanted to do.”

The performance stood in contrast with many of Jackson’s recent games. In four of Jackson’s previous six games entering Tuesday, he had recorded at least four fouls. Against Purdue on Saturday, he picked up two first-half fouls in just five minutes of gameplay. He finished with just 13 minutes.

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“I was able to stay on the floor and do more things for my team,” Jackson said.

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Izzo often talks about each one of his teams leaving “footprints,” or doing something no previous team has done before.

The 2017-18 Spartans accomplished that on Tuesday when they got off to the best start in program history.

With the win over Minnesota, Michigan State is now 25-3 on the season. No other team in Michigan State history has won 25 of its 28 games. The 2000-01 team started 24-3 but lost its 28th game.

Izzo said the record gives this Michigan State team an identity of its own.

“There’s always talk about the championship teams, this team, that team,” Izzo said. Sometimes, unless you win a championship you’re not worthy of things. We’re setting some marks in our own way and I think that is pretty cool. That is a hell of a start. I’ve had some good teams that never got close to that.”

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