SAN DIEGO -- After an event aboard the USS Carl Vinson that will be a lifetime memory, the Michigan State basketball team found that its identity mirrored in some small way the servicemen and women it entertained Friday night.
The Spartans will have to be tough and rugged and able to adjust on the fly if they are going to be a success this season.
"We played hard, we made the hustle plays," said an emotionally drained Tom Izzo. "We can be better offensively."
The Spartans lost to top-ranked North Carolina 67-55, despite outrebounding the Tar Heels by 15. MSU dealt with multiple players in foul trouble and a woeful 30.6 shooting percentage as a slight breeze blew across the deck. The weather couldn't mask a 2-for-20 effort from behind the 3-point arc, though.
Austin Thornton was a brutal 0-for-7 from the field, while freshman Travis Trice began his career 1-for-8. But Michigan State's Keith Appling said the wind wasn't an excuse he or teammates were willing to give.
The Spartans got off to decent start in the first few minutes when they were controlling the offensive backboard. But that was before the Tar Heels started to click and run past MSU.
The Spartans weren't helped by a first-half injury to freshman forward Branden Dawson, who tweaked his right knee on a center-court logo. Izzo said at halftime and again after the game that the decals are a detriment to players and a serious concern for coaches and players. Dawson said he was a bit nervous after he went down.
He worked on his knee behind the basket, doing slide drills to loosen it up. It worked, as he ended up playing all but five minutes. But he wasn't as effective in the second half, scoring only 4 points and grabbing two of his seven rebounds after the break.
Dawson had ice on his knee after the game, but didn't appear to be having any issues. He will have to be a major factor for the Spartans, helping Draymond Green as well as Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix inside. The Spartans are already down one forward with Delvon Roe having to give up the sport due to injury.
"Coach Izzo told me I have to keep going to the glass," Dawson said. "We know that's what we have to do."
Green was down on himself for his play (6-of-19 from the field), but he did finish with 18 boards.
"We outrebounded them by 15 so you can see that we can be the old Michigan State," Green said. "We have to shoot the ball better, but we can win a lot of games rebounding like that."
The Spartans play Duke on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic in New York City. The Blue Devils have their tallest team in years, giving MSU another challenge inside.
But the Spartans love every minute of this. Izzo said he wouldn't have it any other way, playing the No. 1 Heels in Friday's spectacular and moving environment and then going across the country to play Duke on what could be coach Mike Krzyzewski's clinching victory to own the all-time win record.
"I do this because I'm selfish," Izzo said. "I want to be at these games. We're still building our program. We got something out of this. We competed. There was a different look in our players' eyes. There were no issues, none with the weather. It was just great."