2:00 Saturday. The Toyota Center, Houston, Texas. CBS.
Texas enters this game ranked #5 in the country with a record of 9-1. Their only loss was a one-point defeat at the hands of #12 Notre Dame in Hawaii. They have two wins against ranked opponents: #14 UCLA and #18 Villanova.
Last year, MSU beat Texas 78-72 in Auburn Hills, in what was probably our best win of the season. Despite returning four of five starters from last year (the exception being NBA lottery pick D.J. Augustin), this team’s statistical profile differs substantially from last year’s team’s.
The 2007-08 team was #3 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, on the strength of a microscopic offensive TO% of 14.1%, which ranked first nationally. The defense was somewhat less impressive, as the Longhorns ranked 36th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.
In the current season, Texas has become stronger on the defensive end, ranking 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Meanwhile, the Longhorns have struggled (comparatively) on offense, ranking 65th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.
The strength of the Texas defense has been forcing tough shots. They’ve held opponents to a 2-point shooting % of 42.0% and a 3-point shooting % of 30.1%. Part of their success in holding opponents to a low 2-point shooting percentage has been blocking shots. They rank eighth in the country in team block %. 6’10” Connor Atchley leads the way with 1.8 blocks per game. And 6’7″ Damion James, 6’7″ Gary Johnson, 6’10” Dexter Pittman, and 6’10” Clint Chapman have all posted individual block percentages above 4.0%.
I fear this may be a tough game for Raymar Morgan to score in, as Texas has multiple players who can match-up with him near the rim. (But let’s hope he defies my prediction, as he did against UNC.)
Texas has also been proficient in creating turnovers this year. Every opponent except Notre Dame has turned the ball over on more than 20% of their possessions. That’s a marked change from last season, when Texas’ opponents only turned it over on 17.8% of possessions. I seem to recall that Texas played a 2-3 zone quite a bit last year. Burnt Orange nation indicates they’re not playing much zone this season:
Twice in the last two games we’ve inexplicably flirted with a little zone defense in the second half. Twice it sparked an opponent run. I don’t think we’ll see much more of that against teams with strong guard play.
So that may explain the increase in the number of turnovers they’re creating. Regardless, MSU will have to play with precision on offense and avoid unneeded turnovers. (How many times have I expressed that sentiment in the last 12 months?)
Offensively, Texas has relied heavily on 5’11” senior guard A.J. Abrams. Abrams is averaging 20.9 points per game, shooting a phenomenal 47.4% from 3-point range. 6’7″ junior forward Damian James has chipped in 14.0 points per game, shooting 54.3% on 2-pointers. 6’10” senior center Connor Atchley’s scoring production is down; he’s averaging only 6.8 points per game, vs. the 9.5 he averaged last season. But he’s still been pretty efficient, posting an eFG% of 56.7%.
Beyond those three players, none of the top eight players on Texas’ roster in terms of minutes played has posted an eFG% above 44%. MSU obviously has to focus its resources on preventing Abrams from getting good looks and keeping James out of the lane. Atchley has struggled to find good looks at the basket; BON theorizes that Augustin’s departure may be the cause.
In the wake of D.J. Augustin’s departure, Abrams had moved from shooting guard to point guard early in the season. But that move has been reversed, and 6’2″ junior Justin Mason is now the primary ball-handler. Mason is doing a good job distributing the ball, averaging 5.6 assists per game. But he’s not a great outside shooting threat; he’s made only 3 of 15 three-point attempts (and just 15 of 31 free throw attempts). With Travis Walton presumably assigned to Abrams most of the night, hopefully Kalin Lucas can get the better of Mason on both ends of the floor. (Note: Individual tempo-free stats are up at kenpom.com now. Lucas is in the top 40 nationally in both assist percentage and turnover percentage. That’s a nifty feat.)
Texas is a very good team–one of the few teams in the nation that can go toe to toe with MSU in terms of talent, depth, and versatility. To win this game, in what will be a road-like environment, Michigan State is going to have to play its best game of the season thus far. It’s hard to pick one key to the game, but I’ll go with rebounding. Texas has not been strong on the defensive glass, pulling down only 66.3% of defensive rebounding opportunities. We need some easy baskets from Morgan, Delvon Roe, and Marquise Gray to overcome a Texas defense that will be very hard to score efficiently against.
BON on Texas’ potential vulnerability on the boards on the offensive end:
Texas is playing a lot with three guards (Abrams, Mason, and [freshman guard Varez] Ward), Damion at the four, and just a single big. Abrams is often running the baseline and not a threat to grab offensive boards while Mason is usually hovering near the top of the three-point arc directing the offense. If Mason crashes the offensive glass like his instincts tell him to, there is no one left to get back on defense. If Mason stays back and protects against easy run outs, then Ward, James, and a post player are battling four or five defenders for offensive rebounds.
For this to improve Texas and Barnes have to sacrifice something. Barnes can elect to play two posts at the same time and challenge James to assist more on the offensive glass while giving up some ball handing by taking Ward off the court. Or Barnes can keep the same lineup that he has been playing and expect to get fewer second chance opportunities because Mason must stay back. Both solutions have their pros and cons obviously.
It’ll be interesting to see how the chess match plays out between Tom Izzo and Rick Barnes in terms of playing big or small lineups. I like our chances with Morgan, Roe, and Gray/Suton on the floor, given how well Morgan and Roe can get out and run in transition.
Kenpom predicts a 75-68 Longhorn win in a 72-possession game. I’m as eager for this game as I have been for a Spartan sporting event since March. As someone pointed out in the comments recently, it seems like every big MSU basketball or football game since the NCAA win vs. Pitt has been a disaster (Memphis, Maryland, and UNC in basketball; Ohio State and Penn State in football). I’m looking forward to a competitive, hard-fought game against a quality opponent on Saturday.
And a win would be even better.