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Monday night, 9:21.  Ford Field, Detroit.  CBS.

This has become a routine for me now: Overanalyzing the statistical profiles of #1 seeds we’re about to play and convincing myself we’re massive underdogs.  I’m going to try to keep this preview short, to avoid that danger (and because I need to get some sleep tonight).

The numbers:

Category MSU Off Nat Rk UNC Def Nat Rk
Adj Eff 115.4 18 90.0 16
TO% 20.5 184 20.2 174
eFG% 49.9 137 46.6 62
FTR 40.7 56 24.7 5
OffReb% 40.9 5 31.6 118
Category UNC Off Nat Rk MSU Def Nat Rk
Adj Eff 123.7 1 88.0 8
TO% 16.7 13 20.3 171
eFG% 52.9 43 47.2 81
FTR 39.1 98 35.6 158
OffReb% 39.2 17 27.4 11

Unlike our previous two opponents, the scary half of North Carolina’s profile is the offensive side.  This team takes care of the ball, shoots the ball very efficiently (51.1/38.4/75.8) and crashes the glass almost as well as we do.  And they do it all at a breakneck pace (adjusted tempo=73.8).

I’m not going to run down UNC’s playing rotation in detail (partly because the numbers are so imposing).  We know all about their two incomparable leaders: Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson.  And Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, and Bobby Frasor can all play a little bit, too.  When this team is playing to its potential, it’s more like watching an NBA team than a college team: Everybody can knock down perimeter shots and make plays going toward the basket.  They’re the one team in the tournament field that has the ability to turn the scoring switch on seemingly at will.

At the risk of sounding like Dan Patrick, you can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.  My hunch is we’re going to have to play them straight up and hope that Kalin Lucas and Goran Suton are good enough at this point to go toe to toe with Lawson and Hansborough.  The rest of the defense can’t afford to sag off the other UNC players to help out on the two stars.  Once Ellington and Green get going, things really start to fall apart for the defense.  Assuming Walton doesn’t guard Lawson, he may be able to take one of those two guys out of the game on offense.

Playing them straight up should have the added advantage of keeping us in good rebounding position.  Our only potential defensive advantage on paper is rebounding.  If we can limit the Tar Heels to one shot per possession, that would go a long ways to giving us a shot at outscoring them.

And outscoring them is what we will need to do.  In UNC’s four losses this season (Boston College, Wake Forest, Maryland, Florida State), the Tar Heels still managed to stay above 1.00 points per possession.  (They didn’t have a single outing below that threshold all season.)  But they allowed their opponents to score an average of 1.10 points per possession in those games.

On paper, UNC doesn’t look like they’re well positioned to take advantage of our occasional turnover issues.  I’m not so sure, though.  Athletic, man-to-man teams are exactly the kind of opponent our turnover issues have cropped up against this season.  We’ll see if this team has turned the page for good on those issues.  If UNC comes out overplaying on the perimeter, we have to use the pressure against them to create points going toward the basket.

Beyond that, we’re going to need to crash the glass with abandon (it’s our single trump card on both ends of the court) and knock down whatever good 3-point looks we get.  All four of the teams that have beaten UNC this year shot at least 37.5% from 3-point range in doing so.

North Carolina’s only outstanding statistical factor on defense is free throw rate.  With their across-the-board athleticism, the Tar Heels don’t end up in positions requiring them to foul with much frequency.  If, however, we can somehow get Hanbrough to pick up a couple early fouls, that’d be helpful.  He ended up with 4 fouls in 3 of their 4 losses.  Raymar Morgan’s newfound offensive confidence could be an asset in that department, since Hansbrough doesn’t block a lot of shots.

In terms of pace, MSU is talking a lot about beating UNC at its own game by pushing the ball on offense.  In reality, I think they’re going to have to walk a very fine line.  They certainly need to take whatever fast break opportunities are there for high-percentage shots.  But they can’t make bad decisions with the ball that will allow Lawson to work his magic going the other way.  There’s a temptation to say an up-tempo game favors us because of our depth (10-player rotation vs. 7-player rotation, but you’re playing with fire if you push that line of thinking past a certain point.  Lucas, Walton, and Lucious have to make smart decisions with the ball for 40 minutes.

In short, the players need to do everything they didn’t do the last time these two teams met in this location.  In the recap of that game, I concluded with the following:

The game was obviously a major disappointment, both in terms of on-court performance and the crowd environment.  We can only hope the team has now hit rock bottom; there’s no place to go but up.

This team has climbed a long, long way up since that game–farther up than any of us could have hoped.  The only question that remains: Can they ascend all the way to the peak of the college basketball mountain?

My guess is there aren’t going to be any shortcuts to get to that peak.  As brilliant as Tom Izzo has been in the last two games, I just don’t see a strategic advantage in this game.  We’re simply going to have to outplay them–and even that may not be enough.

There you go, I think I just convinced myself we’re massive underdogs.  So we’ll end there, and hope that the team proves me wrong one more time.

P.S. Kenpom predicts an 80-77 UNC win in a 74-possession game.  For what it’s worth, that’s a considerably tighter predicted margin than the 7.5-point spread the guys in Vegas have posted.

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Thursday Night Links

What to do with Mr. Ibok

For a fifth-year scholarship player, Idong Ibok has logged very few minutes this year.  158 minutes, to be exact.  But he’s played an effective role in those minutes, serving as a designated defender against opponents with true centers of the seven-foot (or near-seven-foot) variety.  His last seven outings of 5 minutes or more have come against this group of four players: Cole Aldrich (twice), Ralph Sampson (thrice), Mike Tisdale, and JuJuan Johnson.

Upon casual analysis, then, one might expect Mr. Ibok to log 10-15 minutes or so against the 7’3″ Hasmeen Thabeet on Saturday.  I wonder, though, whether that would be playing right into UConn’s hands.  Consider:

  • Thabeet is, by most accounts, not a terribly polished post player.  The most important thing, then, is to keep him away from the basket so he’s not in position for easy baskets off passes or rebounds.  Goran Suton, Delvon Roe, or even Draymond Green might be better suited to that task.  Ibok tends to be most effective against players who are going to post up and try to shoot over their defenders.
  • On the other end of the court, Thabeet would be able to rotate off Ibok to block the shots of MSU players driving the lane with little danger of Ibok scoring off a pass.  If Thabeet is forced to guard Suton, that clearly creates an advantage for MSU (but may require going with a small lineup).  And, while neiter Delvon Roe and Draymond Green have shown great outside shooting ability to date, they are both quite capable of converting shots 5-8 feet from the basket and/or making good passes when the defense is scrambling to rotate.

What do you guys think?  Do we throw our seven-footer at theirs?  Or concede the height differential and focus on creating a mismatch of our own?

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Saturday, 6:07.  Ford Field, Detroit.  CBS.

Well they don’t get any easier as you move on, do they?  UConn currently ranks #1 in all the land according to Kenpom’s rating system.  Looking at their four-factor numbers, you can see why:

Category MSU Off Nat Rk UConn Def Nat Rk
Adj Eff 114.6 23 84.2 3
TO% 20.6 196 16.2 336
eFG% 50.0 133 42.2 2
FTR 41.2 48 19.2 1
OffReb% 41.0 5 29.8 51
Category UConn Off Nat Rk MSU Def Nat Rk
Adj Eff 117.0 12 88.3 9
TO% 18.0 45 20.2 175
eFG% 51.5 75 47.3 87
FTR 46.2 8 35.0 141
OffReb% 40.0 10 27.0 7

The only thing that qualifies as a “weakness” on UConn’s side of this ledger is the fact they doesn’t create turnovers on defense.  But that’s pretty clearly a conscious choice on the Huskies’ part.  Why go after the ball on defense when you can let your opponent bring the ball to you and get their shot blocked/altered by your 7’3″ All-American center?

And that’s exactly what’s happened this year when opponents try to score inside the 3-point arc. UConn ranks 2nd in the country in block % (17.2%) and 4th nationally in opponent’s 2-point shooting % (40.7%).  (You’ll never guess who ranks first in the country in block%: Minnesota.)  Hasheem Thabeet, of course, leads the way with 4.3 blocks/game, but forwards Jeff Adrian and Stanley Robinson also chip in a block per game each.

Even more frighteningly, the UConn big men patrol the paint without picking up fouls.  The Huskies rank first in the country in opponent’s free throw rate.  Thabeet averages just 2.5 fouls/game and has fouled out only 3 times this season.  No other UConn player has fouled out more than once.

Oh, and it’s not like opponents have been able to roam the perimeter and get good shots off from beyond the arc.  Connecticut is holding their opponents to a 30.4% three-point shooting %.  (That number is down to 23.5% in tournament play.)

Add it all up and you can get the third best defensive team in the country by the numbers.

Offensive keys for MSU:

  • Limit turnovers.  It’s one thing to turn the ball over against a team taking risks in order to create the turnovers.  Given that we’re almost certain to score inefficiently against UConn when we do get a shot off,  we need to maximize the number of shots we get off.  That means no boneheaded turnovers.
  • It also means crashing the glass.  UConn doesn’t give up a ton of offensive rebounds, but it’s MSU’s one clear offensive strength.  We simply have to outwork and outhustle the Huskie big men to ensure we retain the advantage on the boards.
  • Beyond that, it’s just a matter of scoring as many ways as possible that don’t involve trying to shoot a lay-up against Thabeet.  Kalin Lucas needs to hit some pull-up floaters.  Durrell Summers and Chris Allen need to convert whatever open 3-point looks they can find.  Some buckets by Goran Suton, Draymond Green, and Delvon Roe off offensive putbacks–when Thabeet might not be in ideal defensive position–would be very helpful, as would a few transition baskets.  (We can hope that Suton can use a couple wily post moves to get Thabeet out of the game for a long stretch with foul trouble, but I just don’t see that happening.)

Statistical evidence that maximizing the number of shots we get off is the overall key: Three teams have beaten UConn this season: Georgetown, Pitt (twice), and Syracuse (in the 6-OT thriller).  In all four games, those teams took care of the ball (no TO% higher than 20.1%) and got some second-chance scoring opportunities (minimum OffReb% of 34.7%).  Only one of the four teams posted an eFG% above 50%.

The ray of hope?  We have a track record of winning some games without great shooting percentages.

Offensively, UConn has six guys averaging at least 7 points per game (not counting the injured Jerome Dyson, who will suit up but not play on Saturday):

  • Senior point guard A.J. Price averages 14.7 points and 4.7 assists per game.  He’s their main outside shooting threat, having made almost half of the team’s total 3-point shots on the season (at a clip of 40.7%).  Price has stepped it up in tournament play, averaging 20.0 points/game.
  • Senior forward Jeff Adrien averages 13.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.  Adrien isn’t the most polished offensive player; he shoots just 50.5% from the field (almost all 2-point attempts).  In their game against Purdue, I noted he was taking a lot of long jumpers that weren’t going in.
  • Junior center Hasmeen Thabeet averages 13.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game.  He shoots a robust 64.7% from the field, but that number’s at least partially a function of taking a limited number of shots.  He’s attempted only 21 field goals in the four games of NCAA Tournament play.
  • Freshman guard Kemba Walker averages 9.0 points and 2.9 assists per game.  He’s a speed guy who shoots only 27.1% from 3-point range.  He led the Huskies in scoring against the Missouri scramble defense, scoring 23 points on 9 FG attempts.
  • Junior forward Stanley Robinson averages 8.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.  At 6’9″ and 210 pounds, Robinson reminds me of a slightly bigger and more explosive version of Raymar Morgan.  Robinson was injured early in the season, but has become a major contributor of late.  He’s averaging 14.8 points per game in NCAA Tournament play.
  • Senior guard Craig Austrie averages 7.3 points per game.  He’s taken the second most 3-point shots on the team, while making just 32.4% of those shots.  He converted all three of his 3-point attempts against Purude, but has shot only 1-10 combined in the other three tournament games.

The final member of UConn’s 7-man playing rotation is junior forward Gavin Edwards, who is average 4.5 rebounds in 15.3 minutes of play per game in tournament play.

UConn is a veteran team that takes care of the ball, scores well in the paint, gets to the free throw line, and grabs quite a few offensive rebounds.  Their only potential weakness is shooting the ball.  They’ve made a pedestrian 34.1% of their 3-point attempts and just 69.0% of their free throw attempts on the season.  Given that deficiency, the Huskies don’t look to take a lot of jumpshots.  The rank 335th nationally in the percentage of their field goal attempts that come from behind the arc.

The good news here is that MSU’s man-to-man defense is already meant to encourage our opponents to take long-distance shots.  Hopefully, that means Tom Izzo only has to make minor tweaks what the players already have ingrained in their heads.  Expect the MSU defense to sag off shooters to try to prevent the UConn players from getting into the lane even more than usual.

Travis Walton has his work cut out for him trying contain Price.  And Goran Suton will have to display some more dazzling footwork to keep Thabeet away from the basket, where he’s much less dangerous due to a limited repertoire of post moves.

It’ll be interesting to see what mix of lineups Izzo uses in this game.  On the one hand, he could go small, with Morgan at the 4, to force Thabeet to guard Suton–who could then camp out at the top of the key.  On the other hand, Jeff Adrian (6’7″, 243 pounds) is no pushover.  Roe and Green match up with him best.  In the end, Izzo will no doubt use a mix of lineups and stick with whatever works (if anything).

In a perfect world, the MSU defense forces the UConn players to take jumpshots, secures the rebounds, and starts some fast breaks going the other way to avoid having to play against the Huskies’ half-court defense.  Easier said then done, of course.

In an imperfect world, MSU has trouble handling UConn’s size and picks up a lot of fouls, sending the Huskies to the line with frequency.  UConn may not shoot all that well from the line, but 69.0% still beats your typical eFG%.

Kenpom predicts a 70-65 UConn win in a 68-possession game.  My first take is that this match-up is even more imposing than the one against Louisville looked–at least when we have the ball.  With Louisville, we knew what we had to do to score points: beat their pressure.  (As it turned out, they pulled back their pressure and we proceeded to go about scoring efficiently against their less-impressive half-court defense.)

Against UConn, it’s less clear how to create high percentage shots.  That means creating as many low-percentage shots as possible.  And that means you’re working with a very fine margin for error, since you have to do two big things (ball-handing/rebounding) very well at the same time.

In Izzo, we trust.

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Sunday, 2:20.  Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.  CBS.

First thing: Six Elite Eights in 11 years.  It’s good to be a Spartan.

Now to Louisville: This is a very, very good team.  They come into tomorrow’s game riding a 13-game winning streak, having won both the Big East regular season and conference tournament titles.  There’s a reason they were the top overall seed in the 65-team field.

Watching them dominate Arizona last night, they reminded me of USC in terms of their athleticism.  They’re not quite as long throughout the lineup, but their top two players (by minutes played) are both guards in forwards’ bodies: 6’6″ Terrence Williams and 6’9″ Earl Clark.  Those two players give Louisville great versatility, particularly on defense.  And, on offense, they play much more together as a team than USC did.  For the second time in three games, we go into this contest with a decided disadvantage in the athleticism department.

Louisville excels on defense, ranking second in the country in defensive efficiency.  As evidence of exactly how athletic they are, they rank in the top ten nationally in both steal% and block%.  Four players average at least 1.0 steal per game and three average at least 1.0 block per game–so it’s a team effort.  They press on almost every possession, and it’s an aggressive press that puts 4 defenders in the back court and looks to create turnovers by trapping.  Tom Izzo will need to have a precise gameplan for beating the press by breaking people deep for easy baskets.  As I’ve argued before, if you don’t create easy baskets off the press, there’s no incentive for the opponent not to press you.  We’re going to turn the ball over some against the press; we have to get enough high percentage baskets off it to offset that disadvantage.

Once the opponents gets the ball over halfcourt, the Cardinals fall into a 2-3 zone.  And they play it well.  They’re holding opponents to a 43.0% 2pt shooting% and a 30.4% 3pt shooting%.  Playing in the zone, they don’t foul much, either.  Their only defensive weakness is rebounding (typical of a zone team); they allow opponents to grab a decent 31.5% of their missed shots.  MSU will need to push that number up even further.  I dare say an OffReb% north of 40% may be a prerequisite for winning this game.

The third key (beyond breaking the press and crashing the boards) will be 3-point shooting.  Thankfully, Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Chris Allen have all looked pretty good shooting the long ball in recent games.  They’ll need to hit some shots in the soft spots of the 2-3 (on the wings, foul-line extended) to keep the zone honest and create some room for Goran Suton and Delvon Roe to operate on the interior.

On offense, Louisville is good, but not great.  They rank 25th in the nation in offensive efficiency.  They’ve been a touch inconsistent.  Looking at Big East and postseason play combined, they have 5 games in which they posted an offensive efficiency figure above 120 (including last night), but also have eight games in which they were under 100.

Louisville’s strength is creating good shots, and making them.  They shoot 51.4% on 2-pointers and 36.9% on 3-pointers.  As I asserted above, the stats say they play together well as a team, ranking 21st in the country in the percentage of their made field goals that are assisted.  Despite their overall athleticism, they don’t necessarily have a one-on-one playmaker who can consistently create offense for himself.

The Cardinals are middle of the road in terms of turning the ball over and grabbing offensive rebounds.  Their distinct weakness on offense is a lack of ability to get to the free throw line; they rank just 295st nationally in free throw rate.  And they generally don’t make a high percentage when they do get to the line (64.4%).

Louisville is led offensively by three players:

  • Junior Earl Clark averages 14.1 points per game, with a 49.1/31.0/65.2 shooting line (2pt/3pt/FT).  At 6’9″, he also leads the team in rebounds (8.8/game) and ranks second in assists (3.3/game).
  • Senior Terrence Williams ranks second on the team in scoring at 12.7 points/game.  He posts a shooting line of 46.9/38.4/57.5.  The 6’6″ forward leads the team in assists at 5.0/game and averages 8.6 rebounds/game to boot.
  • Freshman Samardo Samuels is Louisville’s main interior scoring option, averaging 12.1 points per game on 59.1% FG shooting.  Somewhat curiously for a 6’9″, 260-pound player, though, Samuels only averages 4.8 rebounds/game.

For the most part, the primary role of the other players in Louisville’s rotation is shooting 3-pointers.  Preston Knowles (42.6%), Jerry Smith (41.1%), Andre McGee (37.6%), and Edgar Sosa (30.6%) all average at least three 3-point attempts per game.

MSU will need to play stellar man-to-man defense in order to prevent Clark and Williams from creating good shooting looks with their size and athleticism, while at the same time avoiding giving up open three-point looks to Louisville’s shooters.  Defensive communication and rotation will need to be seamless.

We’re going to need Raymar Morgan in this game on both ends of the court.  He’s going to have to guard Clark or Williams on defense (Walton can only guard one of them).  And he’s perhaps our best candidate to get open breaking down the court against the full-court press.  The concern is that his jumpshot has completely disappeared again, which will be a problem against the Cardinal zone.  I watched him miss about four consecutive 15-footers during halftime warm-ups last night; he looked pretty dejected at that point.  He’s shown a lot more resilience this year than he did last year, though, so maybe he can shake that off by tomorrow afternoon.

Kenpom predicts a 69-65 Louisville win in a 69-possession game.  It’s going to take a near-perfect performance for us to pull this game out.  Hopefully, the jitters are gone after the Kansas game.  There’s nothing left to lose at this point–and everything to gain.  If MSU can come out playing poised and confidently (against the full-court press, in particular), we’ve got the tools to beat Louisville.  It’s just going to take 40 minutes of offensive execution and defensive intensity.  Louisville plays together as a team as well as anyone in the country; we’re going to need to match that, and then some.  Hopefully, we’re up to the task.  An all-expense-paid trip down I-96 to Ford Field would be the reward.

P.S. You can check out Card Chronicle for a Louisville-side perspective on this game.

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I’m hitting the road for Indy shortly.  Here’s your open thread to converse before, during, and after tonight’s game.  I may or may not post a game recap tonight after the game; if I don’t, I’ll get the post up in the morning.

Discussion-inducing links:

I’ve obviously been negligent in my blogging duties this week.  (Take this as proof that ceasing operations at this site is an unavoidable eventuality.)  I will leave you with my own gut feeling on tonight’s game: We win tonight, unless we beat ourselves.  Tom Izzo will have a defensive gameplan that will ensure that Collins and Aldrich don’t beat us by themselves; another Jayhawk player will have to step up.  Beyond that, our fate will hinge on (1) offensive execution, (2) three-point shooting (on both ends), and (3) foul trouble (either way).

The obvious pick for the key MSU player is Raymar Morgan.  Can he take advantage of the less experienced Kansas wing players?  I’ll throw in Durrell Summers, too.  With Aldrich in the lane, scoring in the paint is going to be a challenge.  Because of his high release, Summers can get a 3-point shot off even against a team that knows it might be coming.  If he can knock down a shot or two early, that could open up the ability to drive and score on some mid-range shots, as well.

In terms of intangibles, I think it’s a wash.  Kansas is the younger team, so the added hype of playing at the Sweet Sixteen level may affect them more.  On the other hand, there’s less pressure on them than there is on us to advance to next round.  The bottom line is that these are two solid teams that both won the regular season title in pretty deep conferences; this should be a great game.

There you go.  Three paragraphs of original (if not rigorously analytical) blogging.  Enjoy tonight’s action and . . .

GO GREEN!

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Friday night, approximately 9:37 p.m.  Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.  CBS.

Unfortunately, professional responsibilities are going to preclude me from doing my own preview of the game.  Instead, I’m going to point you toward a couple other preview and then let you take it from there.

First, Mr. Gasaway’s capsule on the game:

There is not a doubt in my mind that if USC had defeated Michigan State, Kansas would be facing an honest-to-goodness triangle-and-two defense in this game. With an offense where anyone not named “Sherron Collins” or “Cole Aldrich” is forbidden by state law to attempt a shot, the Jayhawks were born to face that look. The Spartans prevailed against the Trojans, however, and so Tom Izzo’s defense will play KU straight up. Truth be told, that defense has had a lot of success this year playing opponents straight up. When MSU has the ball, this game will mark the first real test of their crash-the-glass mode of scoring. Aldrich is one of the finest defensive rebounders in the nation, playing for a team that yet again led the Big 12 in this category. This game could be bizarro Syracuse/Oklahoma: close but low-efficiency on offense.

Second, Rock Chalk Talk has a Kansas-side preview of the game.  Their take on what’s changed since the first time the two teams met:

All that said a lot has changed for Kansas.  The team is riding high after exceeding expectations this season.  Coach Self has shortened the bench and settled on a rotation whereas last game he was still very much experimenting.  The Morris twins, specifically Marcus, along with Mario Little have emerged as contributors in the eight man rotation and were virtually non-existent in the first match up.  Tyshawn Taylor was worth only 2 points and not much else in the first go around and has improved immensly over the conference schedule.  Finally, this one is a neutral court and not in Breslin Center.  Will it be enough, I feel like we’ve got a good shot.  Revenge, tourney determination and Sherron Collins can squeek this one out but it will be no small task.  I look for a Kansas victory in a nail biter here, or at least that’s what I hope.

The rest is in your hands, my friends.  What do you see in the stats?  Does Tom Izzo gear the defense to stopping Collins and/or Alrich, or does he let those two score their points and make sure the rest of the team doesn’t get rolling?  What’s your gut say about the final outcome?

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USC Game Preview

5:00 Sunday.  The Metrodome, Minneapolis.  CBS.

USC comes into the game with a record of 22-12.  They finished the Pac 10 regular season with a conference record of just 9-9, with 6 losses in their final 9 games, but bounced back to beat Cal, UCLA, and Arizona State en route to winning the conference tournament and earning an NCAA Tournament berth.

The Trojans have a unique lineup.  They start five players that are between 6’5″ and 6’9″ and between 200 and 225 pounds.  And they rely very heavily on those five players.  Against Boston College, only one other player (6’7″, 225-pound Leon Washington) played double-digit minutes–while three starters played all 40 minutes and another played 36 minutes.  In their two previous games, no bench player hit the 10-minute mark.

Here’s a quick run-down on the starters:

  • 6’9″ junior Taj Gibson is averaging 14.6 points (on 60.5% 2pt shooting), 9.3 rebounds, and 2.8 blocked shots per game.  Gibson was named the Pac 10 defensive player of the year.  He scored 24 points on perfect 10-10 FG shooting against Boston College.
  • 6’5″ junior Dwight Lewis is averaging 14.3 points/game.  Lewis is the team’s main 3-point shooting threat, shooting 38.7% on 142 attempts.
  • 6’7″ freshman DeMar DeRozan is averaging 13.7 points/game, shooting 55.9% on 2-point attempts.  DeRozan averaged 21.0 points/game in the conference tournament run.
  • 6’5″ junior Daniel Hackett is averaging 12.3 points and 4.7 assists per game.  He shoots 37.7% from 3-point range.
  • 6’6″ sophomore Marcus Simmons is the only starter averaging less than 33 minutes/game on the season.  He played lightly early in the season (partially due to an ankle injury).  He’s started the last 4 games, but has scored a total of just 14 points in those 4 games.

In short, the Trojans are balanced, not at all deep, and very athletic.  USC’s reliance on their athleticism is evident in their tempo-free numbers:

  • They’re not great shooters (33.2% on 3-pointers; 66.8% from the line).
  • Therefore, they take most of their shots inside the arc (339st in nation in 3PA/FGA)–and they make a lot of them (2pt% of 51.5% is 51st in nation).
  • They don’t get their shots blocked; they rank second in the country in offensive block%.
  • They only record an assist on 50.4% of their made field goals–indicating they tend to rely on individual playmaking to score.
  • They tend to get fouled, but don’t foul a lot themselves (38th nationally in offensive FTR; 70th on defense).
  • They rebound pretty well on both ends of the court (35th nationally on offense; 94th on defense).
  • The block a lot of shots (20th nationally in defensive block%–large due to Taj Gibson), resulting in a 2pt% of just 44.1% for their opponents.
  • They turn the ball over quite a bit, and they don’t create a lot of turnovers (200+ in TO% on both ends).  (The fact that they don’t create a lot of turnovers doesn’t fit the athleticism-drives-everything theory very well, but it could be a function of the fact they don’t have any really quick, smaller players.)

It’s an interesting statistical profile.  On net, USC is better on defense (15th nationally in defensive efficiency) than on offense (56th in offensive efficiency).  The trick for MSU is going to be finding ways to score against a team that can match its athleticism.  My initial take is that Kalin Lucas’ speed and Goran Suton’s length/savvy will be our biggest assets.  If Walton/Allen/Summers/Morgan/Roe can just play even against USC’s athletes, Lucas and Suton could be difference makers.  In a perfect world, those two guys would be able to create foul problems for USC and force them to use a player or two off the bench–players we presume are significantly less talented.

As best I can ascertain, USC is a man-to-man team that mixes in some “junk” defenses.  In particular, Tim Floyd has a reputation for utilizing the triangle-and-two defense.  It’s hard to see them employing that scheme against MSU, though, given that (1) we don’t have major outside shooting threats to clamp down on and (2) the passing skills of Suton/Roe/Morgan would be a major asset in breaking the defense down to create easy looks near the basket.  So the question is whether USC has a more standard 2-3/3-2 zone it can play proficiently against us; I can find no information on this topic.

On the defensive end of the court, MSU should have a couple advantages.  First, our man-to-man defense is designed to avoid letting players drive to the basket.  By hedging toward ball-handlers, we try to force perimeter shots.  And USC doesn’t appear to be a very good outside shooting team.  The question is whether Suton, Roe, Green, and Gray will be able to stop USC’s athletes when they do get the ball into the lane.

Second, we obviously have a substantial depth advantage.  We’ll be playing 10 guys; they’ll be playing 6.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tom Izzo put full-court, man-to-man pressure (no trapping) on USC from the beginning of the game to try to wear down the Trojan players as the game goes on.

I worry about Raymar Morgan in this game on both ends of the court.  He tends to struggle against players that can match (or exceed) his athletic ability.  But he’s shown the ability to play a more limited, but still effective, role in those situations this season.

Kenpom predicts a 66-63 MSU win in a 65-possession game.  My guess is that this game will be a defensive struggle. After playing a lot of games against teams with smaller lineups, the situation will finally be reversed in this game.    USC ranks 4th in the nation in “effective height.”  They’ll be able to match up with our front line, and they’ll have a size advantage in the back court.  The MSU players will need to balance aggressiveness and intelligent decision making to score efficiently against the Trojans.

Due to their limited playing rotation, they play at a pretty slow tempo (adjusted tempo=64.6 possession).  MSU will want to force the tempo.  If ever there were a time to take advantage of our depth, this is it.

P.S. For a Trojan perspective on the game, check out Conquest Chronicles, the SBN USC blog.

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