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We’ve been waiting to hear (1) who MSU would play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge next season and (2) whether they’d play a nonconference game at Ford Field. Today, both questions we’re answered: They’ll play North Carolina at Ford Field on Wednesday, December 3, as part of the challenge. The full list of match-ups can be found here.

The other obvious marquee match-up is Duke-Purdue in West Lafayette, a match-up that would have occurred in this year’s NCAA Tournament if both teams had won one more game. The Washington Times manages to find an angle to connect the two teams in each of the 11 match-ups (NC State, MSU’s challenge opponent this past season is the odd ACC team out).

Ford Field is the site of the Final Four next year, so both MSU and UNC will be hoping to use the game to gain experience playing there in hopes of returning four months later. Whether North Carolina is in a position for a repeat Final Four run will hinge to a large extent on whether Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, and/or Wayne Ellington decide to declare for the NBA draft. At the moment, it appears they odds may tilt slightly toward all three staying, as none are projected as definite lottery picks. If the trio does remain, North Carolina will be the consensus #1 team in the country going into next season.

The Spartans and Tar Heels have played each other twice previously in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. MSU prevailed 86-76 in Chapel Hill in 1999 and won by a score of 77-64 in East Lansing in 2000. You’ll recall that the 1999 game is the one in which Morris Peterson scored 31 points to lead MSU to victory in the absence of an injured Mateen Cleaves. MSU turned it over 17 times in 72 possessions (23.6%), but pulled down 20 of 39 offensive rebounding opportunities (51.3%).

At 5-3, MSU is the only Big Ten team with a winning record in the nine-year history of the challenge. Surprisingly, UNC is just 4-5 all-time in the challenge.

It will be interesting to see whether they use the court-in-the-center-of-the-field arrangement at Ford Field to mirror the seating arrangement for the Final Four or if they move the court to one side to improve viewing angles, given that a sellout seems unlikely. The Lions play home games the previous Thursday (Nov. 27) and the following Saturday (Dec. 7), so it will be a busy week and a half of logistical changes inside the stadiums.

With the announcement of this game, MSU is now slated to play at least three of this year’s Elite Eight teams (UNC, Texas in Houston or Dallas, Kansas at Breslin). That number could conceivably grow to four, as Memphis may still participate in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.

Update: The seating configuration hasn’t been determined yet.

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We’ve been waiting to hear (1) who MSU would play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge next season and (2) whether they’d play a nonconference game at Ford Field. Today, both questions we’re answered: They’ll play North Carolina at Ford Field on Wednesday, December 3, as part of the challenge. The full list of match-ups can be found here.

The other obvious marquee match-up is Duke-Purdue in West Lafayette, a match-up that would have occurred in this year’s NCAA Tournament if both teams had won one more game. The Washington Times manages to find an angle to connect the two teams in each of the 11 match-ups (NC State, MSU’s challenge opponent this past season is the odd ACC team out).

Ford Field is the site of the Final Four next year, so both MSU and UNC will be hoping to use the game to gain experience playing there in hopes of returning four months later. Whether North Carolina is in a position for a repeat Final Four run will hinge to a large extent on whether Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, and/or Wayne Ellington decide to declare for the NBA draft. At the moment, it appears they odds may tilt slightly toward all three staying, as none are projected as definite lottery picks. If the trio does remain, North Carolina will be the consensus #1 team in the country going into next season.

The Spartans and Tar Heels have played each other twice previously in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. MSU prevailed 86-76 in Chapel Hill in 1999 and won by a score of 77-64 in East Lansing in 2000. You’ll recall that the 1999 game is the one in which Morris Peterson scored 31 points to lead MSU to victory in the absence of an injured Mateen Cleaves. MSU turned it over 17 times in 72 possessions (23.6%), but pulled down 20 of 39 offensive rebounding opportunities (51.3%).

At 5-3, MSU is the only Big Ten team with a winning record in the nine-year history of the challenge. Surprisingly, UNC is just 4-5 all-time in the challenge.

It will be interesting to see whether they use the court-in-the-center-of-the-field arrangement at Ford Field to mirror the seating arrangement for the Final Four or if they move the court to one side to improve viewing angles, given that a sellout seems unlikely. The Lions play home games the previous Thursday (Nov. 27) and the following Saturday (Dec. 7), so it will be a busy week and a half of logistical changes inside the stadiums.

With the announcement of this game, MSU is now slated to play at least three of this year’s Elite Eight teams (UNC, Texas in Houston or Dallas, Kansas at Breslin). That number could conceivably grow to four, as Memphis may still participate in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.

Update: The seating configuration hasn’t been determined yet.

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Around the Big Ten

Michigan 49 Illinois 43

I can only hope this week’s results will boost MSU well above the Illini in the offensive points-per-possession category for good; the two were tied at 1.01 (in conference play) before this week’s action. UMHoops says rebounding was a key and recaps Jalen Rose’s comments to the Crisler crowd. Sample:

Every time you see the black shoes, the black socks, the baggy shorts, the Fab Five lives. I’ll be back one day when those banners get hung.

As much as the Fab Five could be grating to basketball traditionalists (I’ll always remember the distinct contrast of their baggy, yellow uniforms against the green and white background as they swaggered out on to the floor of the Breslin Center), Rose was the one guy you had to respect for the brilliance with which he played the game.

Indiana 85 Northwestern 82

Northwestern almost pulled off their first conference win of the year in style. They held a 1-point lead with 2 minutes to go before IU made 8 of 8 free throw attempts to pull out the victory in Dan Dakich’s first time out as interim head coach. Inside the Hall has the key stats: “Indiana out-rebounded Northwestern 35-18 and hit 30 of 37 free throws.” Kevin Coble put up a career-high 37 points on 5-6 3-point shooting for the Wildcats. Based on a one-game sample, it appears the departure of Sampson may hurt IU more on the defensive end than the offensive end, where they can rely on the supreme talents of Gordon and White. Of course, given the off-court turmoil and lack of practice time this team dealt with the last few days, it’s probably not wise to read too much into a single game.

Tennessee 66 Memphis 62

I’ve granted this game a special exemption to be included in the Big Ten Roundup since (1) it was #1 vs. #2 and (2) I watched the last ten minutes. And an entertaining ten minutes it was. Two talented, up-tempo teams letting it all hang out. From a statistical standpoint, though, I’d note that neither team reached the point-per-possession mark (it was a 67-possession game). Big Ten teams generally look less talented on offense to the naked eye than teams from the other power conferences, but they also take a lot fewer bad shots. This can cause games to be played at a slower pace and has led, I think, to a somewhat undeserved reputation for the conference being offensively challenged.

Minnesota 75 Penn State 68

The Gophers take care of business at home to get to .500 in conference play (7-7). Paging Jim S says the Gophers were able to come back from a early deficit by playing more aggressively on both ends of the floor. Lawrence Westbrook led the way for the Gophers with 15 points on 7 FG attempts.

Wisconsin 58 Ohio State 53

Both teams played hard in this one from start to finish, reflecting the importance of the game to both squads. The game was tied 32-32 at the half. Neither team could sustain consistent scoring down the stretch in the second half. Jamar Butler couldn’t shoulder the load of initiating the offense for the entire game, as he missed his final 5 FG attempts. Wisconsin, meanwhile, managed to eke out enough points to pull away in the final 7 minutes by finding seams in the Ohio State zone.

At 17-10 overall and 8-6 in the conference, the Buckeyes now have a tough path to secure an NCAA slot. Their final four games are as follows: at IU, at Minnesota, home to Purdue, home to MSU. Wisconsin’s game against MSU on Thursday, meanwhile, now becomes the Badgers’ single significant obstacle to securing at least a share of the Big Ten title. Their final two games are home to Penn State and on the road at Northwestern.

Update: Badgercentric says the key play of the game was a Michael Flowers steal and layup to tie the game at 49.   Flowers finished with 14 points, 6 assists, and 2 steals.

Another Big Ten-Related Link of Interest

The Artist Formerly Knows as the Big Ten Wonk (TAFKATBTW) put aside statistical analysis and delved into the minutiae of NCAA violations and college basketball coaching contracts, in the context of the Jim O’Brien and Kelvin Sampson cases. His conclusion:

In addition to viewing O’Brien’s lawsuit as a cautionary tale, then, athletic directors should also view the Ohio State program’s instant renaissance as both a hopeful parable and as a cudgel to wield at the bargaining table against grasping coaches. Contracts should be structured on the empirically unassailable truth that there are many more excellent coaches than there are excellent coaching positions. Such contracts should also include provision for paid suspension in the event of an NCAA Notice of Allegations. Indiana didn’t have such a clause in Sampson’s contract, so they employed him for two games longer than they should have.

Division 1 college basketball (and football) has certainly become a bizarre little legal universe.

And an MSU Link for Good Measure

Joe Rexrode commends Izzo for the “decisions to go to fullcourt pressure with more subbing and emphasis on running” this week. Thinking about yesterday’s game, it seemed like Iowa put less defensive pressure on our perimeter players than I expected (although I didn’t see the first Iowa game, so I can’t say how it compared). One reason for this could be that our guards wore their guards down when Iowa had the ball. So pressuring the ball could have benefits even if it doesn’t directly create turnovers. I also wonder if Izzo isn’t using more players in anticipation of trying to use MSU’s depth to make a run at the Big Ten Tournament championship, where the winner will need to win 3 games in 3 days. In both games this week, 9 players played 13 minutes or more. Izzo depth, baby!

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Michigan State dominates the Nittany Lions, 86-49.  I picked an excellent game to take the Official Wife and Official Sons of the Spartans Weblog to.

This was, of course, a home game against the second worst defensive team in the conference.  But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that the Spartans played with a combination of confidence and clinical precision on the offensive end unseen in conference play to date.  Consider:

  • Only 7 turnovers in 59 possessions (11.9%).
  • 58.1% shooting on 2-pointers (25-43) and 58.8% shooting on 3-pointers (10-17).
  • 12 offensive rebounds in 27 opportunities (44.4%).

The net result: a season-high 1.46 points per possession.  MSU came out with a purpose and played with intensity for a full 40 minutes.  Even when Izzo inserted the entire second string with 12 minutes left in the second, they increased the lead by 10 points over the next 6 minutes.

From my vantage point in the 18th row of the upper deck, it looked like Izzo played it pretty cool after several early turnovers.  The team seemed to respond and play aggressively and efficiently throughout the remainder of the game.

On the defensive end, MSU forced Penn State to take tough shots all night.  Jamelle Cornley made a few nice post moves during the game, but finished just 4-11 from the field.  And the Nittany Lions connected on only 5 of 19 three-point attempts (26.3%).

In a game like this, there are any number of attractive numbers to be found in the box score.  Some highlights:

  • I was surprised this game contained only 59 possessions.  MSU pushed the ball early, even on made baskets.  They only ended up scoring 10 fast break points, though, as they made good decisions as to when to pull the ball back out and probe the zone. Also, the total of just 18 turnovers between the two teams would tend to reduce the number of possessions in the game.
  • Raymar Morgan looked much more comfortable with the basketball tonight.  He scored 16 points on 7-8 FG shooting, hitting several jumpshots and attacking the basket in transition.
  • A combined 15 assists vs. just 2 turnovers for Lucas and Walton.  30 assists (on 35 made baskets) vs. the 7 turnovers for the entire team.
  • Neitzel played just 21 minutes–sitting out the final 12 minutes as Izzo got everyone involved.  14 players played and 12 scored–including walk-on and Okemos native Mike Kebler, who scored his first two points as a Spartan.
  • Nice game for Marquise: 9 points and 7 rebounds.  Plus one very nice assist–just his 8th of the year.  He made a swing pass to Lucas over the Penn State zone for an open 3-point look, which Lucas knocked down.  Nice to see Gray get pumped up about something other than a dunk on his way back down court.
  • Herzog got 11 minutes tonight.  He actually looked fairly composed on offense (compared to Ibok, at least), although he still needs to add more bulk as he lacked the strength to convert a couple inside looks, finishing 1-4 on FG attempts.

MSU played with just the right balance of patience and assertiveness against a zone defense tonight.  We’ll see if they can maintain their new found offensive confidence against Iowa’s man-to-man defense on Saturday (2:00; ESPN).

In a superstitious attempt to make tonight’s performance reverberate into the remainder of the schedule, I’ve changed the blog header to a photo taken at the game . . .

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Monday Night Musings

Rankings Update

Michigan State plummets from 10/9 in the AP/coaches’ polls to 19/17. Their national ranking among Big Ten teams is now consistent with their place in the conference standings: 4th. Wisconsin is 11/10. Purdue and Indiana are 14th and 15th–Purdue higher in the AP poll, Indiana higher in the coaches’ poll.

Oddly, the Sagarin rankings have not been updated to account for the weekend’s games. MSU was 16th through Friday’s games (i.e., before the loss to IU).

The Kenpom ratings have MSU all the way down to 25th (down from 19th a week ago). This reflects that they not only lost two road games against quality opponents this week, they lost badly.

Kyle Whelliston’s Basketball State ratings still has MSU at #10. I think this is a function of those ratings putting a premium on defending your home court, where MSU is still undefeated this season.

MSU has finally fallen a bit in the RPI (courtesy of StatSheet.com), but remains at a respectable #14. Hopefully, the NCAA tournament committee puts an emphasis on RPI in determining seeds this season.

Speaking of which, since we’re less than a month from Selection Sunday, here are a couple of projections of MSU’s tournament seed:

Stewart Mandel has the Spartans as a #5 seed in the Detroit Regional. This would be fantastic–except that I’m pretty sure the odds are zero MSU will be allowed to play in Detroit unless they make a run to earn at least a #3 seed.

. . . except that Joe Lunardi has MSU in the Detroit Regional, too, as a #6 seed. So maybe this is a theoretical possibility. Of course, as a#5/6 seed, the road to get through the first two rounds in order to play at Ford Field would be significantly tougher than it would be as a #1/2 seed.

Lunardi still has five Big Ten teams in the dance, but has dropped Ohio State down to a #10 seed following yesterday’s loss in Ann Arbor. (Note that the win by Maize and Blue was enough to briefly interrupt the football recruiting recap blitz and ongoing Terrelle Prior watch at MGoBlog.)

Assorted Spartan-Related Links

Speaking of Brian at MGoBlog, he offers up a fairly skeptical take on recent reports a BTN-Comcast deal is imminent on his AOL blog.

Dave Dye discusses the plethora of problems haunting MSU these days: Morgan’s slump, a lack of focus, and an inability to win on the road.

TAFKATBTW concurs with the a-lack-of-toughness-can’t-explain-everything line of thinking with regard to MSU’s turnover problem.

D.J. White is “iffy” to play tomorrow night against Purdue (7:00, ESPN) due to the sprained knee he suffered against MSU. It’s a shame those two teams won’t be able to square off at full strength.

Depressing Internet fact of the day: The Spartans Weblog is the third website listed when you do a Google search for “unforced turnovers.”

Thoughts on the Week Ahead

MSU has home games against the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes on the slate this week. Those two teams, of course, represent the two great black marks on MSU’s record this season. Nevertheless, playing them at home, MSU should win both games comfortably. Kenpom predicts wins by 12 and 11 points, respectively. MSU certainly won’t be taking them too lightly this time around.

Thinking back about the IU loss, here’s the one theme that strikes me: After the first 10 minutes, MSU looked like it simply forgot how to play basketball. Witness:

  • Raymar Morgan’s complete lack of confidence in his outside shot.
  • MSU guards passing the ball around the perimeter with no obvious purpose.
  • The IU guards realizing this and picking off multiple simple passes between MSU guards 35 feet from the basket.
  • The complete inability to create scoring opportunities near the basket.

Here’s my arrogant-know-it-all-blogger advice for this week: Just play basketball. Tell the players to attack the basket, either with the dribble or the pass, and see what happens. Obviously, you’re not going to abandon set plays entirely. But don’t try to beat Penn State and Iowa merely by taking advantage of their schematic weaknesses. See if your players can make plays.

This is a talented group of players. We have three Big Ten-quality starting point guards–including the best creator off the dribble we’ve had since Mateen Cleaves. We have a physically gifted forward who can exploit match-up problems with his size and quickness against almost any team. We have a big man who can rebound, pass the ball, and score in the post when he gets the ball consistently. We have two gifted three-point shooters. Give them some freedom and see what happens. Can it be worse than what we’ve seen to date?

Steve Grinczel on what we’ve seen to date:

What is confounding Izzo is that the turnovers are of every type imaginable, from traveling, to illegal screens, to stepping on the boundary line, to bad passes, to simply having the ball taken away.

“How would you devise a drill to stop that?” he said, noting that the number of illegal screens set by MSU have actually dropped dramatically since he made them a coaching point earlier in the season.

The thing is that not everything can be solved through a drill. At some point, it’s about just playing the game based on athletic ability and intuitive decision making. My opinion is that Izzo needs to not get so worked up about turnovers where someone’s trying to make a play to create a basket: lob passes that go over a player’s head, offensive charges, etc. At least there’s a potential payoff on those plays. It’s the turnovers that serve no purpose whatsoever that are the most costly. And those generally result from players NOT trying to make plays toward the basket. We need less passes around the perimeter with no purpose. We need more players using their natural abilities to attack the basket.

In the last game recap, I said I was “out of answers.” But what’s the point of having a blog if you don’t have answers, right? So there’s mine: Just let ’em play.

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In an effort to manufacture some optimism for the rest of this season–and maintain my own mental sanity–here are the Spartans Weblog Top Ten Reasons to Feel Good About Michigan State Basketball:

10. Spring training has started.

OK. That’s not basketball-related. Let’s start over.

10. Drew Neitzel is on pace to finish 2nd on the all-time MSU free throw % list, 3rd on the all-time 3-pointers made list, 4th on the all-time assist list, and 14th on the all-time scoring list.

9. Kalin Lucas ranks 3rd in the Big Ten with 19.8 points scored per 40 minutes during conference play. He has a few years of eligibility left, right?

8. Drew Naymick ranks 2nd in the Big Ten with 2.3 blocks/game and 1st in the Big Ten with a block % of 12.7% during conference play. Not bad for a guy doing graduate work in finance.

7. Ten, soon to be 11, consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

6. Fourteen, soon to be 15, consecutive seasons with at least a .500 record in regular season Big Ten play.

5. MSU is 14-0 at home this season.

4. MSU is 3-1 on neutral courts this season.

3. That’s 17-1 in places where the crowd isn’t screaming at you because they want you to screw up–which generally describes the crowds at NCAA tournament games.

2. We have one of the greatest coaches in all the land–a man who knows how to put as much of the pressure on himself, rather than the players, when things aren’t going well:

“It’s inexcusable,” Izzo said moments later. “If I was an MSU fan, I’d be very disappointed in the coach, because I keep saying the same things and they don’t change.”

1. There are only a handful of college basketball fan bases in the land that can feel despondent about a team with a record of 20-5 . . . and we’re one of them.

This is not to say we shouldn’t feel despondent. It’s only to say we should actually feel good about the fact we’re despondent.

Does that help?

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Well, the starting lineup thing worked, huh?  With Lucas in the lineup at tip-off, MSU came out attacking the basket.  Marquise Gray pulled down a couple tough defensive rebounds.  And MSU built an 18-8 lead over the first 9 minutes.

And then . . . IU crushed us . . . like a paper cup.

From the 11 minute mark of the first half on, IU outscored MSU 72-43–despite the fact they played 25 of those 31 minutes without D.J. White, the leading candidate for conference player of the year, on the floor due to a knee injury.

Final score: Indiana 80 MSU 61.

Despite IU’s conference-worst defensive TO% of 17.2%, MSU turned it over 19 times in 67 possessions (28.4%).  Indiana didn’t play with the pressure on the perimeter that other Big Ten teams have.  For the most part, MSU was able to run its offense and simply gave the ball away in the process.  GBBound has the turnover breakdown in the previous comments section.  He sums it up succinctly: “No rhyme or reason to any of it. Team looks beaten and without fire.”

I’m out of answers.  The Spartans have now played 60 games since the beginning of last season.  They have consistently given the ball away on one of every four possessions over that time.  The odds they will correct this in the 8+ games that remain this season seem exceedingly small.

On the other end of the court, IU was simply phenomenal scoring the ball.  I certainly didn’t think MSU played great defense, but I didn’t see a lot of major defensive breakdowns either.  It was simply a matter of Indiana making shots.  They made 8 of 18 3-point attempts (44.4%)–most of them contested.  DeAndre Thomas, all 295 pounds of him, used his size to provide scoring punch inside to make up for White’s absence.  Their wing players made a number of spectacular reverse layups.

And Eric Gordon was positively unstoppable.  MSU tried to play him physically, and it worked for the first 10 minutes.  But then he elevated his game, knocking down deep jump shots and finding ways to slice his way into the lane to score at the rim or get fouled.   28 points on 9-15 FG shooting and 8-9 FT shooting.  That equates to 1.45 points per weighted shot, playing most of the game against a pretty good defender in Travis Walton.  On to the NBA for him, I say.

Other observations from the box score:

  • Neitzel did what he could tonight, scoring 21 points on 16 FG attempts.  He did make a key error, though, failing to pass the ball off on a 3-on-1 fast break with about 4 minutes left that would have reduced the IU lead to 10.  He missed the shot, IU scored going the other way, and the game was effectively over.
  • Chris Allen stepped up, knocking down 3 of 5 three-point attempts.  Despite MSU’s 7-14 shooting from 3-point range, Indiana was happy to settle into a zone for most of the second half.
  • The result: MSU couldn’t move the ball within the interior of the zone and got almost no inside scoring.  Morgan, Naymick, Gray, Suton, and Ibok combined for just 10 points (7 of them from Naymick).
  • Zero points, one rebound, and 4 turnovers for Suton.  What’s the opposite of an ode?
  • Walton was actually pretty good on offense.  8 points on 4-7 shooting, 4 assists, 2 turnovers.  Bringing him off the bench may reduce the pressure on him a bit.
  • For the second consecutive game, MSU’s offensive rebounding prowess disappeared.  5 offensive rebounds in 27 opportunities (18.3%).  Any time Drew Neitzel is the team’s leading offensive rebounder (with 2), something has gone terribly wrong.
  • Raymar Morgan has lost any semblance of confidence on offense.  3 points on 5 FG and 3 FT attempts.  His jumpshot looks completely out of whack.  Did anyone notice the hitch on his free throw attempts?  Has he always done that?

Nonstatistical observations:

  • Vitale was almost bearable tonight.  There was some actual analysis of the game.  And hearing him be critical of any basketball coach, the way he was of Sampson, is oddly refreshing.  But listening to him talk about what a raw deal Bobby Knight got made the last 5 minutes even more miserable than they already had to be.
  • Give the IU fans credit.  They basically ignored Sampson when he came on to the court before the game.  Then they got behind their team and helped push them to a convincing win that keeps them right in the middle of the conference race.  And the “stripe out” thing actually looked kind of cool (better than the striped warm-up pants do, at least).
  • Kelvin Sampson should quit right now.  Despite all of the turmoil swirling around his program–all of it of his own creation–his team came up huge for him on national TV.  If you’re going to go out under ugly circumstances, why not at least have your last on-court memory be a good one?

Next game for MSU: Wednesday at 7:00.  Breslin Center.  Big Ten Network.  How depressing is it that this game–and the next vs. Iowa–are revenge games?

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