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ford field msu uconn

The Spartans run, not walk, past the Huskies 82-73 in a 74-possession game. StatSheet box score.

At this point, it’s hard to find more words to describe how well this team is playing.  This game was almost a carbon copy of the Louisville game in terms of scoring flow: It was back and forth in the first half with the two teams basically playing even.  MSU eventually wore the opponent down with their depth and game plan to build a double-digit lead in the final minutes.  (The mini-collapse at the end was a little troubling, but I think there was a certain shock factor in adjusting to an opponent suddenly pressuring you full-court after playing a fairly passive defense for 35+ minutes.)

It was pretty apparent early that Tom Izzo had not consulted Digger Phelps about the game plan: The plan was to run early and run often.  By doing so, MSU was able to create scoring opportunities near the basket without Hasheem Thabeet in position to block shots.  For the game Thabeet, blocked just two shots (a stat I had a hard time believing when I saw the box score).  UConn totaled 7 blocks–just 13.2% of MSU’s 2-point attempts, which was right in line with the percentage that USC and Louisville blocked.

Looking at the four-factor numbers, things played out as we hoped they would:

We won the turnover battle decisively (looking at the stats they put up on the scoreboard at Ford Field, it seemed like were “stuck” on 6 turnovers forever), kept the rebounding margin even, and ended up taking 13 more shots from the field that the Huskies did.  We didn’t shoot the ball all that well (47.2% on 2-pointers, 31.6% on 3-pointers), but it was good enough to hit 1.11 on the offensive points-per-possession meter.  (That’s two straight games above 1.10 against two of the top three defenses in the entire country.)

As the numbers predicted, UConn took more shots from the line (33 vs. 20, with the gap narrowed by UConn’s intentional fouls at the end).  But they weren’t efficient in turning those opportunities into points, shooting just 63.6% from the stripe.  Kemba Walker’s 3-9 performance had to be particularly demoralizing to the Huskies, as Walker missed his first 5 attempts from the line.

Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrian were dominant early on.  The two players finished with a combined 30 points on 23 FG attempts.  But Izzo stuck with the strategy of playing them straight up and, eventually, they couldn’t continue to provide consistent scoring.  A.J. Price was forced to try to create offense for UConn, but Travis Walton made him take 20 shots from the field to get to his 15 points.  Even better for us, Price had just 1 assist.

For the game, UConn recorded an assist on only 8 of their 25 made field goals.  MSU forced them to make individual plays to beat them and, in the end, the Huskies couldn’t make enough of those plays.  Stanley Robinson played with tremendous efficiency (15 points on 6 FG attempts and 13 rebounds) but he still seemed like a secondary player in UConn’s overall scheme.

For MSU, this was yet another “team” effort, in every sense of the word.  I was particuarly struck by how well the three freshmen played.  Here they were, less than five months into their college careers, playing in front of 72,000 people, and none of the three seemed the least bit intimidated:

  • Korie Lucious was huge in the first half, scoring 11 points (on a total of 8 FG attempts for the game) to help keep MSU within striking distance.  With UConn playing a fairly passive defense, it was a great situation for Lucious to shine, and he came up huge.
  • Delvon Roe had 4 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 21 minutes of play.  He played with composure against the UConn big men, with one of his baskets coming off a move that seemed to involve at least three pump fakes.
  • Draymond Green somehow scored 8 points in just 12 minutes of play.  The man simply has no fear.  How about the confidence he demonstrated in knocking down that open 18-footer late in the game?

Moving on to the big-number performances, one came from an expected source, and one did not:

  • Kalin Lucas put up 21 points on 3-6 three-point shooting to go with 5 assists.  At this point, the only other point guard out there I’m willing to concede can match the combination of ability and moxie that Lucas has will be on the other side of the court when Monday’s game tips off.  That move Lucas made on the fast break to split the two UConn defenders was pure brilliance.
  • Raymar Morgan played the best game of his career: 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 steals against the very epitome of the kind of tall, athletic opponent he normally struggles against.  I thought his confidence would melt away after he had his first shot of the game blocked by Thabeet, but MSU retained the ball (on a team rebound) and Morgan came right back and knocked down a shot.  From there, his confidence swelled.

Your other six Spartan contributors:

  • Travis Walton made A.J. Price’s life miserable, dished out 9 assists, stole the ball twice, and didn’t record a single turnover.  With those contributions, we can live with a 1-6 shooting night.
  • Goran Suton only scored 4 points.  He wasn’t going to have any success down low, and the UConn players seemed focused on not letting him get good perimeter looks.  But he was fairly effective in denying Thabeet position (getting into foul trouble in the process), and chipped in 7 rebounds, 2 assists (including the gorgeous backdoor pass to Summers in the final minute), 2 steals, and a block.
  • Durrell Summers had a pretty nice dunk, if I recall correctly.  For the game, he posted 10 points and 6 rebounds.  At this point, I’d hope that national commentators have seen enough of his play (not to mention that of Lucas, Morgan, and Allen) to stop saying we’re lacking “talent.”
  • Chris Allen wasn’t on, shooting just 1-6 from the field in 9 minutes.  But he’s now reached the point where he’s no longer a major liability on the floor when he’s not scoring.
  • Marquise Gray scored on a dunk early in the first half.  That play doesn’t register in my memory banks; I’ll have to take note when I rewatch the game on DVR later today.
  • Idong Ibok did what he needed him to do: absorb fouls.    Three fouls and 2 rebounds in 6 minutes.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any MSU team play 80 minutes of basketball as well as this team has played them over the last two games.  Everyone’s contributing right now.  That’s created a versatility that’s allowed us to win back-to-back games of completely different tempos: 56 possessions against Louisville, 74 against UConn.  We forced an up-tempo, pressing team to play a slow-down game, and we forced a great half-court defensive team to play up up-tempo game.  Tom Izzo has now thoroughly out-coached two (fellow) future hall-of-fame coaches in two consecutive games on the sport’s biggest stage.

Speaking of stages, the scene at Ford Field was pretty darn cool.  At least 40,000 of the 72,000 seats were occupied by Spartan fans.  But what really created an advantage was having the students there.  The Izzone members initiated  the loudest cheering, as the rest of the fans followed their lead.  The sizable fan advantage certainly wasn’t the deciding factor, but it did seem to help keep UConn off balance when MSU made their run to extend the lead to double digits in the second half.

Celebrity sightings:

  • Outside the arena: Jim Boeheim, Derrick Coleman.
  • On the concourse: Mark Dantonio, Emeka Okafor, Charles Rogers.
  • In the MSU section behind the basket: Greg Kelser, Drew Naymick (with whom Goran Suton spent 10 minutes chatting after the game), Antonio Smith, Mike Chappell.
  • Walking up the aisle in the corner of the MSU section (where the Spartans Weblog clan was seated): Most of the MSU players.  Mrs. SW was able to obtain the autograph of Mr. Draymond Green.

It was the most magical night yet in this storybook run–a run that could now end with a classic storybook ending: Beating a nemesis that humiliated us by 35 points earlier this season in the very same locale.  More on that later today.  For now, let it sink in: This team has now taken us farther than all but two other teams in the one-hundred-plus history of the Michigan State basketball program.

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NCAA Final Four: Michigan State Spartans v Connecticut Huskies

I guess we can run a little, eh, Digger?

Raymar Morgan: 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists.  Who’s the bozo that called him a “role player”?

Game recap after I get some sleep.

For now, more of The Dunk:

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It’s been a long and winding road, but we’ve arrived at our destination–at least geographically speaking.  Two more enormous steps remain if we are to reach the ultimate basketball destination.

The Spartans Weblog clan will be hitting the road shortly to make the trek down I-96 to Ford Field.  Here’s your open thread to converse before, during, and after the game.  By the time I get back, I doubt I’ll be physically able to compose the game recap, so that’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Three other things:

  1. Here are some stupendous graphs to gaze upon while you wait for tip-off.  And here’s a good list of X’s-and-O’s things to look for.
  2. Where’s everybody watching the game?
  3. Let’s . . .

GO STATE!

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The scariest piece of UConn’s statistical profile is the number of shots they block.  The Huskies swatted away roughly one out of every six (17.2%) shots their opponents attempted from two-point range this season.

MSU, meanwhile, improved somewhat this season in avoiding getting their shots blocked, reducing their offensive block% from 9.8% to 8.4%.  But it’s still something of a team weakness.  Raymar Morgan, in particular, always seems to struggle getting his shot off close to the rim against taller defenders.

(Related: At this point, I really view Morgan as a role player.  He’s there to match-up with Stanley Robinson for at leat 15-20 minutes and hopefully grab some rebounds.  But any scoring he provides will be gravy.)

The table below shows our offensive block% (i.e., number of shots blocked divided by 2-point FG attempts) for each game this season, sorted from highest to lowest (worst to best).

OHIO STATE W 26.5
at Purdue L 17.0
vs Maryland L 16.7
vs Robert Morris W 14.6
vs North Carolina L 14.3
vs Louisville W 13.9
vs Southern Cal W 13.2
PURDUE W 12.2
vs Ohio State L 12.0
vs Oakland University W 11.9
at Minnesota W 10.9
MINNESOTA W 10.3
at Iowa Hawkeyes W 9.3
vs Kansas W 9.1
at IPFW W 8.9
at Northwestern W 8.7
at Ohio State W 8.3
BRADLEY W 7.3
WISCONSIN W 7.1
KANSAS W 7.0
IOWA HAWKEYES W 6.9
vs Minnesota W 6.7
vs Texas W 6.5
IDAHO W 5.6
at Penn State W 4.7
NORTHWESTERN L 3.8
at Illinois W 3.8
at Michigan W 3.4
at Indiana W 3.1
INDIANA W 2.6
vs Wichita State W 2.6
ILLINOIS W 2.4
PENN STATE L 2.4
THE CITADEL W 2.4
vs Oklahoma State W 2.0
ALCORN STATE W 0.0

The bad news: Five opponents blocked more than 14% of our 2-point attempts.  We lost 3 of those games.

The good news:

  • For two of those losses, we were missing Goran Suton, who ususally finds a way to get his shot off near the basket without getting it blocked.
  • Minnesota–which ranks first in the country in defensive block % at 19.0%–never managed to block more than 11% of our 2-point attempts in the three games we played against them.
  • We managed to beat both USC and Louisville, despite offensive block percentages above 13%.

What does this mean for tomorrow night?  I’m not quite sure.  The Minnesota thing is encouraging–except that their high block% is more a function of multiple guys than of a single dominant shot blocker like Thabeet.

Maybe Izzo will have a fabulous gameplan that gets Thabeet out of position and creates some easy looks near the basket.  Absent that outcome, knocking down 3-pointers and mid-range shots doesn’t look to be optional in this game,  given that UConn’s very unlikely to put us at the free throw line with any frequency.  (Shooting a combined 14-29 from 3-point range certainly helped our cause in the USC and Louisville games.)

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Samuel Greenberg of The Center of the Universe (a UConn-centric blog) suggested exchanging thoughts about our respective teams ahead of tomorrow’s big game.  He’s posted my responses to his questions on his site.  Below, you’ll find his responses to mine.

1. A.J. Price is clearly the guy that drives your offense, but he hasn’t gotten as much national attention as some other big-time guards. Tell us about his game. What have his strengths been in averaging 20 points/game in tournament play?

You are right about A.J. Price. He has been UConn’s floor general for quite some time. I think that some inconsistency during the season has led to other highly touted point guards getting far more attention. Price’s strengths are mental toughness and unselfishness. Price has been through a near-death injury, an arrest, and an ACL tear while playing at UConn. To battle though all of these challenges and still be in the situation he is in now has made him a stronger person and more calm under pressure. The other important strength Price has is his willingness to share the ball and take a  back seat. There have been many games where Kemba Walker was simply outplaying Price and so Price let Walker take the game over. In addition, what you will see on Saturday is Price pass up a shot for somebody who is closer to the basket. This kind of team play creates more opportunities for him to score in the long-run and stretches out defenses.

2. UConn’s defensive profile is pretty intimidating. You block a ton of shots, you don’t foul in the process, and you’re pretty good at cleaning up misses on the glass. When opponents have had offensive success against you, how have they managed to do it?

Well, I’m going to throw Syracuse out simply because in a 6OT game you just start thinking more about your bed than the next play. The teams that have had the most success against UConn offensively have been able to take Hasheem Thabeet off the floor and run a balanced offense. If you look at the two loses to Pitt, both times you had Thabeet in foul trouble which took him off the court. In addition, the second time UConn played Pitt, Sam Young was effective in scoring from every spot on the court and forced UConn to cover the entire half of the court which limited a lot of defensive options. Honestly, if Thabeet has three fouls before the end of the first half than this game could be over quick.

3. Beyond Price and Thabeet, which player do you think needs to step up most in this game?

There has been a lot of talk about Kemba Walker lately, especially after his career game against Mizzou last weekend. Before Walker, Stanley Robinson was doing outstanding work for the Huskies in their first two wins of the tournament. I would like to put something out there that not many people have been saying. I think that Jeff Adrien will step up this game simply because he needs to more than any other player. Adrien has much to prove as he is running out of chances before the NBA draft. But more importantly, Adrien needs to be the best rebounder of the night and keep the Spartans to one shot on each possession. I think that Adrien can go for 15 points and 10 rebounds.

4. What are UConn fans’ expectations going into this Final Four? Is it National Championship or bust? Or are people pretty content at this point, given how the team has rebounded from the Dyson injury?

I wouldn’t suggest UConn is arrogant enough to consider the season a bust if it ends without a national championship. I think that in many ways UConn students expect a national championship because of the road that the Huskies took to get to Detroit.

Because UConn has gone through an eerily similar route to the one taken in 1999 and 2004, there is a sense that UConn has the odds in its favor. I don’t think UConn will be at peace if the season ends without a coach and other possible penalties if the allegations over recruitment violations turn out to be true. So, with Jerome Dyson dressing for the game but not playing (although a small voice in my heart tells me he will end up playing) UConn is as psyched up for the game as any other in 4 years.

Thanks to Mr. Greenberg for giving us a UConn perspective on the game.

31 hours to go . . .

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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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