6:30 Saturday. The Palace of Auburn Hills. ESPN2.
The Longhorns are undefeated at 10-0. They are ranked #4 in the AP poll and #5 in the coaches’ poll. Arguably, they should be ranked even higher, given that that they have two of the most impressive victories in all of college basketball this season–winning on the road vs. #8 UCLA and on a neutral court vs. #12 Tennessee.
Texas holds a 2-1 all-time series lead over MSU, but MSU won the last one. They triumphed 63-61 at Madison Square Garden last season on Drew Neitzel’s last-second runner. In the previous meeting, Texas eliminated MSU in the Elite Eight round of the 2003 NCAA tournament.
On to the tempo-free stats. I’ll try to be marginally more structured in my approach to this game preview.
When Texas Has the Ball
Let’s not mince words here: Texas is scary good on offense. Kenpom.com ranks them #1 in all the land in offensive efficiency. This is no small feat for a team that lost one of the all-time great offensive talents to the NBA during the offseason. But Mr. Durant’s departure appears to have left an extremely balanced attack. Their five starters average between 9.5 and 19.9 points per game, and all five rate in the top 400 nationally in Kenpom.com’s individual offensive rating stat.
Let me be more specific about what the Longhorns do well on offense: Everything.
- They simply don’t turn the ball over–ranking #1 in the nation in offensive TO% at 14.2%.
- So they get to take a lot of shots, a very high percentage of which they make. 2-point %: 53.6. 3-point %: 42.2%.
- And when they do miss, they’re pretty good at getting second chances. Their offensive rebounding percentage is 37.6%.
It’s unlikely MSU will be able to create turnovers, but they do need to play pressure defense. Texas isn’t deep; only 7 players play 9 minutes or more per game. If we can force them to at least work hard for their shots, it might pay dividends in a close game down the stretch when our players have more energy left in the tank.
The Spartans will have to be particularly cognizant of Texas’ 3-point shooters. Their three “A’s” are shooting the 3 extremely well.
- D.J. Augustin: 42.9%
- A.J. Abrams: 41.5%
- Connor Atchley: 63.3% (not bad for a guy who’s 6’9″)
(Burnt Orange Nation notes that Abrams has cooled off in Texas’ last several games.)
And MSU simply has to lock down the defensive boards. As well as Texas shoots the ball, they can’t be given second chances on the occassions when they do miss.
When MSU Has the Ball
Texas’ defensive resume isn’t nearly as overwhelming, but there aren’t a lot of glaring weaknesses, either. The one thing that jumps out is 3-point shooting. Their opponents have attempted 3-pointers on 40.6% of their FG attempts. That percentage ranks 313th in the nation (the implicit premise being that letting your opponents shoot 3-pointers is a bad thing). And they’ve made a decent percentage: 36.2%. This is presumably a function of the fact that the Longhorns have employed the 2-3 zone defense with some frequency.
Players like Morgan, Lucas, and Walton will need to, at minimum, step up and hit the 15- to 18-footer. It’d be great, of course, if they could sprinkle 2 or 3 made 3-pointers in, as well. And let’s hope Neitzel’s 3-point shot is in full working order.
MSU probably won’t prevail solely on the strength of the 3-point shot, though. The two other obvious options to beat the zone are (1) get Morgan and Suton into the middle of the 2-3 zone where they can pass over the defense and (2) push the ball up court whenever the opportunity presents itself so Texas can’t get into the zone. Option (2) has the added benefit of hopefully wearing down Texas’ limited playing rotation.
The Spartans Weblog Key to the Game
I tend to see life as a big probability distribution and am, therefore, loathe to pick one key to a game and the binary state of the world such a key implies. But I’ll go out on a limb here. I think they key for the men in Green may well be defensive rebounding. As argued above, we have to prevent second shot opportunities on the relatively rare occasions on which the Longhorns miss. Further, strong defensive rebounding can key some transition baskets.
Based on their personnel and their offensive rebounding performance to date, there’s no reason our Spartans can’t control the defensive glass. To date, though, they’ve been strictly average, ranking 158th in the country in defensive rebounding %. I suspect Coach Izzo may have mentioned something along these lines a couple times this week.
In closing: if the game is close down the stretch, I like MSU’s chances to win due to our superior depth. If Texas comes out knocking down the three and MSU doesn’t, though, it’ll be an uphill climb for the Spartans.
Bonus Outside Preview that Invokes Nostalgia for the Big Ten Wonk Era
The Artist Formerly Known as the Big Ten Wonk weighs in on the game from his new home. Forbodingly, he focuses on Texas’ propensity to not turn the ball over and MSU’s propensity to do the inverse. He also has some kind words for our Senior captain:
The shots in the Michigan State offense come from Drew Neitzel and Raymar Morgan, period. Neitzel should be appreciated for what he is: an outstanding college player. He will never replicate what he’s doing now “at the next level.” So what? Let’s appreciate what we see now: Neitzel is a true combo guard, one who sees the defense and can exploit it with either a make or an assist. Moreover, Neitzel is the one Texas-like player in Spartan green: he never turns the ball over. Ever.
(Note: Final line corrected from “Here, here.” Props to Official Spartans Weblog Grammarian David K.)
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