Hoops Preview: Michigan State Spartans

Duane Burleson

The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Wolverines, as they head to East Lansing tomorrow night for their third straight contest against a top 10 team.

Date: Saturday, Jan. 25

Time: 7:00 ET

Location: East Lansing, Mich.--Breslin Center

TV: ESPN

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No. 3 Michigan State Spartans (18-1, 7-0)

If you told me that Michigan would share the top of the Big Ten standings with Michigan State after six games, I probably would not have believed you. But, such is reality, as the two teams from the Mitten State sit at 6-0 in the Big Ten.

For fans of the Highlander, Saturday's contest is a "there can be only one" scenario, as far as being undefeated goes.

Season So Far

The Spartans have coasted to an 18-1 (6-0) record, running through what is currently the 24th-toughest schedule in the country. The Spartans' only loss came against the mercurial North Carolina Tar Heels back on Dec. 4, a 79-65 loss in which MSU shot just 36 percent from the field. Since conference play began, UNC hasn't even been mercurial--they've been downright bad. But, if you're going to have a "bad" loss, it's certainly better to lose to North Carolina than, say, Charlotte, like Michigan did (not that that loss really means anything anymore).

Michigan State is 5-0 against top 50 RPI squads (Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State, Minnesota), 8-0 against the top 100.

Save for a 4-point victory against Oakland and a 9-point victory against Columbia, the Spartans handled the teams they were supposed to handle.

As for the part of the schedule that is actually important (i.e. the Big Ten), Michigan State has tallied wins at Penn State, Indiana (x2), Ohio State, Minnesota, Northwestern and Illinois. Road wins at Indiana and Penn State are impressive because they're road wins, and wins and Minnesota and Northwestern (yes, Northwestern) look increasingly impressive after the last week or so of basketball.

Impressively, the Spartans have won their last four games without the services of Adreian Payne, one of the biggest matchup nightmares in college basketball. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Payne likely won't take the floor on Saturday against the Wolverines, which is obviously bad news for a team that is about to go without Branden Dawson for a while.

Personnel

And that's a good segue into this section. As mentioned already, the news dropped yesterday that Branden Dawson would not only miss Saturday's game, but the next four to five weeks after suffering a broken hand. Dawson is obviously a big time athlete, and the Spartans lose a lot of jump without him on the floor.

While he is sort of in the Glenn Robinson III mold offensively (i.e. offense doesn't really run through him, thrives in transition), he's averaging 10.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg; that's not easy to replace. His absence will be felt, on the boards and on defense.

An even bigger loss, of course, would be Payne, MSU's best player and a guy who would without question give Michigan problems all over the floor. Who knows if he'll actually play--it seems unlikely, but there might be some gamesmanship going on here.

Even if he doesn't go, it's not like MSU has been completely rudderless without him. Other than a 54-point effort at Welsh-Ryan--which can partially be explained away by Northwestern's defensive-minded, low possession approach--the Spartans have scored 87 (Minnesota in OT), 78 and 71 in the three other games sans Payne.

The reason? Well, simply put: Gary Harris. The 6-foot-5 inch sophomore guard is averaging 18.3 ppg this season, but in the four games without Payne on the court he's put up 19, 14, 23 and 24 points. He's shooting 49 percent from the field in that stretch, although he's just 7-for-24 from beyond the arc. Shooting 49 percent is not necessarily exceptional or anything, but you obviously have to expect some Carmelo-izing of a shooting guard's numbers when the onus to produce increases without the team's best player (Payne) on the floor.

Although Harris hasn't been hitting from three, he's shooting 67 percent from inside the arc; Caris LeVert, who I imagine will draw Harris, will have his work cut out for him.

Elsewhere, Keith Appling is obviously the other guy who receives the added weight of having to produce a little more with Payne and Dawson not being available. Like Harris, Appling has come through of late, dropping 20 points against the Buckeyes (albeit with five turnovers) and 24 against Minnesota (albeit mostly from the line, where he went a ridiculous 15-for-16).

He had somewhat of a rough go of it at Northwestern, at Illinois and in the ugly win against Indiana on Tuesday. In that 3-game stretch, he shot just 31 percent from the field and 1-for-10 from beyond the arc. Spike Albrecht versus Appling is an obvious mismatch, but assuming Derrick Walton is no longer down with the sickness, Michigan might be okay at this spot. Appling didn't exactly have great success last year against the Wolverines, even in MSU's evisceration of Michigan at the Breslin Center--then again, going up against Trey Burke has a way of making that happen.

If this were the NHL, you could say that the Spartans will be looking for some major secondary scoring from guys like Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. Trice is a sneakily dangerous guy who can come in and stick you with a three or two; he's shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc. Otherwise, he's a guy that even Spike can hang with.

The 6-foot-five sophomore Valentine has averaged 7.6 ppg, but he hasn't been particularly accurate; he's shooting just 39 percent from the field overall and 30 percent from three-point land. Where he can do damage is on the boards, where he averages 6.0 rpg. However, in the four Payne-less game, he's reeling in 8.8 rpg. Even without Payne and Dawson, the Spartans have a rebounding maven in Valentine.

Otherwise, F Matt Costello is just sort of a cog in the machine. He's 56 percent from the field this season, but is not a 3-point shooter (zero attempts, in fact). That's not the case for Kenny Kaminski, who yes, is kind of like Frank Kaminsky but not really. They're both big guys with similar last names who can shoot the three--Kaminski is shooting a torrid 55 percent from beyond the arc--but he doesn't boast the post game that Wisconsin's Kaminsky does.

Of Kaminski's 39 field goal attempts, only eight have been of the 2-point variety. Michigan absolutely cannot leave him open on the outside, but he's not going to do anything inside the arc.

Game Keys

  • The glass. Rebounding will always be a key against Michigan State, and tomorrow night will be no different, even if the Spartans are without Payne and Dawson (the latter their most effective rebounder). The Spartans are third in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage during conference play (73.2 percent) but just 6th in offensive rebounding percentage (32.3 percent). Now, Payne was out for two-thirds of that time, so his absence shouldn't recalibrate rebounding expectations too much; however, Dawson's absence is a big deal. Against a full-strength Iowa squad, Michigan pretty much stalemated the Hawkeyes on the boards, admittedly after a shaky start. With Payne and Dawson out, Michigan has a chance to do pretty well for itself on the glass, which is kind of a strange concept for a Beilein squad against the Spartans.
  • Pace. Michigan now has to shift gears against a Michigan State team that would like to muck things up in a halfcourt game, a difficult task after the Wolverines had to adjust to Iowa's lightning fast transition game. The Hawkeyes, who are first in the Big Ten in possessions per 40 minutes, were held well below their normal possession count on Wednesday in Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, the Spartans are 6th in the B1G in that category. The funny thing about Michigan this year is the notion that the Wolverines are a much better team in transition than the halfcourt; anecdotally, this is true. However, the Wolverines are dead last in the conference in possessions per 40. With that said, ignore that stat: the Wolverines will have to pick their spots, but, especially given MSU's short-handedness, they'll want to go all Ricky Bobby (i.e. fast).
  • Albrecht/Walton vs. Appling. I think Gary Harris will get his, both because he's quite good but also because he's been on a roll of late. He basically saved the Spartans against IU, scoring approximately a third of their points in a game in which Appling went 2-for-10 from the field. Michigan has to hope that they'll get the cold 3-point shooting Harris of the Minnesota and Northwestern games as opposed to the guy who went a combined 6-for-10 against Illinois and Indiana. This game will mostly come down to the point guard matchup: the grizzled senior vs. Michigan's Walton-Albrecht combo. Appling has put up numbers but has been somewhat inefficient in doing so, which is understandable (see the aforementioned "Carmelo-izing" bit). Appling has made a living from the free throw line; in his last five games, Appling's averaging 9.2 free throw attempts per game. Easier said than done, but keep him off of the free throw line as much as possible and you curtail a not insignificant source of MSU's scoring output.

Outlook

It really would be unfortunate if Payne isn't able to go tomorrow; yes, injuries are a part of the game, but it does take some wind out of the sails of this game.

With that said, even if MSU has to go without both Payne and Dawson, it would be very foolish indeed to think that Michigan is going to go in there and win without a major fight.

All the talk from the players has been about how they weren't ready for the raucous Breslin Center crowd. Well, Michigan has played at Iowa State, Duke Minnesota and Wisconsin this season, so they should be mentally prepared for this one.

If Payne plays, the outlook obviously changes considerably. But, without him and without Dawson's rebounding and defense, I think Michigan should be able to pull out the win. Nik Stauskas is playing too well, and you have to think that last year's loss in East Lansing is still with him.

We'll have to wait until the Feb. 23 matchup to watch Michigan play a Spartan team at or near 100 percent. However, the scoring duo of Harris and Appling, plus Valentine's rebounding, plus the ability of guys like Trice and Kaminski to hurt you from beyond the arc...all of that cobbled together is more than enough to beat Michigan at home.

If the Wolverines have an off night from the field, if Robinson reverts to pre-Arizona GRIII, if they don't bring it on the glass...they could lose. If you forced me to make a prediction, I'd say Michigan wins.

But, if we've learned anything this season--and the past--it's that winning on the road is hard, no matter the team or the injury circumstances. Payne or no Payne, this would be a win well-earned.

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