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Michigan State (5-3) has had its share of troubles thus far, but has shown signs of improvement with a valiant comeback in a four point loss at Florida when it was down by 20 at one point. The Spartans also extended the nation's longest home-court winning streak to 49 games with a 92-38 victory over Nicholls State on Sunday afternoon.
To give readers an idea of exactly how these two perennial powerhouses stack up, here is a breakdown of Saturday's expected match-ups.
Point Guard: AZ-Jason Gardner, 5-10 Jr. (24.2ppg, 4.7apg, .488FG%, .463 3pt%) vs. MSU-Marcus Taylor, 6-3 Soph. (14.4, 6.1, .400, .333)... Gardner plays his best in the biggest games. Saturday in East Lansing certainly qualifies as a big game, so expect the Arizona Flash to play as he has in each of the Cats' previous six games: very well. Taylor tends to struggle against other top flight point guards, as has been shown in MSU's three losses this season. In those three L's, Taylor has averaged 4.7 turnovers per game, shot only 37.8% from the field and is allowing his counterparts to average over 17 points per game.
Last year in the Final Four, Gardner ate up the freshman Spartan for 21 points on 6-11 shooting in the Arizona 80-61 victory. I would expect Gardner to have a little more trouble this year seeing as how the game's in a hostile environment, but Gardner still has a decisive advantage.Shooting Guard: AZ-Will Bynum, 5-10 Fr. (7.0ppg, 2.3rpg, 1.7apg, .308FG%, .300 3pt%) vs. MSU-Kevin Torbert, 6-4 Fr. (9.5, 3.4, 1.0, .385, .277)... Torbert was one of the nation's most sought after recruits out of high school and was even ranked as the No. 1 player in America by some analysts. He has been slowed a little bit by a nagging hamstring injury at times, but still shows what he is capable of at times.
Torbert, like Taylor, isn't a very good shooter, but he has more than enough athleticism to become a good scorer. Bynum is a better pure shooter than Torbert (although the numbers won't back that up quite yet) and might be even more athletic. The difference is that Bynum is six-inches shorter than Torbert.
As long as Bynum continues to improve defensively, "The Thrill" should be able to hold his own while guarding the high school All-American. Expect Arizona to use Salim Stoudamire on Torbert for at least half of the game as well, while MSU counters with Chris Hill when Torbert is out.
Two freshman starters and two freshman subs will battle it out at the two-guard spot and while MSU has the size advantage, Arizona has more big game experience. However, playing at home is enough to sway my vote to the two Spartan freshmen in this very close matchup.Small Forward: AZ-Luke Walton, 6-8 Jr. (12.8ppg, 9.7rpg, 5.7apg, 1.5spg, .429FG%, .100 3pt%) vs. Adam Wolfe, 6-9 Soph. (11.0, 5.5rpg, .508FG%, .583 3pt%)... Walton is one of the best all-around performers in the country and is a constant threat for a triple-double. He is as intelligent as they come and plays opportunistic defense, primarily in the passing lanes.
He is not a good outside shooter but he is deadly with his 12-15-foot baseline fade away jumper and a variety of shots from within 18-feet. There is not a better passing big man in college basketball than Walton, who makes Arizona's offense go from his spot at the high post as a "point forward".
Wolfe, on the other hand, IS a good shooter from outside. Although he hasn't shot many three-pointers (he is 7-12 on the year), he is hitting over 58% of the shots. He is slightly taller than Walton, but he's also about 30-pounds lighter. That could explain why Walton outrebounds Wolfe 9.7-5.5. Wolfe is an adequate passer for a big man but his strength is taking his man outside on the perimeter, something Walton is well used to.
Advantage: Walton.Power Forward: AZ-Rick Anderson, 6-9 Jr. (14.5ppg, 7.7rpg, 1.5bpg, .493FG%, .438 3pt%) vs. MSU-Adam Ballinger, 6-9 Jr. (9.1, 7.6, 2.3apg, .536FG%)... Ballinger outweighs Anderson 245-230 but Anderson has an outside game that Ballinger will have trouble matching up with defensively. Ballinger is strong, smart and has good passing skills. He is effective shooting out to about 16-feet but primarily gets his points down on the blocks, on offensive rebounds or on feeds from Taylor outside.
Anderson, who Wildcat coaches maintain is their best pure shooter, is a very crafty scorer. He is sure-handed around the basket and gets a few points per game from offensive put-backs, and he is also deadly from behind the arc.
Though Anderson looks sinewy and even lanky from a physical standpoint, he can rebound and bang with the best of 'em. He is a quick leaper who positions himself well by using his intelligence underneath. He's a coach's son and it shows on the floor. He's ultra-competetive. Tends to get into foul trouble too much though.
Overall, Anderson and Walton are generally just smarter on the court than their counterparts. I'd expect to see Anderson have his best game of the year against Ballinger and the Spartans.
Center: AZ-Isaiah Fox, 6-9 Fr. (7.2ppg, 5.3rpg, .452FG%) vs. Aloysius Anagonye, 6-8 Jr. (8.3, 7.1, .500FG%)... Fox has already played well against some of the nation's premier big men (Maryland's Lonny Baxter, Florida's Udonis Haslem, Texas's Chris Owens and Illinois's Robert Archibald) but I'm not so sure that Anagonye won't be the meanest, toughest and strongest of the bunch. What Anagonye is not, however, is anywhere near the most talented. Anagonye is strictly inside material. Fox will not have to worry about chasing him off the blocks like he did with Drew Gooden of Kansas.
Anagonye tends to turn the ball over a lot for a big man (4.7 TO/game in MSU's three losses, including seven TO's vs. Fresno State), while Fox averages nearly two steals per game. Don't expect either Fox or Anagonye to shoot much except on offensive rebounds or the rare back-down, turnaround jump hook both seem to favor. Neither will shoot beyond 10 feet unless absolutely necessary.
Because this game is at home and because he has Final Four experience and extensive practice experience against guys like Zach Randolph and Andre Hutson, I give the nod to Anagonye here.
Benches: AZ-Salim Stoudamire, 6-1 Fr. SG (9.0ppg, 1.7rpg, .321FG%, .360 3pt%), Channing Frye, 6-10 Fr. C (5.2ppg, 3.7rpg, 1.5bpg, .560FG%) and Dennis Latimore, 6-8 Fr. PF (2.5ppg, 3.8rpg, .300FG%) vs. MSU-Chris Hill, 6-3 Fr. CG (11.4ppg, 2.9rpg, 2.1apg, .493FG%, .395 3pt%) and Alan Anderson, 6-6 Fr. SF (7.3ppg, 4.5rpg, .426FG%, 0-1 on 3ptFGA)... This is a battle of recruiting classes. The Spartans are perimeter-heavy with Hill and Anderson while Arizona relies on two frontcourt guys to reinforce Walton, Anderson and Fox off the bench.
MSU's Hill is going to be a great one. He is an excellent shooter who can penetrate as well. He, like Arizona's Stoudamire, is more valuable coming off the bench for an instant spark of life to the offense. Anderson gets to the hoop pretty well for the Spartans and is a very good free-throw shooter when he gets fouled on his drives. He doesn't like to shoot much past 15-17 feet, so Walton or whoever has him when he's in can afford to layoff him outside the arc.
Stoudamire is a bulldog when it comes to on-the-ball defense and expect him to get a lot of time on Torbert, Hill and even Taylor if anyone struggles defesively against the Spartan guard trio. While his shot has been missing lately, anyone who has seen him in practice and early in the year knows what happens when Salim gets hot. He scored 19 points in the second half at Texas and is capable of a repeat performance at anytime.
Frye might be Arizona's best offensive rebounder along with Walton. Although he needs to add about 25 more pounds of muscle to his 6-10 frame, Frye isn't afraid to mix it up underneath. He must stay out of foul trouble against the aggressive Spartans to be successful though. When Frye's on the bench, his shot blocking prowess doesn't help the Cats one bit. Frye can also knock down the 15-footer if he's open.
Dennis Latimore is still a bit of an enigma for Wildcat fans. He can look lost at times (first three games, Purdue) and then turnaround and look like he's going to be a monster--soon (Kansas, Illinois). The sooner he "just plays" instead of trying to force his shot, the better off he will be. He is probably the strongest guy on the court (along with Anagonye) and has perimeter skills that he hasn't had much of a chance to display yet. He needs to understand that he is needed in this game at the Breslin Center and he needs to come in ready to play immediately.
Simply because of man power, the bench advantage goes to Arizona. However, Michigan State's thin bench is very talented and could very well outscore and out-perform the Wildcats' bench.
Notes: In Michigan State's three losses, the Spartans combined to shoot only 18-57 on three-pointers, which equates to a dismal 31.6%...Also, one of the main keys to beating the Spartans is to have them down at halftime. MSU trailed by an average of 10.3 points in its three losses to Syracuse (69-58), Fresno State (63-58) and at Florida (74-70)...MSU struggles against teams with athletic big men. Syracuse's Keith Duany scored 24 points and had seven boards, Fresno's Melvin Ely had 14, 10 and six blocks and Florida's Matt Bonner scored 23pts and had 10rebs against the Spartans. Look for Arizona's duo of Walton and Anderson to try to exploit that weakness...MSU is outrebounding its opponents by an average of 9.6 per game (43.1-33.5) while holding opponents to 37.1% shooting from the floor (27% on threes)...Arizona is averaging over 82 points per game compared to Michigan State's 73.3...MSU has averaged 15.6 turnovers per game (20.3 in its three losses) compared to forcing only 12.3 from its opposition...This will be the 10th ranked opponent Arizona has faced in its last 11 games dating back to last year's Sweet 16. Arizona is 7-2 in its previous nine games against ranked teams...Arizona has won the last three meetings between the teams by margins of 20, 11 and 19 points.
This should be a close and very exciting game, but in the end I'll take Arizona by eight, 80-72, to snap the Spartans' 49-game home court winning streak.