MU vs MSU - An In Depth Look

With the highly anticipated Crean vs Izzo matchup upon us, MarquetteHoops.com's Eric Silver digs into the details and stats of the first round battle. Everyone will be talking about Izzo & Crean, but the Golden Eagles and Spartans will be the ones slugging it out on the court.

Michigan State Preview
 
Much will be made this Thursday of the first head-to-head meeting of Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo and his former assistant, Marquette Coach Tom Crean.  That's a shame because the more crucial one-on-one battles will take place on the floor, not on the sidelines.  Here's a preview of what to expect.  (All stats are for regular season conference games only.)
 
Anyone who follows college basketball knows that the key to beating the Spartans is to contain off guard Drew Neitzel.  The 6'0" junior averaged 18.3 ppg in conference play, to rank third among all Big 10 players.  MSU lost all four league games in which Neitzel scored 11 points or fewer, including a 22-point loss to Indiana when he scored 10 points, a seven-point loss to Illinois when he scored 10 points, a 24-point loss to Purdue when he scored five points, and an 11-point loss to Michigan when he scored 11 points.
 
Neitzel also scored 20 or more points in seven conference games, and he was most dangerous against top competition.  In two games against Ohio State, Neitzel had 24 and 29 points, and in two regular-season battles with Wisconsin he had 28 and 22 points.  The Badgers did hold him to 10 points, on three of 13 from the field (though he did have eight assists) in the conference tournament, so that's five losses in five games when he scored 11 points or fewer.
 
For the conference season, Neitzel shot 43.5% from the field, including 40.5% on treys.  His mark of 3.2 made three-pointers per game led the league.
 
With Jerel McNeal expected to be out for the game, Dominic James and David Cubillan will probably take turns defending the Spartan star.  It would have been interesting to see how the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year matched up with Neitzel, but that scenario doesn't appear likely.
 
What makes Neitzel so tough to defend is that he is a terrific ball handler with a variety of moves.  He changes direction instantly and also changes pace to get separation from his defender.  Furthermore, he can shoot moving to his right or to his left, and he has an extremely quick release.  He doesn't drive often, but he does take the ball to the hoop just enough to keep his defender honest.
 
As if Neitzel's talent and skills weren't sufficiently challenging for opponents, Izzo runs a series of off-ball screens to free up his top scorer.  Fans in their 40s might want to think in terms of what Bobby Knight did to help Steven Alford get open looks before the General's eventual exile to the netherlands of Lubbock, Texas.
 
Neitzel, of course, is not the Spartans' only scoring threat, just the most prolific one.  Small forward Raymar Morgan is extremely talented.  The 6'7" freshman ranks in the Top 20 in three categories in the Big 10: 20th in scoring at 10.9 ppg, 16th in rebounding at 5.1 rpg, and 10th in field goal percentage at 48.5%.
 
Morgan has no outside game; in fact, he took only seven three-pointers in 15 conference games and made none of them.  However, he has an excellent mid-range game, and he can get to the basket.  He is, in short, an extremely athletic slasher, exactly the kind of 3 that has occasionally given MU fits this year.
 
Were McNeal healthy, Matthews would likely defend the precocious freshman, which he will still likely do when he is in the game with both James and Cubillan.  However, when MU's 6'5" wing slides to the 2, the burden of staying with Morgan will fall on the narrow shoulders of Dan Fitsgerald.  This is not an easy match up for Fitzgerald because of Morgan's quickness and leaping ability.  Of major concern is the 6'9" junior's propensity to foul when he gets beaten or when his man is aggressive around the hoop.
 
On the other end of the court, MSU's rookie is long enough and quick enough to make it difficult for Fitzgerald to get open looks.  Because of his length and leaping ability, Matthews may have trouble finishing when he takes the ball into the lane.
 
However, Morgan does occasionally commit foolish fouls.  MU must be aggressive and attack the basket to make him react on defense.  If Marquette can force him out of the game for prolonged stretches, the Spartans will lose their most athletic offensive weapon.
 
The only other MSU player Marquette needs to be concerned about is center Goran Suton.  The 6'10" sophomore ranked fourth in the Big 10 in field goal percentage at 53.7%.  He averaged 9.0 ppg in league games on an average of only eight shots per game.
 
He is also the Spartans' leading rebounder at 6.3 rpg, which ranked seventh in the conference.  He is not the quickest post player around; nor is he the strongest.  However, he is extremely skilled with a nice touch around the hoop, and he possesses excellent court sense.  When he's aggressive, he has been extremely effective.  In his second game against Greg Oden, Suton had a double-double (16 points and 10 rebounds), and he had a second double-double (11 points and 10 boards) against Michigan's Courtney Sims.  In his last two games against Wisconsin he had 16 points and seven rebounds and 14 points and eight rebounds.
 
For MU to have a good shot at winning the game, Barro must stay out of foul trouble as Suton could make life difficult for Marquette's back ups at the 5.  If the 6'10" junior spends considerable time watching the action from the bench, the Spartans will likely have the interior scoring punch they need to balance Neitzel's perimeter shooting and Morgan's mid-range game.
 
Travis Walton was an MU recruit the year Crean corralled Dominic James.  The two point guards are very different types of players.  Walton is nowhere near the scorer James is.  In fact, he doesn't often look to score as his average of 4.8 shots per game illustrates.  Still, despite taking fewer than five shots a game, he averaged 6.8 ppg on 43.4% shooting.  Also, the 6'2" sophomore took just 14 shots from behind the arc in 16 conference games, making five of them.
 
Still, Walton's role is multi-faceted.  His primary responsibility is to run the offense, which he does well.  He also looks to set up his teammates, an area in which he's done well enough to rank second in the Big 10 with 5.4 apg.  Finally, he is MSU's best defender, combining quickness, strength, and aggressiveness to lock down opposing teams' top perimeter scorer.  He will undoubtedly match up with James when the Spartans are on defense.  Walton's relative height advantage, athleticism, and tenacity could make it difficult for MU's star guard to get untracked. 
 
James can not rely on three-pointers against Walton.  He must attack the basket and force Walton to make plays.  If Walton gets into foul trouble, Neitzel has to assume point guard duties in addition to his scoring responsibilities as he is the only other player capable of playing point.
 
The fifth Spartan starter will probably be Marquise Gray, an extremely athletic 6'8"power forward.  Although he averaged only 17.7 mpg in league play, Gray was extremely efficient on offense as he shot 64.2% from the field with almost all of his points coming from point blank range.  He is taller and stronger, as well as a better jumper than anyone Marquette can put at the 4, so he will not be easy to keep off the glass. 
 
Izzo doesn't run plays for his third-year sophomore.  Instead, Gray's role is to set solid picks to help free up Neitzel, play physical defense, and attack the boards.  Gray's role on the offensive end was even more limited than usual the second half of the conference season.  In his first eight games of league play, he averaged 7.0 ppg, but in the remaining eight games he averaged only 3.1 ppg.  Still, he did score 16 points in 26 minutes against Northwestern and 14 points in 23 minutes against Penn State early in the league season.  If he gets anywhere near those number Thursday, MU's season is probably over.
 
Look for Lazar Hayward to match up with Gray when the two of them are in the game together.  MU's freshman forward will have to focus on keeping Gray off the glass, and he will also have to make proper reads when Gray sets picks for Neitzel and Morgan.  On the other end of the court, Hayward has to continue do what he's been doing the last 10-12 games, look for his shot when he gets the ball in the lane.  Gray's length and strength may make it difficult for him to finish, but he may be able to get to the line a few times and send Gray to the bench with foul trouble.
 
A couple of names familiar to MU fans who follow the intricacies of recruiting are at the top of the list of Spartan reserves.  Sophomore Maurice Joseph spells Morgan and occasionally plays the 2 when Neitzel gets a breather or switches to point so Walton gets some rest.  In 15.6 mpg, the 6'4" Joseph averaged 4.8 ppg and 1.6 rpg.  He likes to shoot from behind the arc (54 of 72 shots were three-pointers), but his percentage on treys was a mediocre 29.6%.  He was, however, nine of 18 (50%) on two-point shots.  Still, MU can not leave him open as he made four of seven treys against Iowa and three of seven against Minnesota.  Marquette can not allow him to suddenly get hot and become the reincarnation of Alabama's Jean Felix who killed MU in last year's first-round tournament game.
 
Finally, the top front-court reserve is another former MU recruit, 6'10" Drew Naymick.  The junior center's stats are not overly impressive – 3.4 ppg and 3.9 rpg in 21.9 mpg – but he did make 54.5% of his field goal attempts in regular season conference games.  He's not the threat to score that Suton is, but when he plays alongside Suton, the Spartans have a lot of height on the interior.
 
Anyone who's seen Michigan State play recently realizes this game could be like a rugby scrum.  Izzo's squad will play tough man-to-man defense and will run a patient offense that often runs deep into the shot clock.
 
On offense, the Spartans finished eighth in the Big 10 in scoring at 61.4 ppg.  However, they were very efficient as they led the league in field goal percentage at 47.0%.  They also finished second in assists at 14.1 apg even though their assist-to-turnover ratio was a mediocre .92/1.00, which ranked eighth in the league.  In terms of three-point shooting, MSU finished right in the middle of the pack – sixth – at 34.0%, and, despite Neitzel's long-range marksmanship, the team ended up 10th in made three-pointers at only 4.6 per game.  In essence, the rest of the team combined averaged 1.4 treys per game.
 
As expected, Michigan State truly shined on the defensive end.  They led the conference in field goal percentage defense at 39.0% and ranked second in three-point field goal percentage defense at 29.7%.  The result was that the Spartans allowed an average of only 57.5 ppg, good for third in the Big 10.  In short, MU will have to work for its points.
 
Making matters a bit more difficult for Marquette is the fact that Izzo's squad also led the league in rebounding margin at +6.6 rpg and was particularly strong on the defensive boards.  Barro, Hayward, and the rest of Marquette's players will not find it easy to get offensive boards that could create opportunities for second-chance points.
 
This game could boil down to tempo.  Marquette will try to push the pace while Michigan State, though it will run when the opportunity is there, will be much more deliberate in the half-court game.
 
Here again, McNeal's absence will be felt as it will be more difficult to create turnovers that could lead to fast-break points.  Plus, McNeal excels at pushing the ball up the court and either attacking the rim himself or setting up teammates.  Neither Cubillan nor Fitzgerald are anywhere near as proficient in this style of play.
 
The game may also be decided, as tournament games often are, by the quality of play of the respective teams' stars.  If MU can hold Neitzel to 12-15 points, or perhaps even fewer, it should come away with a win, especially if Neitzel's something like four for 12 from the field.  If Neitzel is hot, MSU's odds of getting a "W" increase substantially.
 
By the same token, James has to have a solid all-around game for Marquette.  If he's 0-6 or 1-7 from behind the arc, this could be a case of one and done.  However, if he can shoot a decent percentage, get 15-16 points, and take care of the ball, MU should prevail.
 
The other key area will be rebounding.  Marquette can not afford to let the Spartans out-rebound them by its average of six or seven.  That would be disastrous.  Barro and Hayward, in particular, must box out and go aggressively to the ball, but the entire Marquette team has to win this battle.
 

Finally, the zebras will have a say in this game.  If they call a tight game with a lot of fouls, then whichever team's main players get in foul trouble will find itself not only up a creek without a paddle but up a creek without a canoe.
 
Look for a game in the upper 50s or low 60s.  If Marquette can score 65 points, it should be enough to win.  This game will not be pretty, but it should be intense.
 
Hopefully, this will not be my last preview of the season.

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