No. 5 Michigan State meets No. 4 Pittsburgh on Saturday night with a trip to the sweet-16 in Houston on the line.
MSU rolled past Temple 72-61 behind Raymar Morgan's 15 points while Pitt routed Oral Roberts 82-63, getting 23 points from their leader and best player, Levance Fields.
Pittsburgh is one of the hottest teams in the NCAA tournament, having rolled to the Big East tourney championship by knocking off Georgetown.
But the Spartans and Panthers match up well against each other. They are both strong rebounding teams ( MSU 37.2 RPG, Pitt 38.1 RPG), they utilize their depth (both had seven players play at least 20 minutes in their first round game), and they have strong guard play (MSU: Kalin Lucas, Travis Walton, Drew Neitzel; Pitt: Levance Fields Ronald Ramon, Keith Benjamin).
Pitt is 8-1 since Fields came back into the starting lineup after missing 12 games with a fractured foot.
Despite convincing wins in their first round games, this second round matchup should be a close game, with both teams battling each other inside for every loose rebound.
The leading scorers for both teams will be marked men on the court, which is where the keys to the game begin.
After shutting down Dionte Christmas, Temple and the Atlantic 10's leading scorer, the next assignment for MSU will be stopping the Panthers' leading scorer Sam Young.
The 6-foot-6 junior averages 18.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, but what makes him most dangerous is his long-range shot, making 43 three-pointers this season, with his nearly 40 percent shooting from deep leading the team.
Young has been consistent all year, starting all 36 games and leading the Panthers' in scoring in 24 of those games.
MSU will have their hands full with the versatile Young, but with tall bodies inside, 6-foot-10 Drew Naymick and Goran Suton as well as 6-foot-8 Marquise Gray, Young will have to work for his points.
MSU coach Tom Izzo even gave 6-foot-11 Idong Ibok playing time against Temple to give the tall center some time on the court should he be needed for the battles inside the paint against Pitt.
Furthermore, MSU has a height advantage over Pitt, averaging 4.1 blocks per game to the Panthers' 3.2.
The tallest Pitt starter is 6-foot-7 forward DeJaun Blair, who leads the team in rebounding with 9.2 per game and adds 11.8 points per game.
This height difference is something MSU should take advantage of on the glass.
After shooting 2-for-11 against the Owls, Drew Neitzel knows he needs to find his shot against Pittsburgh. Neitzel is the team's leader and as he showed in the Big Ten tourney, when he is scoring, the team plays well around him.
But despite his struggles on Thursday, the Spartans picked up the slack with 28 points from their bench, a great strength for the team that is showing up at the right time.
The Spartans (26-8) and Panthers (27-9) both had seven players in their first round game play at least 20 minutes, but the Spartans bench is more dangerous than that of the Panthers.
With Neitzel struggling to find his shot, freshman Chris Allen and Durrell Summers combined to score 20 points off the bench, including two three-pointers by Allen.
Gilbert Brown accounted for the only bench points for Pitt, scoring 12 points against Oral Roberts. The Panthers rely heavily on their starters for production, with four of five starters scoring in double-figures in their first round game.
Izzo did a masterful job of using his depth against Temple, keeping players fresh and slowly wearing the Owls down. If MSU can shut down or contain Pitt's starters, than the Panthers will have to look to their bench for production.
Foul Trouble and Turnovers
One of the Spartans' demise in their losses this season has been foul trouble, with their opponents shooting a significant amount of free-throws as a result. The Spartans must stay out of foul trouble if they want to stay with the Panthers, who will look to dribble-penetrate with Fields, Ramon, and Benjamin and draw fouls.
Turnovers are another key area that the Spartans must stay away from. MSU gave up the ball 12 times against Temple while Pitt turned the ball over nine times. Empty possessions on offense can kill a team's momentum and lead to points the other way. If MSU can cut down on the turnovers and force some on the other side, they have the shooters and the depth to turn them into points.
Possibly the most important key for MSU, if Drew Naymick, Goran Suton, and Marquise Gray can get going inside, than it will be a long night for the Panthers defenders.
The Spartan big-men have about three inches on the Panthers' big-men and they should attack the hoop inside. Naymick had some key baskets against the Owls, several coming on offensive rebounds.
The MSU trio can make Pitt's life a nightmare if they can get offensive rebounds and get second and third chance baskets. This will also open up the perimeter more for Neitzel, Lucas, Allen and others.
Run Spartans Run
The fast break is something that has to work well on Saturday night for MSU. In their best fast break game this season, the Spartans dropped 103 points on Indiana and shot nearly 60 percent from the field.
Running down the court immediately after a basket creates open shots and catches the opponent off-guard, while making them tired. MSU has the ability to used three different guards in running the fast break, which is always dangerous.
With Raymar Morgan down court able to pull up and sink 18-foot jumpers all day, these quick points will be crucial.
These are two high scoring teams (MSU 71.3 PPG, Pitt 74.4 PPG), and it will come down to the key players for both sides. If Drew Neitzel can get going and MSU can get a solid output from their bench, than the Spartans could have the edge, along with their height advantage. If Pitt is able to score with Young and Levance Fields can get going, that it spells trouble for MSU.
But in the end, Michigan State has the ability to wear down the Panthers with their depth and bench scoring. If Pitt should get anyone in foul trouble, it spells a long night for Coach Jamie Dixon' Panthers. The Spartan bench outscores Pitt's and the trio of Morgan, Neitzel and Lucas will keep the Panthers on their heels.
P.S. Remember what happened the last time MSU was a 5-seed in the tournament?
PICK: MSU: 75 – Pittsburgh 68
NCAA Tourney: MSU vs Pittsburgh Preview
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