The Spartans enter Saturday's contest at the Erwin Center with a sparkling 9-1 record that includes victories over Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, all teams in the KenPom top 100. The Spartans combine a top-50 offense in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (41st) with a typically strangling defense and, perhaps most importantly, a healing-up roster (more on this in a minute.
Texas (10-1), meanwhile, is coming off a huge high after beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the same North Carolina team that handed Michigan State its only loss earlier this season. The Longhorns have been in more close games than they probably would have cared to at this point, but have emerged relatively unscathed, with the lone loss a late heartbreaker to BYU on a neutral court.
Texas is worse both offensively (125th) and defensively (28th) than Michigan State, but the Longhorns are trending up because of a defense that protects the rim at a fantastically high rate — opponents are making just 40.9 percent of their twos, 11th best in the country, while Texas has the third-best block rate nationally — and an offense that makes the most of offensive rebounds and a rapid tempo with a speedy backcourt to generate easy buckets.
It's a big game for the Longhorns. A win means that Texas likely finishes non-conference play at 12-1 before heading into the toughest conference (per RPI) in the nation. A loss isn't devastating, but puts more pressure on getting tough wins in the Big 12.
Breaking Down The Spartans
If Gary Harris is able to return — and the senior guard is expected to after missing three games so far with a right ankle injury — Michigan State's backcourt is as good as any in the country. A big part of that is Harris (6-4 210), an All-America candidate when healthy who is at his best, and nearly unstoppable, when he's getting to the basket. Harris is shooting 64.5 at the rim (a good rate for a big man, much less a shooting guard), and he's making 89.3 percent of his free throws. He does a nice job of avoiding inefficient two-point jumpers, though 56.9 percent of the shots he takes are threes, a shot he's only making 27.6 percent of.
The other part of that backcourt duo is point guard Keith Appling (6-1 185), who has seemingly been around forever. Appling is averaging 16.0 points and 5.0 assists per game, while shooting an excellent 53.6 percent on his twos and 50 percent on threes. He can play both parts of scorer and distributor, depending on what is needed, and he outplayed future lottery pick Andrew Harrison in the Spartans' win over Kentucky earlier this year.
Branden Dawson (6-6 225) gives Michigan State the luxury of versatility. Dawson can play everything from an extra guard to a four spot thanks to his skill and burly toughness. He's scoring 10.2 points and grabbing 9.2 rebounds per game, and he takes 78.4 percent of his shots at the rim. He's one of Michigan State's more efficient scorers, making 60.8 percent of his shots, while his offensive and rebounding rates are both among the top 215 in the country.
Adreian Payne (6-10 245) is an incredibly tough matchup as a five man because he takes a higher percentage of his shots from three (46.7 percent) than he does at the rim (37.8) and two-point jumpers (37.0), something that's excusable given that he makes 46.7 percent of his threes. Payne also makes 75.6 percent of his shots at the rim, making him a deadly inside-out presence. He's scoring 16.6 points and grabbing 7.9 rebounds per game, while grabbing 23.1 percent of the available defensive rebounds, a high-level rate.
Alex Guana (6-9 250) has emerged as Payne's primary partner down low, though neither he, nor Matt Costello (6-9 240) have truly established themselves. Costello is the better shot-blocker. Gavin Schilling (6-9 240) is another body down low.
Michigan State has more depth of talent at the guard spot, with Denzel Valentine (6-5 225) helping to plug in for Harris in the star guard's absence. Valentine defers more naturally, with the second-best assist rate on the team, while he also scores 7.1 points per game. Travis Trice (6-0 170) is both good from three (39.4 percent) and at taking the ball away (4.6 percent steal rate). That latter figure is 38th in the country. Trice is third in assist rate as well.
As a team, Michigan State has the seventh-best defense in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, a result of ranking in the top 50 in effective Field Goal Percentage Defense (25th), Defensive Free Throw Rate (38th) and Defensive Rebounding Percentage (48th). The Spartans also force turnovers at a respectable rate of 19.6 percent, which is 113th in the nation.
Offensively, the Spartans shoot the ball well and don't turn it over, while they do take quick shots — their average possession length of 14.9 seconds is 12th-fastest nationally — though they aren't a great offensive rebounding team and they're poor at getting to the free throw line (317th).
How Can Texas Win?
Many people watched in awe earlier this season as star Kentucky freshman Julius Randle tore apart the normally physical Spartans for 27 points and 13 rebounds in a close 78-74 loss. And while nobody else has a Randle, Texas doesn't need to have Randle to exploit the same deficiencies. As a matter of fact, perhaps one of the better doppelgangers of center Cameron Ridley (6-9 285) is North Carolina center Kennedy Meeks (6-9 290), who scored 15 points and grabbed seven boards off the bench against the Spartans.
As North Carolina is the only team to beat Michigan State (and solidly, I might add, at 79-65, in East Lansing), it's a formula that bears looking at. It wasn't anything fancy … North Carolina simply out-played Michigan State across a variety of key areas.
The Tar Heels made more free throws (19) than the Spartans shot (18). They won the rebounding battle over the Spartans 49-38, while grabbing 39 percent of the available offensive rebounds. And they shot a better percentage for the game at 44.6 percent to 35.9 percent.
None of that is asking too much of a Texas team that out-quicked and overpowered that same North Carolina team earlier this week. The other key — one not mentioned yet — involves Isaiah Taylor. Appling has largely been able to overwhelm lesser point guards. If Taylor can play with Appling, not only would it suggest that Taylor is already a truly high-level player at the position, but it would also give the Longhorns an excellent chance to win.