NCAA Preview: Michigan State

Since its "Michigan State" on the opposing teams jersey, UCLA probably has a better chance of getting up for this game, but the Spartans have some intangibles on their side when the two teams meet Thursday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament...

The NCAA Tournament may have gotten underway Tuesday night but the traditional beginning of the Big Dance is still the first Thursday after Selection Sunday and the UCLA Bruins, after a one-year hiatus, find themselves back in the Dance.

UCLA's opponent in the "first round" is Michigan State, coached by two-time national champion Tom Izzo. In terms of television, this game is by far the marquee game of the first round. The game pits coaches who have taken their teams to a combine nine Final Fours over the past twelve seasons. The match-up breakdowns have some serious edges for both teams so the key to the game will be (what else?) the focus and intensity that the Bruins bring to the contest.

The Bruins come into the game with a record of 22-10 and a second-place regular season finish in the Pac-10. Unfortunately for the Bruins, their last time out they put forth probably their worst collective effort of the year in getting dismantled by a very average Oregon squad in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score. That game was a microcosm of UCLA's season in that the Bruins often gave a fantastic effort when the team knew the opponent would be tough and when the bright lights of television shown down on them. Conversely, the Bruins tended to "mail it in" when they played less well-known teams (like Oregon and Montana) to their detriment. If the reason for the Bruin effort in some games and malaise in others was because of the name on the front of their opponents' jerseys then the Bruins should have no problem getting up for this game. They had better because if this Spartan team plays at the level of the talent they have then the Bruins will have to bring their collective A+ game just to be competitive.

The Spartans enter the Tournament on very much of a downer. They finished with a record of 19-14, which, coming on the heels of a preseason #2 ranking, was a major disappointment. Michigan State is looking at this Tournament as redemption time for a season gone astray and that makes them very dangerous. Just based on the emotion of being the "cornered animal" alone, the Spartans can conceivably cause some major damage in this Tournament. Keep in mind that the Spartans made the Final Four last season and returned virtually everyone from that team.

Michigan State does have warts, though. Guard Chris Martin, a key contributor to last season's deep Dance run, was dismissed from the team in the offseason. Then guard Korie Lucious was dismissed after being suspended to start the season. That happened with about 40% of the season having yet to be played. There is no doubt that this Michigan State team has some serious chemistry issues, especially in the locker room. There has been talk that some of the players have gotten a bit too big for their britches and are challenging Izzo's decision-making and questioning why certain players are getting the bulk of the shots. That kind of poor chemistry leads to inconsistency; it means that the Spartans can easily beat a pretty good Purdue team in the Big Ten Tournament and then get run off the court the next day by a very mediocre Penn State squad. Sounds quite a bit like the Bruins, doesn't it? The difference is that Michigan State has some senior leadership while the Bruins don't have a single senior on the roster.

Even with the warts, though, Michigan State has a great deal of talent and that should be cause for concern for Coach Ben Howland and his Bruins, as well as the Blue and Gold faithful.

Whether or not Michigan State plays well really begins with senior point guard Kalin Lucas (6'1" 195 lbs.), who is near the top for Michigan State in virtually every offensive category. He is the team's leading scorer at 17.2 PPG. He is the second-best three-point shooter on the squad at 39% and the second-leading free throw shooter at 82%. He is more of a lead guard who looks to score rather than a true point guard, having only 109 assists on the season to go along with a team-leading 83 turnovers. In many ways MSU's on-court struggles this season can be traced to Lucas' middling senior season. While he can be a volume scorer, he has had too many games where he has been more of a hindrance to the offense of the Spartans than a help. He more than any of his teammates is suffering because of the loss of Martin and, to a certain extent, Lucious. It's apparent when watching the Spartans that Lucas plays as if he feels that he needs to put the Spartans on his shoulders. He is dangerous when he gets hot, though, because it is then that he seems to score in every way possible and hits shots that typically have no business going in. He's got above average quickness and strength and knows how to use a screen to either get to the basket or set up an outside shot. It will be very important for the Bruins that Malcolm Lee is mentally over his knee injury because the Bruins simply don't have anyone outside of Lee that can guard him consistently.

A typical Izzo-coached team is dominant on the boards and statistically this year's squad is no different. They average almost five rebounds more per game than their opponents, but that stat is misleading. Against the better competition on their schedule the Spartans are basically breaking even on the boards and part of the reason can be attributed to the fact that Michigan State simply isn't a big team. MSU's leading rebounder is junior Draymond Green (6'6" 230 lbs.), who 8.6 RPG and 12.3 PPG, good for second on the team. However, Green is a small forward basically having to play in the post, especially on defense. He is a very good player and is very athletic. Offensively he provides match-up issues because he can shoot out to the arc, where he hits 37% of his shots, and he knows how to work inside, too. His problem has been shot selection (he's shooting 43% from the field) and the fact that he has simply disappeared offensively in games this year. Still, it's highly likely that Howland is going to have Reeves Nelson matched-up on Green and Nelson's desire to play defense on Green and keep him off the boards could go a long way in determining the outcome of the game.

To combat opponents' post players, Izzo has been trying different combinations of freshman Adriean Payne (6'10" 225 lbs.), who has been starting, sophomore Derrick Nix (6'9" 270 lbs.) and junior Delvon Roe (6'8" 230 lbs.). Sophomore Garrick Sherman (6'10" 240 lbs.) has started 17 games for the Spartans this year but recently he's barely gotten off the bench.

While starting, Payne doesn't play much, averaging only 9 MPG. Nix would be the perfect inside player for Izzo except for the facts that he is foul prone (he'd be second on the team in fouls if he played the same minutes as Lucas or Green) and he is an emotional player who tends to let his negative emotions rule his game as much as his positive emotions. Izzo may be forced to play him, though, because he'll have to throw bodies at UCLA's Josh Smith. Quite simply, Smith is too big for Payne or any other MSU post besides Nix and even then Smith outweighs the MSU sophomore by 60 pounds.

Roe will get the most minutes of any of the posts, barring foul trouble. While he comes off the bench he does average starters' minutes (24 MPG) and is second on the team in rebounding at 5.1 RPG. He can score inside but his strengths are rebounding and defense. Like Nix, though, Roe is foul prone and he has been disqualified from four games this season. To compound matters for the Spartans, Roe is not an outside threat at all, having not attempted a single three-point shot all season.

The other two big-minute players for Izzo are senior swingman Durell Summers (6'5" 205 lbs.) and freshman guard Keith Appling (6'1" 180 lbs.). Summers is actually the leader on the team in three-point attempts with 168, which accounts for almost half of his shot attempts from the field. He is second behind Lucas in total attempts with 346 but he's only been to the free throw line 76 times. He simply hasn't been a huge threat to get to the hoop this season, and even though he is averaging over 11 PPG, Izzo more than likely expected more from him. He is athletic, certainly more so than UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt, who will more than likely be guarding him. Summers certainly has the athletic ability to get to the hoop but he has gotten comfortable looking for his outside shot and Howland will certainly be playing percentages. Honeycutt and Tyler Lamb have more than likely been told to close out on Summers hard and force him to put the ball on the floor. The other problem for Summers this season and perhaps a reason why he is taking so many outside shots is because his handle appears to have regressed. He has only 19 assists compared to 48 turnovers. Summers does hit the boards, though, averaging 4.3 RPG.

Appling is clearly the heir-apparent to Lucas. His game is very similar, although he takes a far greater percentage of his shots from behind the arc than does Lucas. He is also looser with the ball, averaging more turnovers than assists per game. Still, the similarities are there for all to see. Izzo will play Appling with Lucas often during a game and because Appling will ostensibly be the ‘2' in those situations, that's probably what accounts for his numerous three-pointers. He doesn't get to the hoop as much as Izzo would like, but when he does, he often gets to the foul line where he shoots 90%. But he's only been to the charity stripe 38 times so playing him tight, much like Summers should be played, may be the way for Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones to effectively defend him.

Senior swingman Mike Kebler (6'4" 205 lbs.) has been starting as of late, but he's clearly playing because of his energy and leadership. He is the consummate glue guyt on the squad, averaging only 1.6 PPG in over 10 minutes of play per contest. Oddly, he has only taken one ‘3' this season in his 37 attempts from the field.

The tactical keys to the game are going to be on the defensive side of the ball, more specifically how UCLA defends the big three players of the Spartans and how the Spartans deal with Josh Smith.

Although Appling can be dangerous (as his 40% shooting from beyond the arc can attest), the key offensive players for the Spartans are Lucas, Green and Summers. The way in which UCLA can take at least one of them out of the game will be key.

Michigan State's typical offensive sets run out of a motion, but they do have some quick hitters, mostly for Lucas. While the Spartans will run some ball screens, especially for the guards, much of the time when not running out of some variation of the motion they will run some isolation plays that look more like something out of an NBA playbook. That means that instead of setting screens they will isolate a player on one side of the floor, typically Lucas, and they will look to have him break his man down. If he fails to get a clear lane to the hoop he will then kick the ball out to a shooter, typically Summers or Appling, although Green will step out, too, and they will launch a ‘3'. This is where Malcolm Lee will be very important. He has got to be able to handle Lucas in these situations without much help so that Lucas doesn't get a clean look at a shot and doesn't have an easy kick-out (because there would be little help). To help further combat this Howland will be allowed t have Smith and Anthony Stover sit in the lane to help block or alter shots as the man they should be guarding won't be an outside shooting threat. Still, because of UCLA's well-documented history this season of not defending ball screens well, expect Izzo to incorporate more of them into his offensive game plan. This would be the way that Izzo will try and pull Smith and/or Stover out of the lane. How UCLA defends these ball screens (and keeps Smith out of foul trouble) will be huge. Expect Howland to continue to have Smith ‘plug' on ball screens while Stover will fully hedge. It will be interesting to see how the game is officiated; if the officials allow a great deal of physical contact then the Bruins, specifically Smith, should benefit.

Izzo has got to game plan for Smith. Izzo isn't a big fan of zone defenses because he feels it doesn't allow his club to rebound as well as he'd like, but he will throw his team into a 2-3 if the situation dictates. He has surely seen tape of UCLA's struggles shooting from outside and even if he doesn't run a zone he surely will have his players sag, especially on the weak side, so as to prevent Smith from getting the ball. UCLA has got to stay patient on offense and not settle for outside jumpers. Smith is a difference-maker and probably the most potentially dominating player in the game. The Bruins have got to utilize him. To that end Smith can't play soft. He's going to get hit and if the referees allow contact when he's playing defense then they surely will allow contact against him. He's got to go up for shots with authority and dunk it whenever possible. The Spartans are going to run waves of players at him when he gets the ball so lay-up attempts won't do.

Nelson should also play a big part in the outcome of the game. He already will be involved in a key match-up on the defensive end with Green, but he's got to score some, too. He has been called for a player-control foul virtually every game the second half of the season. He will have to play under control when he's got the ball in his hands, especially if he's initiating a break. It will be interesting to see how much tape the Spartans have watched in terms of them planting in the lane and taking a charge against Nelson when he inevitably puts his head down and drives.

Breaking everything down the game should turn on these key questions:

1) What kind of intensity and focus will the Bruins have? If they bring their ‘A' game then that will answer most if not all of the following questions.
2) How will Lee do mentally with his injured knee? If he plays as if the knee isn't even an afterthought then Lucas May be in for a rough game. If Lee is even subconsciously thinking about the knee then expect Lucas to exploit it.
3) Will Smith stay out of foul trouble (and play aggressively when he is in the game)? Smith is UCLA's one massive advantage in this game and the Bruins have to take advantage of it. If he's not on the floor for long stretches then the Bruins could be in for a long night.
4) Can the Bruins make the battle of the boards close to a ‘wash'? Michigan State gets a good many points off of offensive rebounds. If UCLA can hold the Spartans to one shot on most possessions then the Bruins will take away a big part of MSU's offense.
5) Who will win the coaching battle? Howland and Izzo are among the best in the business at physical preparation for a game. How will they be when it comes to mental preparation? To that extent, which team is mentally more fragile, the young team that has made some big comebacks this season or the senior-laden squad that has had a disappointing season?

As has been the case for much of the season for the Bruins, their mental intensity or lack thereof will probably go the longest way in determining the outcome. UCLA has gotten up for almost all of their big games this season (the game in Tucson being a notable exception) so the likelihood of their being ready for this game is high. Still, many thought before the Oregon game that UCLA would play with urgency and they didn't. Its anybody's guess as to which UCLA team will show up for this game as this is the first time that any of them outside of Lee and Anderson will play in an NCAA Tournament game.

One final point: Michigan State has been very good at home this year but pretty poor on the road and on neutral courts (7-11) while UCLA has been about the same (6-8). The difference is that UCLA is 1-3 in neutral court games while the Spartans are 4-3. The senior leadership and pride of the Spartans will probably be too much to overcome for this young Bruin squad unless Smith dominates in the paint. Expect a low-scoring affair regardless of the outcome.

Michigan State 61
UCLA 56


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