The Spartans are a mirror of their coach, Tom Izzo, who is one of the best coaches in America. He stresses very physical play on both sides of the court with special emphasis on rebounding and helpside defense. Sound familiar? In fact, Izzo and Howland are very similar, except for the fact that Izzo periodically looks as if he's going to have a stroke, that the coaching match-up should be a wash (That may be the only time I say that this season). The teams run similar styles of offense, although MSU's offense is currently predicated on getting open shots for two players. And there may not be two better half-court defensive teams in the counrty come March. So, what does that all mean? The game is really going to be decided by individual match-ups. The Bruins have the advantage in the frontcourt while, with all the Bruin injuries, the Spartans have the advantage in the backcourt.
Izzo has typically gone with "lunch pail" guys up front, Paul Davis from two seasons ago being an exception. This year is no different. The Spartans will start junior Goran Suton (6'10" 245 lbs.) at center, with junior Marquise Gray (6'8 235 lbs.) and sophomore Raymar Morgan (6'7" 220 lbs.) at the forward spots. Morgan is the star here and it is going to be a great match-up to watch when he tries to work his offense against Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya. Both Bruins play strong individual defense but both, especially Aboya, who fouled out last night, are prone to foul difficulties. This will be one of the key match-ups in the game; Morgan versus whichever Bruin is guarding him. Morgan leads the Spartans in both scoring and rebounding, although last night against Missouri Morgan only collected 5 boards and, though he scored 19 points, he did so on perfect shooting from the floor and the free throw line. That probably won't happen again. However, Morgan only played 20 minutes due to foul trouble. And fouls will be where this match-up is won and lost. If either Aboya or Luc are in serious foul trouble then a big advantage to MSU, but if Morgan can only play 20 minutes again due to foul issues then the chances of a UCLA victory are excellent.
Suton and Gray are the "lunch pail" guys. They will rebound, as any Spartan who plays big minutes will, very soundly and physically, and they will play solid post defense. Suton can even provide low-post scoring depending on the opposition, as he did last night with 17 against Missouri. But many of those points can be attributed to Missouri's trapping defense, which can give up a lot of open looks and easy lay-ups. If Izzo wants to go big he'll bring in senior Drew Naymick (6'10" 245 lbs.), a red-headed defensive specialist. It is with Suton, Gray and Naymick that the Bruins should have a decided advantage. Kevin Love and Lorenzo Mata-Real will be the best offensive post players any of the Spartan posts have seen yet, and outside of maybe Ohio State and Indiana, the best post players they will see at all until March. Last night many of us saw the kind of team that will bother Love on the offensive end; one that is athletic, like Bambale Osby. You can use a lot of adjectives to describe Suton and Naymick, but athletic isn't one of them. They are both very similar to the center from Portland State and aren't as good as David Burgess of Asuza Pacific. Adding to their lack of athleticism is that neither of the Spartan posts pass well out of a double-team, something that Bruins defenders excel at doing. Further, the lack of athleticism means that there won't be any spin moves to the baseline around Love when he presses on his man too far up the lane like Monday night.
Russell Westbrook will face a huge examination against one of the best scoring point guards in college basketball, Spartan senior Drew Neitzel (6'0" 180 lbs.). Neitzel is the unquestioned leader of the Spartans and is the offensive engine for Izzo. While Coach Ben Howland uses ball screens to help set up the next pass, Izzo uses ball screens to free up Neitzel to shoot…from anywhere! And Neitzel makes many of his shots, especially in crunch time. Last night against Missouri Neitzel made a huge shot at the end of the game and led the Spartans with 21 points. Westbrook better be ready to play close to 40 minutes and Bruins fans, as well as Howland, better pray that Westbrook doesn't get into foul trouble. If Westbrook is on the bench expect that Josh Shipp will guard Neitzel. If Mustafa Abdul-Hamid does play, it won't be for long. Westbrook does have a size and strength advantage on Neitzel, but Neitzel has much more experience and he is roughly as quick as Westbrook. Add to the fact that Neitzel is a tough match-up one-on-one. and MSU sets many ball screens for him, so Westbrook is going to be running into screens all night. Russell is going to be sore tomorrow.
Izzo has other strong guards in freshmen Kalin Lucas (6'0" 165 lbs.) and Chris Allen (6'3" 190 lbs.). Lucas can run the point so that Neitzel can look to score more and he's more of a true "pass-first" point than Neitzel. Allen can play the two wing positions and was averaging over 15 PPG before being shut out last night. Both will have their hands full trying to guard Josh Shipp, but I expect that junior Travis Walton (6'2" 195 lbs.) will actually get the most time as the second guard. Walton is a smart player who was a starter last season. Izzo was looking for a spark to come off the bench, especially after the embarrassing pre-season loss to Division II Grand Valley State, so he asked Walton to come off the bench and the junior did so without any public complaint. Walton played 22 minutes last night and was very judicious with the ball, shooting well and handing out 5 assists to lead the Spartans, while only committing one turnover.
The Neitzel/Westbrook match-up has the look of a tough one for UCLA, but it will help the Bruins in the long run. That doesn't even take into account Morgan at the three spot. If Darren Collison was healthy, let alone Michael Roll and James Keefe, I would predict the Bruins to win fairly handily, but, alas, none of them are available. Because the Bruins lack depth in the backcourt and because it's the second game in 2 days, I expect the Bruins to run out of gas. It will be a close game, but the injuries will finally catch up with the Bruins. It is a lot to ask of Westbrook to be able to lead the team to victory over another tough BCS conference school in as many nights. The Bruins will play hard but end up on the short end of this one.
But imagine where this team is going if they win.
Michigan State 71