Opponent: Michigan State Spartans
Game Location: Phoenix, Arizona – West Region Semifinals
Head Coach: Tom Izzo
Spread: Michigan State – 4
Tip Off - 7:47 EST
TV / Radio: TBS / 84-WHAS
Commentators: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Len Elmore / Paul Rogers, Bob Valvano
How They Got Here
We all know Louisville’s path (beat Davidson 69-62 in the opening round, then took care of New Mexico 59-56 on Saturday), but the Spartans have come out of the west with some slightly different tests. After taking care of Long Island Brooklyn in the opening round, 89-67, Michigan State then slipped past a gritty Saint Louis team in the second round, 65-61. Both teams have played a little up tempo, and a slowed-down, grind-it-out type of game in order to prepare for tonight’s match-up, which should showcase a bit of both. The Spartans won a share of the regular season Big Ten title and ripped off the conference tournament championship en route to grabbing the 1-seed out west. Louisville finished 7th in the Big East in the regular season and then went on to win the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden. Both teams actually dropped their final two regular season gamed before winning their last 5 and 6, respectively, to get here.
The Spartans are of course led by talented senior forward, Draymond Green. An incredibly versatile player, Green leads Michigan State in scoring (16.3 ppg), rebounding (10.5) and assists (3.9). He’s equally effective running a high pick and roll at the top of the lane, or banging underneath and scrapping for loose balls. For Louisville fans, he might remind you of a bigger version of Marquette’s Jae Crowder, a jack-of-all-trades that can hurt you in so many different phases of the game. Green’s stepped up his play even further so far in the Tournament where he’s currently averaging 20 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 8 assists – all while shooting a staggering 54% from the field. Green loves to run that high pick and roll with each of the Spartans’ centers, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, and the sheer size and bulk that they’re able to create will instantly result in mismatches out front, especially if Peyton Siva, Chris Smith or Kyle Kuric get caught on a switch (whether in man or zone). Michigan State’s point guard, Keith Appling, is a converted wing who’s only an average passer at best. He’s small in size (6-1) but he can score the ball from the outside, or when curling off screens in the paint. The Cards should have a decided advantage at point guard so it’ll be essential for Peyton Siva, by far the quicker of the two points, to create offense off the dribble in the lane. As Siva goes, so do the Cards, but perhaps just as important to the team’s hopes of advancing, is center Gorgui Dieng. Both Nix and Payne are fairly bulky centers (combined 510 pounds) and they’ll try to use their bodies to create contact and get Dieng into foul trouble. If the rising Louisville sophomore can stand his ground and remain on the floor, neither Nix or Payne can guard him and his growing arsenal of offensive moves around the post. The Cards are also going to have to get something from the two seniors – Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric. Michigan State is an outstanding defensive team (the nation’s 3rd ranked efficiency defense according to Kenpom.com) so looks from the outside will certainly be limited. That said, it will critical that they find other ways to score, whether it be off of screens, getting to the free-throw line or by using ball fakes to get open 15-footers – or even by grabbing offensive rebounds and fighting underneath. Louisville can possibly win if one of those two has an off-night, but they can’t afford for both to disappear.
Game Styles / Match-up’s
This game will feature two of the nations most elite defensive units, so I still hesitate to believe a single word that Tom Izzo or Rick Pitino say when they talk about wanting to make this thing a track meet. Maybe they want to run, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. As mentioned, the Spartans come in with the #3 overall defense according to Kenpom.com and the Cardinals rank even better at #2. Near mirror-images of one another on the defensive end, the true differences lay on the offensive side of the ball where Michigan State ranks #8 overall in total offensive efficiency and Louisville checks in all the way at #111. Now, over the past 2 weeks the Cards have played much better – on both sides of the ball – than those numbers indicate, but the fact remains that the Spartans are a much better offensive unit, capable of big runs and efficient half-court scoring. Furthermore, Izzo’s team ranks among the best in the nation in turnover margin as they give it away only 10.3 times per game. This isn’t a team that will beat itself, rather the Cardinals will have to play a smart, efficient game of their own and limit all mistakes (they average 14 TO’s per contest). So while Louisville might struggle to get into an offensive flow in the half-court, one thing is crystal clear: they must attack and keep full pressure on the Spartans while in the press or 3/4 court defense. Michigan State has played against some quality opponents this year (Duke, Ohio State, North Carolina, Indiana), but none brings the type of pressure that they’ll see tonight.
If Louisville wants to pull the upset tonight, a few key things must happen:
1. Limit turnovers and create them on the other end. If Louisville gets careless with the ball or if Siva resorts back to his regular season form, then they could be in deep trouble. They must also get a normally efficient offensive team to make uncharacteristic mistakes while fighting their pressure.
2. How will the smaller Cards counteract the size advantage inside that the Spartans will possess? I think they must use their speed to create offense on one side and then to create havoc on the other. The “mosquitoes” as Pitino called them, Russ Smith and Siva, must create turnovers and use a clear speed advantage to get open looks and create shots for their teammates on offense.
3. Someone unexpected is going to have to step up big again tonight in order for the Cards to advance. Perhaps it’s Chane Behanan who’s quietly had a great Tournament so far (12 ppg and 7.5 rpg) or Chris Smith who’s still waiting to break out of his Tournament shell (just 6 ppg so far). Obviously they’ll need Dieng and Siva to stay out of foul trouble and do their thing(s), but they’re going to need a third scorer to win this one.
4. These teams both average exactly 38.2 rebounds per game (tied for 26th nationally), so it will incredibly important to win the war on the backboards. Whoever can control the glass or get second-chance looks will have an upper hand in winning this game.
The more I read about the Spartans, one side of me is terrified, but the other is gaining confidence. I still say Izzo is the best coach of my lifetime, a phenomenal motivator and in-game adjustor, so Rick’s not going to slip something past him that’s he’s not ready for. This thing is going to won by limiting mistakes and taking care of the ball. If Louisville doesn’t beat themselves (finishes the game under 14 turnovers) and hits their free-throws, then I think they can pull the upset in Phoenix. I like the way our defense matches up with their offense, and assuming Dieng can stay out of foul trouble, I think the Cards take care of business and meet the winner of Marquette – Florida on Saturday night.
Louisville 58 Michigan State 55