With football season winding down to another ignominious end, it’s time to turn our focus to the hardwood! Notre Dame Men’s Basketball returned to South Bend as Maui Invitational Champions, but won’t have long to wait for the next test. For the 2017 edition of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the #5 Irish drew the main event versus the #3 Spartans of Michigan State. It’s the only Challenge game being played on Thursday night, allowing everyone to kick back and take in this marquee match-up.
Maybe the most important development of the trip to Hawaii, with all due respect to Mike Brey’s wardrobe choices, is the scalp they walked away with at the end of it. Taking down #6 Wichita State is a huge development for a program looking for a big next step. In addition to the obvious resume and confidence-boosting effects of knocking off the Shockers, it also means this week, the Irish are playing with (even more) house money.
While top-10 wins are still not an expectation, the Irish falling short in Hawaii and again in East Lansing would have caused a low murmur of unrest to settle in. With no more big opportunities to prove themselves until well into the conference schedule, not getting either of these would have felt like a missed opportunity, at least until North Carolina arrived in mid-January.
Instead, the Irish will exit the quality portion of their non-conference schedule with a boost of confidence and top-15 ranking. Additionally, the prospect of notching two elite-level wins and holding a top-5 ranking until into January is well within reach.
Meet the Spartans
None of that is to say that Thursday night will be an easy task. Michigan State is loaded with talent, size and length to make them a legitimate top-10 team. The Spartans are coming off a tournament win of their own, after taking down Depaul, Connecticut and North Carolina over Thanksgiving weekend to win their bracket at the Nike-hosted PK80 tournament. The first two are notable only in that Depaul/Connecticut were close at the half before running out of gas in the second frame. The PK80 Final against the Tarheels was not nearly that close, as the Spartans suffocated North Carolina, holding them to the lowest shooting percentage in school history at 24.6%.
The other game of note on Michigan State’s early season schedule was their Champions Classic loss to Duke. At the time, the teams we’re ranked #1 and #2 in the preseason polls, and a back and forth affair saw Duke pull away late with major help from Greyson Allen.
The Headline Grabber
The name to start with when discussing Michigan State is the National Preseason Player of the Year, Miles Bridges. The 6’7″ sophomore projected to be a low-level lottery pick in 2017, but surprisingly, he opted to return to East Lansing for another year. He tweaked his ankle against Stony Brook on November 19th and missed the game against Depaul before coming off the bench in the Spartans’ win over UConn. He was a full go for the Spartans domination of the Tarheels on Sunday night and should be ready to go when the Irish arrive.
The loss to Duke and the subsequent win over North Carolina may notable in that it’s the Spartans’ first victory over a blue-blood program since the start of 2016-2017 season. Bridges has made multiple comments about using games against top-tier opponents as a measuring stick. Heading into Sunday night, Bridges was 0-5 combined against Duke, Arizona, Kentucky and Kansas and the comments from coach and player have indicated the confidence boost that came with beating the Tarheels.
Running the Show
In addition to Bridges, the Spartans have three more sophomore contributors in shooter/slasher Josh Langford, big-man Nick Ward and point guard Cassius Winston. They’re joined by a highly recruited freshman center, Jaren Jackson and 12th year senior TumTum Nairn off the bench.
Cassius Winston is a solid point guard with a knack for making some difficult passes, but is definitely a little loose with the ball. He’s assisted on over 46% of Michigan State possessions when he was on the floor over the last two seasons, good for a top-5 mark in the country, but his turnover rate is very high at over 26%. By comparison, our own Matt Farrell was at 29% assist rate last year with still very high turnover rate of 19% and some of the more controlled point guards wind up closer to 10%.
The penchant for turnovers was on display against both Duke and North Carolina as Michigan State had 24 giveaways against the Tarheels and 17 against the Blue Devils. The stats don’t currently suggest that Michigan State plays overly fast, but early in the game against North Carolina, the Spartans seemed to get sped up past where they were comfortable and the results look out of control. On the other hand, the frantic nature of the game played into the hands of Michigan State’s suffocating defense, generating 17 turnovers of their own plus many awful shots.
Michigan State contested 42 of North Carolina's 61 shots and they went 5-of-42 when contested.
The Tar Heels shot 24.6% overall, their lowest shooting percentage in a game in school history. pic.twitter.com/eEFnjjvfBg
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 27, 2017
Josh Langford mostly bombed from deep last year, shooting 41.6% and taking almost as many shots from outside the arc as inside, but has shown a little more versatility in his game this year. He was the high scorer against North Carolina, largely on 5/7 from downtown, but also showed the ability to get to the rim.
Nick Ward is one of a group of big guys likely to see action against the Irish. While a more suitable comparison probably exists, Ward reminds me of our own Bonzie Colson, only more athletic. Like Colson, Ward is undersized in the 4/5 role at just 6’8″. Similarly, Ward’s extra long wingspan (reportedly 7’2″) and additional bounce allows him to cover more ground than most expect and can be a pain on the interior. He terrorized the Tarheels on both ends of the floor, but predominately made his mark felt on the defensive side of the ball. Against North Carolina, all of Michigan State’s defense played well, but if you’re looking for the top reason for the Tarheel offensive ineptitude, Ward is your guy. I think it’s likely that Ward shadows Bonzie on Thursday and should prove to be an interesting battle.
Jaren Jackson (6’11”) will anchor their defense and also swat his fair share of shots. The slow pace the Irish work at may help him, as he’s been in foul trouble repeatedly in his short career. This has prevented him from going over 24 minutes very often and if he commits a few dumb ones early, may be relegated to the bench for large chunks of the game.
Dealing with the Spartans’ Size
It feels like a familiar trope with the Irish but I believe the key to the game will be how the Irish handle Michigan State’s size and length. In the first half against Wichita State, the Irish were consistently pushed away from the basket by heavy screen hedges and aggressive hands on defense. It left the Irish searching for an answer on how to generate their open looks and totally out of sync. As with most of the power programs we run up against, Michigan State has the athletes to cause similar or more damage if they’re engaged and aggressive defensively.
Per KenPom, the Spartans have the #4 ranked defense by efficiency. The two things they have done at an elite level so far this year is block shots (9th in the nation) and prevent you from shooting 2s (opponents converting only 33.9% inside the arc). They are not, however, especially good at rebounding, likely because they go for so many blocks.
Bonzie Colson has been beating bigger guys his whole life, but this one feels like an interesting match-up. Instead of the lumbering, 6’11” statue in the middle of the defense, he’ll likely be working against someone who uses the same length advantages in slightly different ways.
The other match-up of bigs will also be interesting to watch. Shaq Morris was limited to just 18 minutes on Wednesday night for Wichita State. Rauno Nurger, the Shockers other big, also found himself in foul trouble quickly and played limited minutes. All of that led to limited battles between Martinas Geben and Shocker bigs.
Geben has been a revelation so far this year, making use of the added minutes and confidence from his summer time at the World University Games, but this is a different level of test. Is Geben up to the challenge or will he backslide into the mistake and foul-prone center who could barely be trusted for 4 minutes down the stretch last year?
Offensively, the Spartans are decent across the board and very good at offensive rebounding. The biggest weakness is how fast and loose they play with the ball, resulting in a turnover rate and steal rate among the 50 highest in the country. Fortunately for the Irish forcing turnovers is something they have greatly improved at over the last two years. From 2010 through 2016, the Irish were never better than 275th in defensive turnover rate, but have improved to simply “average.” This may be the first indicator of Thursday’s result: Does Michigan State take care of the ball better or are the Irish able to capitalize?
Another thing to watch for is the minutes of freshman DJ Harvey. After playing 20 minutes per game since the opener at Depaul, Harvey’s minutes were cut to 13 against Wichita. He’s been a revelation on the court for the Irish but it will be important to see how much Coach Brey trusts him on the road in a big, national TV spot.
Lastly, adding the obvious: assuming the Irish can do what they typically do and find a way to hang in this one, it’s going to come down to shots. The Irish aren’t as reliant on the 3-ball as they have been in previous years, but it’s still important for them to make a few early in order to force the defense to react. If the Irish can find their rhythm and get going from deep, they’ll be a very tough out on Thursday night.
This one’s going to be a tough one. The Irish absolutely have the ability to steal this one on the road, but please don’t confuse “can” with “should.” The size is absolutely a concern, especially with Geben playing such a big role only months after we were afraid to put him on the floor for any amount of time down the ACC stretch and lingering concerns from the first half of Wichita State have me gunshy. As an official prediction, let’s go with Spartans over the Irish, 75-72
Now that I’ve done that, I should also declare now that I’ll be happy with any semblance of a fun, competitive game that makes me think we could win a rematch in March, but let’s not pretend that I’ll be all smiles if the Irish let a close one slip away. Go Irish, Beat Spartans!