ACC/Big Ten Challenge Preview: #5 Notre Dame vs. #3 Michigan State

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.

House Money

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.

Additional Contributors

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?

Key Indicators

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!

By |2018-05-09T22:25:44+00:00November 29th, 2017|Basketball|23 Comments

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I think we’ll score, but I’m not sure if we can slow them down. They’re going to get second chance points, so we have to turn them over.

I’m not overly concerned about their defense, despite the UNC game. UNC has nobody who can shoot, and it’s why I think they have a chance to lose to just about any ACC team this year, especially on the road. When Theo Pinson and Joel Berry are combining to take 11 threes, UNC isn’t going to win very often.

I think 75-72 is a pretty fair prediction. As long as ND doesn’t get crushed after jumping into the top 5, I won’t be overly disappointed in the outcome. I still think Farrell and Bonzie present a good matchup offensively (although they both might have trouble playing man defense against MSU), but who will be the third scorer? I actually think Harvey would provide a great matchup here, but on the road at MSU? Probably too big of a spot for him. So I’m going to predict TJ gets at least 15 in this one.

If we win, do we jump to #2 in the country? I think there would be a case to be made that we deserve it.

Joe Schueller

I know this is crazy talk, but could you imagine Big Monday 1 vs 2 in Durham? Hold on, I need to catch my breath.


There’s 0 chance Bonzie scores less than 35 points if that happens.


Boooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Irish by 10.

I am sorta encouraged in a way by our struggles in the first half against WSU and then figuring things out in the second. To the extent that things were actually “figured out”, I’d like to think we can avoid such a poor offensive run for any sustained period of time on Thursday night. Actually hitting some shots from deep at even a mediocre clip could also help in that regard.

I could also see us winning the turnover battle by 8-10, and I can’t see us losing if that’s the case. I think we’re a good enough rebounding team that they wouldn’t be able to cancel that out with second-chance points.

MSU hasn’t shot well from deep so far this year, but they do have a bunch of guys who are capable. If they break out of that and get hot, then I think it’s going to be really tough to win at their place. Overall, we might be going back to that zone to challenge them to make shots, but I just don’t have that much faith in a Brey-coached zone defense just because it happened to work for one half last week.

I do kinda worry who Farrell is gonna guard. It’s easy when TumTum is out there, but the rest of the time? You’d think Gibbs stays on Winston, but the rest of MSU’s backcourt has great length that it’s hard to see Farrell being an effective enough defender on McQuaid or certainly Langford. Might make sense to challenge Farrell and keep him on Winston so that Gibbs can stay tight on those two taller guys.

Bonzie’s also gonna have a helluva time with Jaren Jackson, who’s a half-foot taller, but I don’t think Jackson has quite gotten himself into rhythm offensively, so they may not be able to exploit that.

It’s a fascinating challenge, for sure. I think MSU’s dominance over UNC was a bit of fool’s gold, as the Heels missed something like 15 layups (not an exaggeration, ESPN showed the stat during the game) as well as all but one three. It was a pathetic performance by UNC more than it was great MSU defense, in my opinion, and MSU only shot 40% from the floor themselves and turned it over 24 times. Not great. But we’ll see! The Breslin Center is a tough, loud place to play, and there’s no chance we get a 12 FT advantage there like we did against WSU. I couldn’t be more excited. If we manage to steal one there, I’ll be unbearable. San Antonio flights will be booked.


I think this will be the best defensive team we face all year. I am anxious to see how Geben fares against top level competition, and I hope we shoot well from 3. On the road, I would be satisfied with a close loss. Hoping we can steal one.


Where would a 38 year old man, who has managed to learn nothing about basketball in his life, go to learn about the strategic and tactical basics of the game, if he wanted to become a bandwagon fan as his alma mater slowly transitioned from a football school to a basketball school? Asking for a friend


I appreciate the likes, but seriously, where can I read to improve my understanding of the game? Blogs? Books?

Lil Sebastian
Lil Sebastian

I like the website/YouTube/twitter of BBallBreakdown He does some film stuff, some on court demos and some live thoughts on games. It’s primarily NBA centric, but there is a bunch of material.

Underthrown Shoelace
Underthrown Shoelace

Just listen to any game that Dan Dakich is calling (particularly if his son’s Ohio State team is playing). Really good stuff.


I’m not an attorney or political science major, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this post constitutes a violation of the Geneva Convention.

Underthrown Shoelace
Underthrown Shoelace


I’ve heard that it’s not for disagreeing

Joe Schueller

So if you’d like to learn a little about our offensive sets, there is good stuff on our archive, and there’s also a very “101” article I did on our PnR’s over at the old place (

Simply Googling “Mike Brey Motion Offense” gets you a ton of great resources.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask around here. We’ve got a bunch of guys who have played and coached at various levels and love to talk about X’s and O’s.


Loved the article. Great analysis. Just a small comment. I don’t believe that it is Ward who will be guarding Bonzie. That assignment will fall to Jaren Jackson. Ward is not nearly as mobile or comfortable guarding out on the perimeter and will be assigned with guarding Geben or Burns is either of them is in.

Now if Mooney is in or if we go small then I’m not really sure but if the starters are out there then Jackson is on Bonzie.

I watch lots of Michigan St. basketball and will be at the game Thursday rooting for ND. My 2 keys for the game are:

1. Rebounding. MSU is deepest in the frontcourt and will run 6 guys out there that are all 6′ 8″ or taller and 5 of the 6 are excellent rebounders. ND has to rebound and scrap for every loose ball because while MSU has some streaky shooters they thrive on getting extra possessions.

2. ND must be able to hit a decent % from 3 and be excellent at the foul line. Points in the paint will be hard to come by and to stretch the D we must be effective and accurate from the perimeter. In addition, even when MSU plays at home they often send the opponent to the foul line quite a bit because they are simply so physical and dedicated to rebounding the heck out of the ball and blocking shots. ND’s strength is at the foul line and that must continue to have a chance tomorrow night.


Man I’m jealous. Have fun.


Live just 30 minutes from East Lansing so it is easier to go to this game than one in South Bend. Although this was an expensive ticket…but it was an early Christmas gift from my wife. Thankful for a wife who understands and even encourages my ND fandom!


One more comment on the House Money thought: we play 6 games against KenPom’s top 13 teams this year (top 12 not counting us). We’re 1-0 now, so even if we lose, that’s still 4 more shots at the most elite teams in the country. Brey should have them out there nice and loose (or as loose as you can be at the Breslin Center) for this matchup.

Underthrown Shoelace
Underthrown Shoelace

Fair or not, the emphasis by the committee (or at least those who talk about the committee) is more on non-conference elite wins. We have been punished in the past for a lack of nonconference wins while having plenty of Big East/ACC high quality wins. That’s why beating Wichita or MSU was such a big deal in my opinion. I think Brey would be feeling some pressure if he hadn’t won Maui, because right now I don’t see a tournament team in the nonconference schedule other than the big 2.

Joe Schueller

It is possible Archie has IU playing well enough by the end of the year that we could have another so/so data point in the seeding arguments.