Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the GONZAGA BULLDOGS
THE BRESLIN CENTER, EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN
8:00 P.M. (ET),TUESDAY

TV: ESPN (Steve Lavin!  Part of ESPN's 24 Hours of Hoops Marathon )

Bulldog bullets:

  • 28-6 record last season, including a perfect 14-0 in the West Coast Conference.  Lost to #1-seeded North Carolina 98-77 in the third round of the NCAA Tournament as a #4 seed.  So technically their 2009 season ended precisely as ours did--they got blown out by UNC.
  • 2009 Kenpom ranking: #7.  Adjusted offensive efficiency: #5.  Adjusted defensive efficiency: #18.
  • Preseason pick to win the WCC yet again.
  • Gonzaga returns only 1 of 5 starters from last season.  They do return 3 of the top 4 players off the bench by minutes played, though.
  • Returning starter and projected top scorer is senior guard Matt Bouldin (more on him below).
  • Defeated Mississippi Valley State University 92-74 in its regular season opener.  Bouldin led the way with 22 points (on 13 FG attempts) and 5 assists.
  • Reportedly played Texas to within 3 points in a closed-door scrimmage 9 days ago.

With the assistance of SB Nation comrade The Slipper Still Fits, here's a rundown on Gonzaga's shiny, new starting lineup:

Matt Bouldin: 6'5" senior guard, averaged 13.6 points and 3.4 points per game last season on a .537/.423/.744 shooting line (2pt/3pt/FT).

TSSF:

Matt's role in his final season as a Bulldog is to be a consistent force every game.  He doesn't have to be Adam Morrison and score 30 points and shoot the ball 20 times but he does have to linger around the 15 point mark all season or else it might become a long season.  The key for him to be consistent is for the offense to run though him early in the game.  If he can hit a few backdoor screens for easy buckets and rattle in some mid-range jumpers, Matt can score 20-plus points.  If he doesn't get out of the gate fast, especially in big games, he tends to struggle mightily.  The good thing as far as this team is concerned is that the offense kind of has to run through him as a majority of last season's offense graduated in May.  Mark Few has to find ways to get him going early and I think that he will realize that pretty quickly.

Demetri Goodson: 5'11" sophomore guard, averaged 3.8 points and 1.6 assists per game last season in limited playing time (13.4 minutes/game).

TSSF:

Despite some of the worries about his perimeter shooting, there is nothing that stops me from believing that Meech will have a smooth transition into his role as the starting point guard. Meech has natural point guard instincts and does an incredible job of keeping his head up while on the break, both of which allow for him to find open teammates and put them in position to score. Even more exciting with Meech is the potential that he has to be a shut down defender. No matter how great the recent list of guards has been at Gonzaga, it has been about ten years (1999 elite eight team?) since this program has had a true shutdown defender at the point. Meech has the quickness, the toughness, and the gritty mentality to dominate the opposing point guard on a nightly basis. In fact, I don't think Kalin Lucas and the Michigan St. Spartans have any idea just how tough things will be with Meech pressuring him for 30 minutes.

Steven Gray: 6'5" junior guard, averaged 9.1 points and 2.1 assists per game last season on a .580/.359/.714 shooting line, started 11 games.

TSSF:

I honestly believe that Steven's production will be a direct link to the type of attitude he brings on the floor.  If we see his three-point attempts increase from last year's total of 142, I think he'll be in for another difficult year.  The key for him, like I said in the opening, is to avoid becoming one-dimensional and merely relying on the three-point basket.  For this to happen, I think there has to be an understanding among the coaches about the kind of player Steven is.  When he was recruited during high school, his best assets were his ability to move without the ball and come off screens and nail the mid-range or deep jumper.  Often times last season he became a spot up shooter and he never seemed to get into the rhythm of coming off a screen like we saw in his freshman season.  His mid-range game will be great to this team when you consider that guys like Matt Bouldin, Manny Arop, Grant Gibbs, Meech, and GJ all feel more comfortable getting to the rim.  Steven also has the ability to get to the rim and I feel like that will best be utilized when he is moving without the ball and creating mismatch opportunities due to his size.

Elias Harris: 6'8" freshman forward, averaged 20.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in German ProB third division.

TSSF:

Like we've said before, the best part about all of this international play is that he is playing against professionals and mature players.  Going against guys like Ronny Turiaf and showing enough confidence in himself to actually throw up a few shots really impresses me.  We've seen players roll through Gonzaga and never develop the confidence to fully show their skill set and I think it is pretty clear that this will not be an issue with Elias.  He's got plenty of confidence in his game and will instantly impact Mark Few's team.  He's bouncy, athletic, and from our interview with him he is very modest but confident in his skills on the court.

(Referenced interview is here.)

Robert Sacre: 7'0" redshirt sophomore center, averaged 2.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game in limited playing time (9.6 minutes/game) two seasons ago, missed most of last season with an injury.

TSSF:

There are a couple things that really set up nicely for Rob Sacre this season.  Internally, I have confidence that Gonzaga now has a very solid understanding of the type of player Rob is and will use him accordingly.  The place where you will see a majority of Rob's points come from his on second chance opportunities and transition dunks.  As a strong and athletic seven footer, you won't see many big men more physically imposing that Rob.  He also plays with a great motor and that translated into a solid amount of rebounds in limited action that past two seasons.  Expect a majority of Rob's points to come directly off rebounds; whether that means on the offensive end when he grabs a board and tips-in a missed shot or as a trailer after getting a rebound on defense.  Both these should provide Rob with a solid 8-10 point scoring base.  The thing that will vault Rob to that next level will be his post moves and ability to create action on set plays.

The large majority of Gonzaga's returning minutes, then, are in the back court.  This helps create the following positively-spun story about how MSU will overcome its early injury issues:

  • Our guards (Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Chris Allen, Korie Lucious) are all pretty healthy.
  • The two lingering injury problems are with front court players: Raymar Morgan (limited action expected) and Delvon Roe (could play 20+ minutes but still recovering from concussion).
  • If our guards--i.e., the assumed strength of the team--can outplay Gonzaga's guards, who have some experience but probably can't match up talent-/depth-wise, then our relatively inexperienced big men (Draymond Green, Derrrick Nix, Garrick Sherman) just have to play the Bulldogs' relatively inexperienced big men to a draw.

That looks pretty good on paper, eh?

Really, though, in a match-up between two likely NCAA Tournament teams that's played as early as this game is being played, it's even harder than it is normally to make any kind of credible predictions.  Even looking at Gonzaga's tempo-free profile from last season has limited utility, given the major turnover in minutes played by individual players.

But looking at tempo-free profiles is what we do, so here you go:

  • The 2009 Gonzaga team was something of a statistical oddity: a tall team (5th in the nation in effective height) that played best on the perimeter (14th in the nation in 3pt% at 39.4%; 7th in TO% at 16.1%).  This was in large part a function of the (now-departed-to-the-NBA) 6'11" Austin Daye's perimter-oriented game.
  • Meanwhile, the Bulldogs didn't rebound the ball on offense (31.6% OffReb%) or get to the line (35.5% FTR) much.
  • The team could score closer to the hoop, though, as they ranked 21st in the nation with a 2pt% of 53.3%.  Some of that inside scoring ability returns; see Bouldin's and Gray's numbers above.  (Bouldin and Gray also took the most 3-point shots of any Gonzaga players last year; those two gentlemen can shoot the rock.)
  • Defensively, Gonzaga's height showed up more.  They led the nation in opponent's 2pt% (39.5%), thanks in part to a very good block% of 13.2%.  And they didn't foul much (Opp FTR=29.6%).
  • Gonzaga played quite a bit of zone defense last season.  Opponents were forced to score 34.6% of their points from beyond the arc (12th in the country).

I'm not sure if Gonzaga is sticking with a zone defense approach this season (I can't find anything that indicates that Mark Few has been a long-term user of the 2-3 zone).  If they do, obviously 3-point shooting by Lucas/Summers/Allen/Lucious becomes a huge factor.  And. while Daye and fellow 6'11" big man Josh Heytvelt are now gone, Gonzaga still has quite a bit of height inside, with the 7-foot Sacre and the 7'5" (!) Will Foster coming off the bench.  Without Morgan and Roe at full strength, scoring in the paint may be a tough proposition.

It'd be great to come out of the gate fast and put pressure on Gonzaga's relatively young starting lineup to keep their composure in a hostile setting.  The Bulldogs struggled some with turnovers in their opener (this issue was also mentioned in the Andy Katz piece on the scrimmage vs. Texas), so it remains to be seen whether this team will be as stingy with the ball as last year's team was.

If the Bulldogs don't, in fact, turn the ball over much, it will be incumbent on Allen and Summers to match up with the 6'5" duo of Bouldin and Gray and prevent them from getting good looks at the basket, both outside the arc and going toward the hoop.  Both players look like pretty versatile offensive performers who will presumably be looking to shoulder the offensive burden early in the season.

From a sports fan perspective, it's great to get a game against a top-notch opponent so early in the season.  Given the current injury situation, though, this has turned out not be an ideal year to haved schedule such a game.  But you play 'em as they come.

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