No sooner had last night's disappointing loss to UConn drawn to a close than I deposited myself in the luxuriously-appointed media room at TOC Headquarters to analyze MSU's next opponent and produce this not-at-all-hastily-thrown-together preview. Go ahead and use this as the game thread as well. Although this is the Maui Invitational and not the Great Alaska Shootout, MSU faces their second team of Huskies in as many nights at 5pm EST (ESPN2 or ESPN3.com). The Washington Huskies are currently ranked 13th in the AP and 11th in the coaches poll and they return 57% of the offense from a team that made the Sweet Sixteen after winning the Pac-10 Tournament last year. (Stats courtesy of Statsheet.com.) They lost top player Quincy Pondexter to the NBA but everybody else is back and they have a solid group of freshmen, though it could have been even deeper had they not lost decommit Terrence Jones to Kentucky, the cause of some fan animosity in the last game. Prior to the Kentucky game Washington had been pounding opponents into powder with a rain of three-point shots (a scorching 45-102) to the tune of 1.31 points per possession. Even after being held in check by Kentucky in a defensive battle they sport an efficiency margin of 0.36 PPP. As has been pointed out, they like to play fast, averaging 80.5 possessions per game and even the Kentucky game was played at 75 possessions. Those kind of numbers translate to 100-something to 60-something blowouts, which is what they did in their first three games, and they come into the MSU game averaging a 97-68 victory. That's the kind of margin you wish you saw in MSU's games, not because it's fun (well, that too) but because it's historically what good teams do to inferior opponents.
Washington's defense has been pretty good too, averaging an opposition PPP of 0.85. They even held Kentucky to just under a point per trip, allowing 74 points in those 75 possessions. They've been OK on the glass, pulling down 68% of the available defensive rebounds, but some of their impressive numbers on the boards have been inflated by a crushing win over McNeese State, where they recorded a 55.6 OR% and 83.0 DR%. Opponents have an EFG% of just 42.5 and UW has been winning the turnover battle as well, with a Bo Ryan-like 14% TORate to the opposition's 25.8%.
Washington's top returning player is former Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and current Wooden watch-lister Isaiah Thomas - yep, he's another one of those speedy little guards at 5'9", 185#. He was actually the Husky most likely to shoot last year, ahead even of Pondexter, and used a healthy 26% of the available possessions. He hit 49% of his twos and was pretty good at getting to the line (47.5 FTR) but was a bit of a liability from outside, making only 32.7% of his 199 threes. This year, however, he's hit 8 of his 17 threes but is only shooting 45% overall while averaging 14 points a game. The most efficient front-court option is probably 6'9" forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning, an athletic shot-blocker who is hitting 54% of his shots (all twos) and pulling down rebounds at a pretty good rate (7.25 in 20 minutes per game). The other primary scorers are Justin Holiday, a defensive specialist who has been hitting 42% of his threes this year, and sophomore point guard Abdul Gaddy, whose shooting has improved markedly this year (56%, including 4-9 from three). Guess what? They have a 7-foot transfer player from Senegal, Aziz N’Diaye, who's a shot-blocker and rebounder with limited offensive skills. Groan. MSU will need to keep him off the glass with more success than they had against Alex Oriakhi and Mamadou Diarra. So far this year he's averaging 7.5 boards, (3.5 offensive) and 2.5 blocks in 18 minutes per game. He's hitting 39% on his free throws.
Ken Pomeroy is projecting a 78-77 Washington victory in a 76-possession game. This is likely to be a nerve-wracking game for MSU fans (haven't they all been so far?), as Washington will likely try to push the pace, play aggressive defense and force the Spartan guards into fast-break-producing turnovers. State will need to reproduce the perimeter defense they showed against UConn, as opposed to the version from the three previous games, to avoid suffering the aerial bombardment from beyond the arc that the Huskies dropped on Virginia. But Thomas is a dynamic player and he's a danger to slash inside if the defense is spread too wide to take away the deep shot. The Spartans might also be well advised to slow it down a bit and try to take it inside themselves, as last year Washington was one of the most foul-happy teams in Division I, giving their opponents a robust 45 free-throws per 100 field goal attempts, highest in the Pac 10 and one of the highest in the country. That number has even risen to 53 so far this year. With the likely pace of the game, the desire to conserve Kalin Lucas and the need for players who can attack the rim and make foul shots, this strikes me as a game where Keith Appling could make valuable contributions. In any event, they will also need to make some defensive adjustments to minimize the impact of N'Diaye, who looks like the type of player who has given them problems to this point. Here's hoping they close this Hawaiian holiday on a high note before returning to the comforts of home.
BTW, KJ's preview, appealing in it's brevity, can be found here.