They Are Who We Think They Are: Northwestern Preview

Looks can be deceiving.

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS
WELSH-RYAN ARENA, EVANSTON, ILLINOIS
MONDAY, 7:30 PM ET
TV:
Big Ten Network
ONLINE RADIO STREAM: Spartan Sports Network

It's been a pretty grueling few days of Spartan fandom, so I'm going to keep this one on the short side.  Outside of the graduation of defensive specialist Jeremy Nash, this is basically the same team that MSU faced (and beat) twice last season.  They're very, very good on offense (#16 in the nation), and very, very mediocre on defense (#116).

John Shurna can fill it up from just about anywhere on the court.  Michael Thompson plays point guard about as efficiently as the position can be played.  Drew Crawford does a multitude of things with a distinctly-non-traditional-for-a-Wildcat explosiveness.  Luka Mirkovic is the guy no one wants to guard in the pick-up game because he scraps for every rebound and loose ball.  Alex Marcotullio has replaced Nash as the defensively-oriented shooting guard who doesn't shoot the ball all that much.  Traditional player stats are here.

A quick glance at SOP indicates that things are playing out to form for the Wildcats this season:

Northwestern has been what everyone expected; excellent half-court offense, suspect defense, and inconsistent inside play. John Shurna has stepped up his game this season, averaging 23 points a game on ridiculous 61% field goal shooting and other-worldly 3-point shooting (33 for 53, or 62%). In fact, Shurna has been more efficient shooting threes than dunking the ball (he averages 1.87 points per 3 point attempt, and given he's missed at least two dunks that I can recall, he's gotta be below 1.87 points per dunk). So next time he has a breakaway, here's to hoping he pulls up for three.

Strategically, the gameplan against a Bill Carmody team is pretty simple--although executing it isn't always so simple.  From my preview of the first match-up between the two teams last season:

Going into any game against Northwestern, you know what you have to do to win: make smart passes, knock down 3-pointers, and get out on 3-point shooters (without giving up easy baskets on back cuts).  Basically, Bill Carmody forces you to beat his team at its own game.  (Just as the Wildcats take a lot of 3-pointers and record assists on a high percentage of made fields goals, they force their opponents to do the same.)

Carmody will no doubt throw the 1-3-1 out against MSU on defense for most/all of the game and hope for some combination of turnover or long-distance shooting issues from the Spartans.  Hopefully, it doesn't take as long for shots to start dropping as it did against Minnesota's 2-3 zone on Friday.  I'll go with Korie Lucious as the key player for MSU; the combination of long-distance shooting and creative passing he brings to the table when he's making smart decisions would be very handy, taking some pressure off the Lucas/Summers/Green triumvirate to make the offense go on every possession.

The other historic key against the Wildcats is to take advantage of their weakness on the boards, although rebounding is actually a relative strength on defense for Northwestern this season.  The active work on the boards displayed by Delvon Roe in the last two games should be a major asset.

KenPom predicts just a one-point win for MSU, 70-69 in 67 possessions.  I'd hope for a more decisive outcome in favor of our Spartans.  Northwestern has lost both the games it's played against KenPom top-50 teams by double digits this season (although both those games were played on the road--at St. Johns and at Purdue).

Still, this is a very dangerous opponent.  MSU has had trouble containing Carmody's rail-thin sharp-shooting forwards in the past, whether it's been Kevin Coble or Shurna; even while sticking to the 4 spot, Draymond will have his perimeter defending skills severely tested.  And any team shooting over 40% on 3-pointers cannot be taken lightly.  A win would be enormous boost to Northwestern's quest to finally earn an NCAA Tournament bid.  A loss, meanwhile, would be an enormous blow to whatever hopes MSU has of contending for a Big Ten title.

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