Wednesday's Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at the Breslin Center between Florida State and Michigan State features two teams with remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both teams are winning with defense (FSU is #4 in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency numbers, MSU #6), both excel on the offensive glass (FSU has an offensive rebounding % of 38.4, MSU 35.5%) and both have tremendous struggles taking care of the ball (FSU has a 25.3% turnover rate, MSU 23.8%). Both teams lost reasonably close games against the only two quality opponents they have faced, FSU in their last two and MSU in their first two. Though there are many similarities between the two teams this year there are also some differences that could prove to be the keys to this matchup.
The two teams have never met in the Challenge and Florida State won the only meeting between the schools, in 1997 at the NIT. This is no easy draw for Michigan State. Florida State has emerged as one of the top programs in the ACC. In 2011 the Seminoles finished 3rd in the conference with an 11-5 record, including a win over then-number one Duke, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament before falling to surprising VCU in overtime.
Defense has been the calling card of Leonard Hamilton's teams and this year is no exception. FSU has had one of the best defenses in the nation the last two years, finishing first in overall field goal defense and in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings (kenpom.com) both years. Although they lost top player Chris Singleton early to the NBA draft, they return four starters from last year's team, including leading scorer Michael Snaer, leading rebounder Bernard James and impressive freshman Okaro White, who came on to start the last 13 games of the season. They also return experienced 3-point/defensive specialist Deividas Dulkys.
A look at the keys to the game after the jump.
Keys to the Game
Turnovers - Florida State plays a style that has given Michigan State problems in the past. Coach Leonard Hamilton likes to use his whole bench, bringing in fresh legs to keep up the defensive intensity - ten different players averaged at least 12 minutes per game last year and the numbers are similar this year. They extend their defense, looking to contest every shot and capitalize on blocks and steals. There will be turnovers. The key for the Spartans will be avoiding unforced turnovers. While Florida State has had the ball stolen on a startling 12.8% of their offensive possessions this year, MSU has only had this happen on a not-quite-as-horrible 10.5% of theirs. Point guard is FSU's most unsettled position. Senior Luke Loucks has emerged as the starter but he recorded a 37.1% turnover rate last year and is at 27% this year. The other candidate is Iowa via Arkansas transfer Jeff Peterson who is at 23% TORate this year and higher than that for his career. MSU has been unusually effective this year for a Tom Izzo team in forcing turnovers (24% opp. TORate) and it will be crucial for the Spartans to prevail in the TO battle in this game.
Outside Shooting - As a shadowy figure from the past recently tweeted, one of Florida State's defensive strengths this year has been forcing opponents to "settle" for three-point shots. In fact, 41% of the field goal attempts against FSU this year have been from beyond the arc. And it's not because they are sagging down to clog up the lane. Opponents are only shooting 22.8%(!) on those threes. They just do not give up open looks. With the Spartans shooting a horrendous 23.8% on threes this year, allowing the Seminoles to force them outside is a recipe for disaster. FSU meanwhile is shooting a respectable 34.7% on their own fairly infrequent threes.
Rebounding - If Florida State has an Achilles heel on defense, it's that they are a weak defensive rebounding team, allowing opponents to get 35% of their misses back. Since their starters have an average height of 6'7" and none shorter than 6'5" this is likely due to going for blocks and steals, which they get with great frequency. Unless MSU shoots lights-out (and FSU has allowed an eFG% > 60% in a game exactly once in the last three years, to North Carolina) they will need to have a significant advantage on the offensive glass to win.
Expect this to be a tough, hard-fought and, yes, low-scoring matchup. FSU has already played Harvard to a 14-14 first half draw, the lowest score for a half in D-I since 1986. Pomeroy is projecting a 63-59 MSU victory in a 70 possession game. Although even that score sounds high to me, I think MSU, playing a true home game in the Challenge for the first time since 2007, has a decent shot at recording the season's first signature win.