In the Bulldogs' House - MSU at Gonzaga Preview

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs the GONZAGA BULLDOGS
McCARTHEY ATHLETIC CENTER - SPOKANE, WASHINGTON
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2011, 9:00 PM EST
TV: ESPN2(HD)
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

The Zags come into Saturday night's game with a 5-1 record, having just suffered their first loss in their first true road game of the season at Illinois. This will be the fifth meeting all-time between the Spartans and Bulldogs, with MSU holding a 3-1 edge. Current Michigan State fans will remember the hard-fought game of two years ago and no one will ever forget the unbelievable triple-overtime game in Maui in which the Zags pulled out their only win in the series.

<a class='sbn-auto-link' href='http://www.sbnation.com/ncaa-basketball/players/29773/robert-sacre'>Robert Sacre</a>
Robert Sacre
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Gonzaga is currently ranked #23(AP), #22(Coaches'), #31(Ken Pomeroy), #56(Sagarin Predictor), or #60(Sagarin ELO_Chess) depending on your preference. They entered the season favored to win their 12th straight West Coast Conference regular-season title, a reign of conference dominance rivaled only by John Wooden's UCLA teams. Although they lost leading scorer and rebounder Steven Gray, and point guard Dmitri Goodson elected to transfer to Baylor to play football, they still bring back one of the best and most experienced frontcourts in the nation in Robert Sacre and Elias Harris and feature an array of sharpshooting guards led by Canadian freshman sensation Kevin Pangos. They started out well, winning their first five, including a solid win over Washington State and a beatdown of Notre Dame, but faltered against the Illini in their last.

Kevin Pangos
Kevin Pangos
Photo Credit: gozags.com

Coach Mark Few's team is ranked #20 on offense and #46 on defense in the Pomeroy rankings. This is a fairly typical Few team, although they're shooting a little worse than their predecessors with a line of (.470/.392/.698 2P%/3P%/FT%). They're making up for this by getting to the line a ton (more than 1 free-throw for every 2 shots they attempt or 53.3%, 9th nationally) and exploiting a huge free-throw differential. They've shot 179 free throws to their opponents' 96 (stats from kenpom.com $).

Their defense remains somewhat suspect as they try to close down the inside, leaving themselves vulnerable to the three-point shot. Opposing players are shooting 38% from three against the Zags. Some of this is due to a lack of lateral quickness on the wings: the same players who can spot up and hit threes (Pangos and David Stockton) have difficulties guarding on the perimeter. Gonzaga has also been taken advantage of on the defensive glass, allowing teams to get back 1 out of every 3 misses (194th nationally). Their style is, however, generating more steals and turnovers than usual (24% opp. TO rate) and their defense inside the arc is solid (45.4% opp. 2P%) if unspectacular, thanks to their impressive front line.

Elias Harris
Elias Harris
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Gonzaga is a tall team in the front court, but their overall team size is only slightly higher than average for D-I. Sacre, who I believe is in his eighth year of eligibility, stands 7'0" and Harris is a solid 6'7" 240 lbs. They also bring 6'9" sophomore Sam Dower off the bench. All three are among the national leaders in shot block percentage and are likely to pose some problems for the Spartans front line of Adreian Payne/Derrick Nix/Draymond Green. That same group proved vulnerable to the size and athleticism of Florida State's big men in the first half of that game, though the Seminoles failed to exploit this advantage later on.

So far Illinois has provided the only model for beating Gonzaga and it may be a difficult one to emulate. After being abused early by Sacre the Illini got him into foul trouble by running a tag team of Myers Leonard, Nnanna Egwu, Tyler Griffey and seldom-used Ibby Djimde at him. Sacre went cold from the field and eventually fouled out against the physical play of the Illinois collective. It didn't help that sharpshooter Pangos went only 1-5 from three-point range. Hoops junkies who stayed up to watch the night session of ESPN's marathon season tip-off saw Pangos drop 9 threes and 33 points on Washington State.

So this is going to be a stern test for the Spartans, but that comes as no surprise. Many of us believed that this game and the game against Florida State would be the true barometers of MSU's strength this season. Readings from the FSU game were quite positive but this will be a different test entirely, as the Spartans go on the road to Spokane, where Gonzaga is 120-9 under Mark Few, including five undefeated seasons. Player profiles, game notes and some links to follow after the jump.

  • Robert Sacre (7'0" 260lb C) - Sacre is a legitimate NBA prospect and one of the few post players to be actually listed as a center. His DraftExpress profile is here. Sacre is an extremely difficult match-up for any team and he excels in the post, where he is difficult to move. He gets to the line more than almost any player in the country, drawing 9 fouls per 40 minutes(2nd nationally) with a free-throw rate of 103.6 (5th in the country). Now that his free-throw shooting is up to 78% he is lethal from the line - he gets almost half his points there. His post presence also enables him to be a very effective offensive rebounder and he leads the team with an OR% of 12.8 (3.2 OReb/game). MSU may need to do as the Illini did and throw Payne, Nix, Green and even Alex Gauna and Anthony Ianni at him to try and wear him down. He had 17 points, 8 boards and 2 blocks in the game two years ago.
  • Elias Harris (6'7" 240lb F) - Harris was a prospective early entry to the draft after his freshman year but elected to return to school with mixed results. His DraftExpress profile is here. An excellent athlete and inside scorer Harris' perimeter game is still a work in progress, though he does have a respectable shooting line of (.491/.333/.519). Branden Dawson is likely to draw the initial defensive assignment against Harris but Payne, Green and others will likely need to help out. Harris is an excellent rebounder at both ends as well. With his 52% shooting from the line, it may be better to foul him than let him get shots off inside.
  • Kevin Pangos (6'1 180lb G) - Point guard Pangos was the top player on the Canadian U-17 national team. Though only a 3-star prospect, he has been very impressive in his first few games at Gonzaga and leads the team in minutes. He's hitting 47% on his threes and has an extremely impressive overall line of (.500/.471/.800). He's been reasonably good at distributing the ball as well. I would expect to see Keith Appling given the assignment of containing him.
  • David Stockton (5'11 152lb G) - The son of Gonzaga's most famous alum, NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, David has been excellent at both distributing the ball and knocking down jumpshots. His eFG% is a gaudy 81.0 and with a few more minutes that would qualify him for tops in the land on Pomeroy's list.
  • Marquise Carter (6'4 178lb G) - Combo guard and JUCO transfer Carter has been a pleasant surprise for the Zags. He plays effectively within the system and has been strong defensively as well, ranking 26th nationally in steal rate.

Another freshman getting a lot of playing time for Gonzaga is Gary Bell. I left him off the player bullets as he suffered an ugly looking knee injury against Illinois but it now looks like he will be able to play, though whether he will be at full strength is yet to be seen.

MSU's task seems fairly clear in this one. They need to somehow play to a draw in the paint, or at least avoid a lopsided loss. If they can manage that and exploit Gonzaga's weaknesses on the perimeter they could have success. As a former blogger recently commented, MSU has been shooting the three-pointer at close to 43% in the last three games. This has been enough to push them above the Mendoza line (30%) and remove the dark red from that cell on Pomeroy's chart. More of the same would be extremely helpful in this one.

Another sidelight to this game will be the presence of former Michigan State head coach and mentor of Tom Izzo Jud Heathcote. Heathcote lives in the Spokane area and has been involved with the Gonzaga program since retiring from MSU. Mark Few consults with him on occasion and he will be honored during the pre-game proceedings by having an autographed ball presented to him jointly by Few and Izzo.

Finally, as if all this wasn't enough, here are a few links for those of you who want to dig even deeper into Saturday night's opponent:

Enjoy the game.

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