MSU-UCLA Preview: A New Start or The Finish?

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. the UCLA BRUINS
ST. PETE TIMES FORUM, TAMPA, FLORIDA
THURSDAY, 9:20 PM ET
TV:
TBS
ONLINE STREAMING VIDEO: NCAA MMOD


We've already received a nice little scouting report on the UCLA players from our friends at Bruins Nation, so I'm going to try to stick to high-level analysis here.  To put it concisely, UCLA's lineup is on the young side (no seniors in the rotation), balanced (all five starters averaging between 9 and 14 points), fairly long (starters: 6'0", 6'4", 6'8", 6'8", and 6'10"), and starter-intensive in terms of playing time (all non-Joshua Smith starters average 29+ minutes/game).

Coming off a subpar 2010 season (14-18 overall), UCLA went 13-5 in Pac 10 play this season, finishing one game behind first-place Arizona.  This will be the Bruins' sixth NCAA Tournament appearance under head coach Ben Howland; three of the previous five appearances ended in the Final Four.

When The Spartans Have The Ball

UCLA's success in the Pac 10 this season was driven by the team playing the most efficient level of defense in the conference.  And that defensive success was centered around excellent interior defense, as opponents converted only 43.2% of two-point attempts.  Despite that, opponents still opted (or, more likely, were forced) to take a full 75.0% of their field goal attempts inside the arc.  And the UCLA defenders managed to force their opponents to the interior and block a large number of their shots (led by forward Tyler Honeycutt, with right around 2.0 per game) without fouling a lot (33.0 FTR).

On the downside for the Bruins, they forced very few turnovers (17.3%) and, despite their size, ranked just 6th in the conference in defensive rebounding percentage.  (Note that BIG man Josh Smith actually poster a higher rebounding percentage on offense than on defense--20.0 vs. 15.0).

While the overall numbers are impressive, UCLA's defensive profile doesn't look terribly menacing for MSU.  UCLA doesn't play the kind of zone that will force a lot of three-point attempts, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of potential for a turnover explosion (not that this has been a big problem for MSU of late: after posting a defensive TO% of 25%+ in 4 of the team's first 8 games, they've done it only two more times in the last 25 games).

The keys for MSU will be to attack the basket decisively but not predictably and to crash the offensive glass relentlessly.  Kalin Lucas may need to look to pass a little more than he has been when he drives, and Draymond Green will likely  look to pull his man outside and then go to the hoop, as well, since he'll face a height mismatch against the UCLA forwards in the post.  In addition to playing good defense on Smith, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix (who lead the team in offensive rebounding percentage) will need to play with energy around the basket and give the team a few second-chance buckets.

When the Bruins Have the Ball

UCLA wasn't quite as efficient on offense, ranking fourth in the Pac 10 in conference-only offensive efficiency.  Again, the strength was on the interior, as the team finished third in two-point shooting percentage (51.2), free throw rate (42.7), and offensive rebounding percentage (33.7).  The team's issues with turnovers (22.5%) and three-point shooting (32.0%) held down their overall numbers.  (Some buckets in transition off turnovers would be a very nice offensive boost for MSU.)

Freshman Josh Smith has been the most assertive Bruin player this season, using his 6'10", 305-pound frame to convert 54.5% of this two-point attempts, get to the free throw line with frequency (64.5 FTR), and crash the offensive boards (where he ranks second in the country in rebounding percentage).  Thankfully, he's only on the floor for a little over half the time.  Derrick Nix will be expected to go torso to torso with Smith for 5-10 minutes of the 20-25 minutes Smith is out on the court.

Beyond that, the UCLA attack is fairly balanced, with the other four starters posting usage rates between 20 and 22.  Power forward Reeves Nelson is converting 59.9% of his two-point attempts, point guard Lazeric Jones is making 36.3% of this three-point attempts, and shooting guard Malcolm Lee compensates for poor three-point shooting (30.2) by getting to the free throw line a lot.  Forward Tyler Honeycutt isn't all that efficient in any offensive area, despite playing the most minutes of the team.  Finally, guard Jerime Anderson appears to be the Bruins' most potent offensive threat off the bench; he's made 39.3% of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Look for the MSU defense to hedge off shooters even more than usual and try to keep the UCLA players out of the lane.  The reported as-healthy-as-it's-ever-been-in-college state of Delvon Roe's knees is a promising sign, as he'll presumably draw the primary assignment on Reeves, who has two 20-plus point outings to his name in UCLA's last four games.  I'd expect Keith Appling to spend most of his time trying to frustrate Lee, who's converted only 10 of 32 FGA in the last four games (at least partially as a result of a knee injury).

Bottom Line

KenPom has these two team very evenly matched, predicting a 65-64 win for MSU.  This Spartan team has defied pregame predictions all season, so I won't try to make any stupendous prognostications.

Durrell Summers is, of course, the biggest wild card.  Rexrode says he's fixed a flaw in his shooting stroke.  If he got off to a fast start, it would a major plus for MSU and help accentuate what should be a speed advantage for MSU, helping to offset some size mismatches for the UCLA players.

All things considered, I feel about as good as I've felt about the team going back to the very start of the season.  Given how the season's gone that's not all that dramatic a vote of confidence, but he team has found some identity down the stretch (defense first, with a close-to-100% Kalin Lucas making things happen on offense) and finally showed what it's capable of when everything's clicking on both ends of the court in Indianapolis.

At this point, I wouldn't be all that surprised if the team was one and done in the tournament--or if it advanced decisively to the tournament's second weekend.  The fresh start for a team that's badly needed one all season comes tomorrow night.  The question is whether the team can use that fresh start to delay the finish of the season for a few more games.

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