The Spartans' season tips off tonight against a Connecticut Husky team with nothing to lose.
YOUR MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. THE CONNECTICUT HUSKIES
HANGAR 5, RAMSTEIN AIR FORCE BASE, RAMSTEIN GERMANY
NOVEMBER 9, 2012, 5:30 EASTERN (11:30 PM LOCAL TIME)
RADIO: SPARTAN SPORTS NETWORK
The last time Michigan State played Connecticut the Spartans were 4,354 miles from home, in the semifinals of the 2010 Maui Invitational. In that game Kemba Walker hit a jumper to put the Huskies up 67-66 with less than a minute left and UConn went on to win 70-66. That loss was just one of many in a dreadful season for MSU, while UConn's win was a harbinger of what was to come in their 2011-2012 title run.
It's cliched, but much has changed since they met in Maui. MSU rebounded from a trying '10-'11 campaign to share the Big Ten regular season title and win the Big Ten Tournament. For UConn, Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb both went pro early. Alex Oriakhi transferred to Missouri. The Huskies were banned from the 2013 NCAA Tournament due to poor APR scores, and two months ago Jim Calhoun, Connecticut's head coach since 1986, retired and was replaced by assistant coach Kevin Ollie.
So what's stayed the same? Only three Husky players return from the team that played MSU in Maui, including forward Niels Giffey and point guard Shabazz Napier. MSU returns even fewer players than UConn that played in Maui in 2010, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling (Derrick Nix was suspended for this trip). The game will be an event once again, played more than 4,000 miles away from East Lansing, yet closer to home (Kaiserslautern, the district in which Ramstein Air Force Base is located, is 4,154 miles from EL).
Tonight Michigan State kicks off another season of Spartan basketball by playing the first-ever college basketball regular season game in Europe against Connecticut. We've had previews on the Spartans this week, let's get to know the Huskies a bit.
By far UConn's strength, they'll be in good hands with their guards. Junior Shabazz Napier averaged 35 minutes a game last year and predominantly made plays. He averaged 5.8 assists a game, or in tempo-free terms, assisted on 32.6% of his teammates' field goals, 56th in the nation in that stat. His shooting needs a bit of work (41.8% on twos, 35.5% on threes), but he compensates by getting to the free throw line quite often for a guard. Sophomore Ryan Boatright also created his fair share of plays, averaging four assists a game, or he assisted on 26.2% of his teammates' makes. He appears to be a slightly better shooter (44.3% on twos, 37.7% on threes) than Napier.
Both Napier and Boatright can make plays, but the players who took the majority of the shots last season (Lamb, Oriakhi, and Andre Drummond) are gone. One of the players who'll look to replace their production is freshman Omar Calhoun. The #10 shooting guard and #39 overall player in the 2012 class according to Rivals, Calhoun has produced well in UConn's first two exhibition games, Calhoun was 8-12 from three-point range. He'll definitely need to be watched while on the court, and he's even picked up a bit of braggadocio:
"No one can really guard us in transition," Calhoun said. "We’ve got the best backcourt, we’ve got shooters spotting up and guys who can get to the rim."
From the bench the Huskies will have help from ex-Holy Cross player R.J. Evans, a graduate student who scored over 1,200 points during his time with the Crusaders. Aside from Evans little-used sophomore Brendan Allen is the only other guard on the Huskies' roster.
If everyone who could've stayed another year did stay, this would've been a fear-inducing frontcourt. However, Andre Drummond declared for the draft and Alex Oriakhi graduated and transferred to Missouri, so UConn will forge a frontcourt with intermittent starters and backups from last year's squad. Of the Huskies' frontcourt group, junior Tyler Olander will look to stand out. He rebounded 9.2% of his team's missed shots last year and blocked 2.8% of the opponent's attempts; both those numbers ranked in the top 500 in KenPom, but not above the top 400. Niels Giffey is listed as a guard according to UConn, but he's 6'7" so for my purposes I'm putting him in the frontcourt. He'll see a good portion of game time after averaging 11.7 minutes a game last year. He was 9-21 on threes last year, and even though that's a small sample size, it might be beneficial to MSU to guard him.
Aside from Olander and Giffey...I'm grasping at straws. DeAndre Daniels has started both exhibition games and led the team in rebounds in said exhibitions (23 in 56 minutes of play). It's a good bet he'll start alongside Olander tonight. Everyone else is either new or unproven: Junior Enosch Wolf, Name of the Year candidate, is 7'1" but only played a total of 10 minutes last year. Freshmen Phillip Nolan (Rivals #118 overall) and Leon Tolksdorf (unranked, but captained the U16 German basketball team) each averaged about nine minutes a game in UConn's exhibitions, and I doubt their contributions will be substantial (chances of me perpetuating a jinx by this sentence -- substantial).
UConn has not one, not two, but three players from Germany -- Giffey, Tolksdorf, and Wolf. I assume they're excited to be back in Deutschland, and there's a good article about their homecoming here, including this quote:
Said Giffey: "You don't hear about things like that in Germany. If someone is stabbed, it's a big deal. It's not something that happens every day. It makes you understand what makes a player say or do or react to things the way he does."
It'll also be interesting to see the Huskies' play style. Jim Calhoun's teams didn't take a lot of three pointers, were excellent on the offensive boards, and played tenacious interior defense. Ollie may not have the personnel for the latter two aspects, it'll be interesting to see how UConn comes out tonight.
HOW IT'LL GO
The game is going to be won or lost in the frontcourt for MSU. Matt Costello, who suffered a bone bruise to his tailbone a couple weeks ago could play, but the lion's share of the time will fall to Dawson, Nix, and Payne, with Gauna spelling the three periodically. They'll have the advantage close to the basket, and they'll need to force it.
Gary Harris will also need to lock down Omar Calhoun. They're both top 10 recruits at shooting guard, and if Harris can frustrate Calhoun that'll force Napier and Boatright to manufacture their own offense, which should benefit the Spartans.
Lastly, how awesome is Mark Hollis? While this may not have been his baby like the Carrier Classic, and while this game might put Michigan State at a significant disadvantage against Kansas on Tuesday, those thoughts seem insignificant to brightening the lives of servicemen and women. Many of those who'll be watching the game inside Hangar 5 from Ramstein Air Force Base tonight have been injured in the line of duty. Some have been shot, lost limbs, and will have to deal with PTSD. All of them are thousands of miles away from home and many of their loved ones.
I'm thankful that a new season's begun, but I'm more thankful for the brave men and women serving the United States of America who'll watch the game tomorrow night.