My earliest memory at The Palace of Auburn Hills is a painful one. Literally.
When I was in elementary school, I took Taekwondo classes for a few years. One year, one of our biggest events was at The Palace. I remember getting there in the morning, and my classmates and I practiced our moves. We weren't going to fight each other. We were just supposed to do a set of moves and be judged.
During warmups, I practiced a high kick. I think I was wearing socks or something, and we were on the hardwood basketball floor. I slipped and fell straight on my hip. It hurt so much that we left with me in tears. I wasn't in a position to do my routine.
All the participants were given free tickets to the Pistons game that night. I don't remember anything about the game, but I remember it was against the New Jersey Nets, so I've always kind of liked them.
The Palace is a odd venue. They host the "Detroit" Pistons, but it takes a while to actually get to Detroit from Auburn Hills. There's nothing around it. I grew up in the Detroit suburbs, so The Palace was a close place we went to for events. I didn't go to many Red Wings games as a kid. The Joe seemed too far away. My family did have Detroit Vipers season tickets, however. Our seats were the first row of the upper deck behind one of the nets. But we'd only stay there for one period. We had family friends with lower bowl tickets, and we'd go sit with them for the final two periods, getting on the jumbotron a lot.
Looking back, I always thought the arena was packed. It seemed like it to my young mind. But the fact we were able to always move down to the lower bowl would suggest otherwise, I guess. As a kid, I always loved the WWF. But they were always at The Joe. WCW would come to The Palace, though. We never went to a WCW event, but maybe I would have converted if we did.
I have fond memories of The Palace. It was like a second home when we would go to Vipers games. That's what The Palace is to me. When MSU won the 2000 national championship going through Auburn Hills, I had no idea. I didn't follow college sports then. I was still on the Red Wings, wrestling and cartoons.
But since those days as a kid, I haven't returned to The Palace much. I went to the MSU game against Texas in 2007 and a Pistons game a few years back. I only really care about the Pistons if they're good, and this was near the end of that era.
I still live in the Detroit suburbs (actually closer to the Joe than The Palace), and I'll be there Saturday with my dad, sitting near the same spot where we had Vipers tickets.
So why am I telling these stories now instead of for Saturday's preview? Well, I might not have the chance if MSU loses to Valpo, so I had to get it out of the way now. (Praise the jinx Gods).
This is their eighth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and their 26-7 record this season has resulted in the most wins in school history.
The Crusaders come in ranked No. 66 in KenPom, reaching the NCAA Tournament as a result of winning the Horizon League Tournament. They hosted the tournament as the No. 1 seed and needed a buzzer-beating three-pointer to get past Wisconsin-Green Bay 70-69 in the semifinals. They beat Wright State 62-54 in the final to earn the bid.
They have two common opponents with MSU, losing at Nebraska 50-48 and at Oakland 70-68.
Valpo is best on the offensive side of the ball. They're ranked No. 42 in adjusted offense, along with the No. 4 eFG% of 56.1, so they can score. While they're No. 4 in the nation in 2P% (56.1 percent), they take a lot more three-pointers, where they shoot 37.5 percent (No. 38). Threes account for 31.2 percent of their points, which is No. 70 in the nation (compared to 47 percent/No. 302 from 2s).
The good news for MSU is that the Spartans have defended the three-pointer better than the two this year (30.2%/No. 25, 44.8%/No. 72) and they have a major height advantage inside. Of the seven Valpo players with a usage rate >16%, only one is taller than 6-foot-8 (6-foot-10 Bobby Capobianco), and he only averages 16.1 minutes per game.
Valpo will have to score from the outside (almost 40 percent of their shot attempts were from beyond the arc), and the No. 1 player to watch is 6-foot-7 forward Ryan Broekhoff. He leads the team with 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He shoots 43 percent on 3s, which accounted for 55 percent of his shot attempts. Broekhoff will likely be covered by Adreian Payne, who compared him to a DeShaun Thomas or Christian Watford. Payne will have to paying full attention at all times. Ours friends at Valpo blog Beyond The Arc said in the Q&A that he struggles when he's bumped around, so that will be something to watch.
Other notable players include forward Kevin Van Wijk, who averages 12.7 points and 5.5 rebounds and does his work down low. He'll be matched up with Derrick Nix. Van Wijk is 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, so Nix has an inch and 30 pounds on him.
Guard LaVonte Dority averages 9.0 points and has the highest usage rate on the team at 26.1 percent, while guard Erik Buggs mostly runs the point, averaging 6.8 points and 3.7 assists per game. Nine players average at least 15 minutes per game, so it will be interesting how Valpo tries to use that depth.
As a team, Valpo has trouble holding onto the ball (22.0 TO%, No. 285), but they do a good job of getting to the free-throw line (42.3 FTA/FGA, No. 33).
Defensively, it's been more of a struggle for Valpo. They rank No. 105 in adjusted defense, with opponents shooting 33.6 percent on 3s (No. 161) and 44.5 percent on 2s (No. 65). I mentioned height above. MSU should go inside early and often against the Crusaders. They have a major height advantage and weight advantage. Get it into Derrick Nix and let him work.
Outside, Gary Harris has struggled the last two games with the shoulder. Hopefully having some time off has helped. Last year, Saint Louis sagged off Appling and dared him to shoot the 3. Appling went 4-for-7 in the last game, but I'll be curious to see how the Crusaders play him. It will be nice if MSU can get some confidence with the outside shooting.
Perhaps a good sign for MSU, Valpo doesn't force many turnovers (19.2 percent, No. 217). Lastly, crash the glass. Valpo grabs just 31.6 percent of its misses (No. 175), though they do hold opponents to just 27.3 percent (No. 30).
So in this 3-14 matchup, what's the recipe for an upset? Valpo will have to stay pretty close with the rebounding, limiting MSU's second chances, hold on to the ball and hit a lot of three-pointers if they do.
KenPom projects a 70-61 MSU win, giving the Spartans an 80 percent chance. Every time Tom Izzo has earned a No. 5 seed or higher, they've reached the Sweet 16. They also haven't lost a tournament game at The Palace. Is that enough to provide a jinx and Valpo win? I wouldn't count on it, but that's the point.
Hopefully I have something to look forward to on Saturday.
Hat-tip to Ace at MGoBlog, who wrote such a great post about his Palace memories that it inspired me to remember mine.
For Michigan State fans that are looking to buy for the games this weekend in Detroit, check out options here for session 1 and here for session 3 (saturday) If you're feeling lucky, Final Four tickets.