YOUR MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. THE UCONN HUSKIES
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, NEW YORK CITY
SUNDAY, MARCH 30, 2:20 PM EASTERN
RADIO: SPARTAN SPORTS NETWORK
Roughly 38 hours after Michigan State fought its way past Virginia in a game that felt more like a national semifinal or title game than a Sweet Sixteen matchup, the Spartans will play a UConn team that beat Iowa State to advance to the Elite Eight. You could say the Huskies don't present quite the challenge the Cavaliers did, but Kevin Ollie's squad is here for a reason. Although small in stature, Shabazz Napier is one of those players who can single-handedly lead his team to a win, and UConn will be playing less than three hours from its campus in a building that the Huskies have had a lot more success in than the Spartans.
MSU and UConn most recently met at the beginning of last season in Germany, where the Huskies won 66-62 behind 25 points from Napier. As far as names go, both teams look relatively the same almost a year and a half later. Napier is the guy everyone remembers, backcourt mate Ryan Boatright is a guy most college basketball fans should know well and Niels Giffey, who didn't play much of a factor in last season's meeting, sounds pretty familiar.
One guy who played well against the Spartans in Germany but you might have forgotten about if you haven't watched much of UConn this season is DeAndre Daniels. You'll be reacquainted with him soon enough, as Daniels has been as instrumental as anyone for the Huskies so far this March. The 6-foot-9 junior forward is a matchup nightmare, and he showed why on Friday, going for 27 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 10-for-15 from the field, including two 3-pointers. He shot just 2-for-6 from deep but is 8-for-17 and averaging 18 points per in three tournament games.
So while Napier is the one who gets all the attention and will likely need a big game for UConn to have a chance on Sunday, containing Daniels might be the most important task for MSU.
Fortunately, the Spartans have a forward of their own who has proven to be a difficult cover recently in Branden Dawson. In his last two games, Dawson has scored 50 points and grabbed 19 rebounds. He's 21-for-31 from the field and 8-for-10 from the free throw line. Perhaps most importantly, if he ends up taking the bulk of the minutes guarding Daniels, Dawson has committed just three fouls the entire tournament while being the most versatile defender on the floor.
As a team, UConn is more skilled than Virginia on offense and enters Sunday as the second best 3-point shooting team left in the tournament at 39.4 percent. (Sidenote: Just a hair behind at 39.3 percent, MSU is the third best 3-point shooting team still playing.) That number has been even better in the tournament for UConn, which is 29-for-63 (46 percent) from the long line. Giffey is shooting a remarkable 51.4 percent from deep this year, followed by Daniels (44 percent), and Napier (39.7 percent), who leads the team with 77 made 3-pointers. The Huskies are also one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country at 76.9 percent, but they don't get there very often with a 38.9 percent free throw rate that ranks 215th (All stats via KenPom).
Defensively, UConn isn't nearly what Virginia proved to be Friday night, but the Huskies probably don't get the credit they deserve on that end of the floor. Like pretty much every UConn team of the past couple decades, this year's edition specializes in protecting the paint. The Huskies are 11th in the country with a 15.4 block percentage, and they rank 8th in two-point field goal defense at 42.1 percent. With a 93.7 AdjD rating, UConn is the third best team left in the tournament, behind Arizona and Florida.
We all know what's at stake here: Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are trying to avoid becoming the first four-year seniors in Tom Izzo's 19 years to not make the Final Four. Izzo is 6-1 in Elite Eight games, and KenPom projects him to move to 7-1 with a 69-67 win (58 percent chance). How can the Spartans prove Mr. Pomeroy right? Glad you asked!
- Get more from the guards. So far, the Spartans are still alive thanks to the inspired play of Dawson and Payne. Travis Trice had a monster game against Delaware, but he, Appling and Gary Harris combined for just 13 points against Virginia. Not to say Dawson and Payne, who's versatility gives almost every team fits, can't carry MSU again, but the advantage when the Spartans have the ball should be on the perimeter. With Napier and Boatright standing 6-foot-1 and 6-foot, respectively, somebody -- thinking Harris or Valentine, depending on the lineup -- should have an advantage.
- Turn UConn over. The Huskies can shoot it, and the best way to keep them from hitting shots is by not letting them get as many off. Not by limiting possessions, because I think MSU would love to get out and run a little bit after Friday, but by forcing turnovers. UConn coughed it up just nine times (13.6 TO%) against Iowa State, and five of those came from Napier. In the Huskies three most recent losses -- one to SMU and two to Louisville -- their turnover percentages were 25, 32.4 and 20.3. Fun stat: In last year's meeting against UConn, Dawson registered five steals.
- Don't overhelp on Napier. He's probably going to get his. That's just what UConn guards do, especially at Madison Square Garden. But the worst thing MSU could do is allow him to create more opportunities for his teammates. Boatright can create on his own, too, but Napier (28.1 percent) is the only guy on the team with a usage rate greater than 23 percent. UConn doesn't score much off of assists (50.7 assist percentage, 195th in the country), but while Daniels was going off for 27 against Iowa State, Napier recorded five helpers. In those losses to SMU and Louisville, he had six total.
This is a game MSU should win, but we know how much that means at this point. You have to feel like Harris is due for a big game, and you know Appling and Payne are going to be as motivated as ever. We'll find out soon whether or not that translates into MSU's seventh trip to the Final Four under Izzo.