Teams can be 'lengthy' or 'undersized' or 'bruising'. UConn is a rare team that might most accurately be described as 'skinny'. Though the Huskies starting back-court is just 6'0 and 6'1, in their playing rotation, they have a true seven-footer, two 6'10 guys, a 6'9 guy, a 6'7 guy, and 3 other guards who check in at 6'6, 6'6 and 6'4. Height is not really a problem for Connecticut.
Weight, however, could be.
Keep those heights in mind, and then consider that just one player on the Connecticut roster weighs more than 218 pounds and zero of their players weigh more than 231 pounds. By comparison, MSU, well...
Among both team's playing rotations
|Team||players over 220 lbs||players over 240 lbs|
"That sounds a lot like a useless factoid.", you might be saying. "Is there any value to this physical make-up besides that I should expect UConn to look like anthropomorphic stick insects?"
I think so!
UConn is tall
which leads to a million blocked shots on the defensive end (Connecticut is 4th in the NCAA in block percentage, blocking 16.5%, or about 1 out of every 6, of their opponent's 2 point shots). UConn blocks a million shots because UConn has always blocked a million shots and always will. Seven-footer Amida Brimah is the main guy to keep your eye on, blocking a little over 15% of opponent's 2P attempts while he's on the floor (by comparison Matt Costello, a great shot blocker in his own right, blocks about 10%).
But even shots that aren't directly altered seem to be affected by this height and willingness to contest shots. UConn opponent's shot just 42.9% from 2 point range (giving Connecticut the 8th best 2P defense in the country) and 33.1% from beyond the three point arc (111th in the country).
UConn is also skinny
which I think in part leads to UConn's OReb% of only 30.8%, just 202nd in the NCAA. On the defensive end, it's much, much, worse, as opponent's grab 39.1% of their misses, putting UConn at 346th in the country out of 351 teams in that category.
Another explanation also makes some intuitive sense: if everyone's going for blocks they, by definition, aren't going to be in position to grab defensive rebounds. This also might go a ways towards explaining, and taking some of the fright out of, UConn's great field goal defense. Let's say Harris misses a three but Costello grabs the offensive board, has his ensuing shot blocked, but that blocked shot is grabbed by Dawson who puts it back up and in for a layup. UConn's defense has held MSU to 33% from the field, but has also given up a 2 point field goal on that possession, a bad outcome. Worth thinking about the interconnections of all this.
Now, that's just the front court. The Huskies do have a small starting back-court, do things get more favorable on the defensive end there?
With the rim protected behind them, the Huskies' back-court can freely jump passing lanes and pressure the ball without too much danger of giving up a easy shot near the basket behind them. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright post steal percentages of 3.1% and 2.8% respectively. For comparison, Harris and Dawson have steal percentages of 3.5% and 2.7%.
Lasan Kromah, who plays starter's minutes for UConn also posts a 3.1% steal percentage. Connecticut looks likely to be able to force errors so, more so than normal, a good idea for MSU would be to not make any sloppy mistakes with the ball on their own.
UConn is a deadly 3 point shooting team who, thankfully, probably doesn't shoot enough 3s.
UConn hits 39.4% of their 3 point attempts as a team, good for 16th best in the country and slightly ahead of Michigan State who hits 39.3% and is 18th best respectively.
Unfortunately, there's not just one player MSU can stick Harris or Dawson on.
As far as three point shooting, UConn has a Kaminski type guy (6'7 Niels Griffey who's hit 51.4%[!] of his 109 3 point attempts) a Payne type guy (6'9 Deandre Daniels who's hit 44% of his 3s), and two guys who are like Appling before his injury (Napier is 39.7% on 194 attempts, and Boatright is 38.5% on 109 attempts).
So that's the bad news. The good news is, Connecticut takes just 34.1% of their field goal attempts from 3 point range, 139th in the country. By comparison, MSU takes 35.7% of their attemps from 3, and Michigan takes 40.1%. The Spartans should be a bit less subject to the roulette wheel of underdog 3 point shooting than you'd maybe first expect, though it should certainly be something to keep an eye on whenever MSU builds a lead.
It's also worth noting a bench player, Omar Calhoun has taken 79 threes despite hitting only 24.1% of his attempts from behind the three point line (basically, imagine if we let Byrd shoot like two 3s per game).
It takes a certain amount of luck to reach the Elite Eight.
UConn has probably benefited more than most, though.
The Huskies 5-1 record in one-possession games, and 6-2 record in two-possession games takes some luster off UConn's 29-8 record. You'd expect a team's winning % in close games to be closer to 50% than 80% (MSU for example is 6-4 in one or two possession games).
If, unlike me, you think success or failure in close games is something that can be taught or honed, you'd still concede that the Huskies have enjoyed a purer example of luck: bad free throw shooting from opponents. Team's facing Connecticut have hit under two thirds of their free throw attempts, 66.5%. UConn probably isn't really doing anything to cause that, so if you're looking for any other flaws in what is by all accounts a very good defense, MSU can probably shoot 5-10% better than that from the FT line.
Connecticut, as you'd expect of a team in the Elite Eight, is well-rounded and capable of doing several basketball things at an elite level. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, it seems as though many of the things they're best at (2P FG defense, steal %, block %, 3 point shooting) are also things that MSU is good-to-great at. Keep an eye on the offensive and defensive boards as a place where the Spartans can separate themselves on Sunday. If MSU can throw their weight around, so to speak, it should predict a good result.