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Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs. Northwestern Wildcats

6:30 P.M. (ET), SATURDAY

Let's start with what I've already written about the Wildcats this week:

Lost to only KenPom top-50 team on nonconference slate. Wins against three teams in 50-125 range keep them in the hunt to end their however-many-years-they've-held-the-tournament NCAA Tournament appearance drought (although they may need 10 or 11 Big Ten wins to accomplish that), despite Kevin Coble's season-ending injury. Could rank them ahead of Gophers, but I'll trust KenPom that the differences in schedule strength and statistical dominance mean Minnesota is the better team. Adjusted for schedule strength, Wildcats look average on both ends of court. Dominance in turnover department continues (5.7 percentage points). Major areas of improvement have been interior scoring (led by John Shurna's .567 two-point%) and forcing tough shots on defense; four players with block percentages of 3.0 or better, holding opponents to 3-point% of .284. Freshman guard Alex Marcotullio leads nation in steal% at 7.0. Michael Thompson (.511/.439/.804 shooting line, top 500 in both assist/TO rates) probably isn't the best-kept secret in the country--but maybe in the conference.

Since those words were written, Northwestern played its Big Ten opener, giving Illinois everything it could handle in Champaign but ultimately losing 89-83 in overtime. SB Nation comrade Sippin' on Purple has your four-factor rundown of that game:

I really liked the job Northwestern did rebounding the ball. While they got outrebounded by 7, thats very deceiving because the 'Cats missed a lot more field goals than Illinois. They rebounded 75% of the Illini misses, and rebounded just over 25% of their own misses. Davis and Tisdale both had huge rebounding games, but it was a solid team effort for NU as 4 different players had at least 7 rebounds. Of course all those missed shots for Northwestern was definitely a problem, as NU shot just 33% from the field on the game. The problem wasn't from three, as 34% from long range is a decent percentage, but just 12 for 37 on 2-pointers is unacceptably bad. Many times they had makable shots near the basket and couldn't finish. That 2 point percentage definitely needs to improve in a hurry. The bright side on offense was just 3 turnovers in 45 minutes, an incredibly low total. 21/3 team assist to turnover ratio is very impressive.

In watching that game, I was struck by what a solid, versatile starting lineup the Wildcats have, even with Kevin Coble out for the season:
  • Michael Thompson: an efficient point guard averaging 15.9 points and 4.2 assists per game.
  • Jeremy Nash: a defensive-oriented off guard who's also shooting the ball pretty efficient (.467/.352/.867) and averaging 3.6 assists/game.
  • Drew Crawford: a versatile, athletic freshman swingman who's also scoring efficient (.553/.385/.684).
  • John Shurna: a creative scorer from the 4 spot (in the same vein as Coble) averaging 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
  • Luka Mirkovic: a scrappy interior player averaging 4.8 rebounds (18.5 DefReb%) and 1.2 blocks per game.

Off the bench, Bill Carmody can bring in another shooter (Freshman Alex Marcotullio; .407 3pt%) and a big body (Kyle Rowley).

In terms of the team-level statistical profile, Northwestern is doing all the things Carmody wants his team to do: limiting turnovers (16.2 OffTO%), passing the ball (75.0 A/FGM ratio, 1st in the nation) to create easy baskets (52.9 2pt%), creating turnovers with the 1-3-1 (22.4 DefTO%, down a bit from last season), and forcing tough perimeter shots (28.7 Opp 3pt%). And they're doing all those things while minimizing the traditional weaknesses of Caromdy's system: a lack of offensive agression on offense (35.9 FTR) and allowing offensive rebounds on defense (31.7 Opp OffReb%).

The Wildcats take a full 50.9% of their field goal attempts from 3-point range. Given that volume of beyond-the-arc launches, their team 3-point shooting percentage of 36.1 has been more than adequate.

Going into any game against Northwestern, you know what you have to do to win: make smart passes, knock down 3-pointers, and get out on 3-point shooters (without giving up easy baskets on back cuts). Basically, Bill Carmody forces you to beat his team at its own game. (Just as the Wildcats take a lot of 3-pointers and record assists on a high percentage of made fields goals, they force their opponents to do the same.) The difference so far this season has been that have opponents have had less margin for error in doing those things, as these Wildcats have shown a more well-rounded skillset within Carmody's traditional system.

Draymond Green looks to be a key factor on both ends of the court for MSU. Offensively, he and Raymar Morgan will need to make good passes from the middle of the 1-3-1 to create easy looks around the basket. And he and Delvon Roe will look to create some easy baskets off offensive rebounds against the zone. Defensively, he'll be matched up with a more perimeter-oriented player (Shurna most of the time) and will need to play defense with his feet to prevent drives to the basket. (I'd also expect to see a lot of the small lineup with Morgan at the 4.)

MSU is shooting .381 from 3-point range over its last 6 games, so that's one positive statistical indicator going into this game. Hopefully, the good shooting strokes displayed by Chris Allen and Durrell Summers against UT-Arlington carry forward into this game.

Historically, one big run of easy baskets and hot 3-point shooting has been enough to build a comfortable working margin against the Wildcats. I don't think that'll be the case tomorrow night; it's going to be a 40-minute contest. KenPom likes MSU in this one, but just barely: 70-69 in 66 possessions.

P.S. This preview represents my last blogging act before departing early tomorrow morning for for my annual post-nonconference-season sabbatical at an undisclosed Carribean location. I expect I'll be checking in every couple days, but I'm leaving you in the very capable hands of LVS and Pete for the day-to-day basketball stuff over the next 8 days.

P.P.S. One more link before I go: An interesting behind-the-scenes look from Kyle Whelliston at what it's like to do the official scoring for a college basketball game. Personally, I think I'm much happier analyzing box scores than I would be compiling them.