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Center of Attention: Oakland Preview

TV: Fox Sports Detroit
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

Oakland had itself a very nice season last year, going 17-1 in Summit League play and winning the conference tournament before falling to Pittsburgh in the Big Dance.  Three starters return from that team; gone are Lansing-area-natives Johnathon Jones and Derrick Nelson.

Back, after the rare Summit League player NBA Draft flirtation, is 6'11" fifth-year senior center Keith Benson.  Benson is averaging 18.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game by doing everything you could ask a college big man to do: scoring in the paint (.527 on 2-pointers), converting free throw attempts (.759), rebounding on both ends (15.1/26.2 rebounding percentages), taking good care of the ball (14.2 TO%), and blocking shots (3.4/game).  Last season, Benson put up 21 points and 11 rebounds in the team's now-annual match-up with Michigan State.  He is, by a wide margin, the best college player in the state of Michigan taller than Draymond Green.

Supporting Benson are 5'11" junior guard Reggie Hamilton (a transfer from the University of Missouri-Kansas City), who's averaging 16.1 points/game on a nice-looking .565/.410/.783 shooting line, and 6'9" senior forward Will Hudson, who's averaging 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while converting 68.3% of his field goal opportunities as Benson's sidekick in the paint.  6'2" senior guard Larry Wright (7.9 points/game on just .143 three-point shooting) is the fourth regular starter; the fifth starting spot has rotated among three different guys.

Oakland appears to have be in the midst of some sort of campaign to become a basketball-only member of the Big Ten.  MSU is one of five Big Ten opponents on the Grizzlies' schedule this year.  They lost to Purdue by 15 and to Illinois by 11 (last night, using a women's ball at the outset).  Games against Michigan and Ohio State are yet to come.  Oakland's overall record this season is 5-4.

As a team, Oakland's strengths are Benson's strengths.  On offense, the Grizzlies score efficiently inside, make their free throws, and crash the offensive glass (#8 nationally in that category).  On defense, they block shots.

The team's weaknesses are on the perimeter.  They turn the ball over with frequency; both Hamilton and Wright have individual turnover percentages right around 28%.  Oakland is clearly struggling to adjust to the departures of Jones and Nelson, who served as the team's two playmaking guards.  The team is also suffering from a 7-percentage point gap in its offensive and defensive 3-point percentages.

On balance, Oakland has been stronger on offense than on defense.  KenPom has them at #51 in the country when they have the ball, vs. #140 when the other team has it.  MSU will look to collapse on Benson and force other players to beat them.  Delvon Roe will be the primary defender on Benson.  It will be interesting to see who has the most success containing Benson among the Sherman/Payne/Nix group when Roe is out.

Offensively, this looks like a great opportunity to break that season-long 23%+ offensive turnover percentage streak MSU has going (we're not counting the Chaminade game).  Oakland has only forced 2 of 9 opponents this season to turn it over on more than 20% of their possessions.  If MSU can't hold on to the ball against these guys, they may not be able to do it against anyone.

KenPom predicts an 80-69 MSU win in 71 possessions.  Oakland's results to date have been underwhelming, but the Grizzlies are a legitimate threat.  All it takes is a couple guys heating up from deep to complement Benson's interior game.

It's still early, but I think you have to call this a must-win game for MSU in terms of both the team's confidence and long-term positioning for a decent NCAA Tournament seed.  Oakland has allowed its opponent to get to the 110 offensive efficiency mark in each of its 4 losses.  MSU needs to take full advantage of the Grizzlies' propensity to give up quality looks at the basket to avoid any chance of Keith Benson adding a signature win against a top-25 opponent to his already impressive college resume'.