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Ohio State Preview: The Motion Picture

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2011 - 9:00 PM EST
ESPN - Brent Musburger (Play by Play), Dick Vitale (Color), Jill Montgomery (Sidelines)
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

As we all know, the central question surrounding Tuesday's game with Ohio State is which cinematic landscape to place it in. Josh (intrpdtrvlr) and I will be in attendance at Crazy Eddie's Mattress Discounters Arena (or whatever they call it) for the game and he has proposed the following scenario to represent the long odds faced by the Spartans in this one (via Twitter):

MSU is Princess Leia. Jared Sullinger is the Empire. I'm lining up @DelvonRoe for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Our only hope.

I see the logic, but frankly I'm concerned that if Sullinger is the Empire MSU might be better cast in the role of the planet Alderaan than as Princess Leia. ("That's what I'm tryin' to tell you kid, it ain't there.")

That's not very encouraging, so in the spirit of vaguely Spartan-like cheesy sword-and-sandal movies, I'm going to propose an alternative: the re-enactment of the Battle of Carthage from Gladiator. A small band of outmanned slaves, thrown into the arena for the amusement of the corrupt empire, works in concert to reverse the supposedly pre-determined outcome. Here's the family-friendly Lego™ version:

This has the bonus of coming already equipped with a canned pre-game pep talk from Izzo: "Whatever comes out of these gates, we've got a better chance of survival if we work together. Do you understand? If we stay together we survive."

Ok, Ok, some actual basketball talk after the jump.

Pomeroy's computers give Ohio State roughly the same chance of beating MSU Tuesday as they gave MSU to beat Bowling Green in the pre-season projections. So, yeah. We'll need to take our inspiration from another source. Let's see, who's beaten the Buckeyes?. . .Wisconsin. In the Kohl Center. Barely. On the other hand, OSU has played several rather close games against some surprising teams, winning by 4 at Michigan, by 3 at home against Penn State, by 5 at Iowa and surviving by one against a Shurna-less Northwestern squad which had the ball with a chance to win in the last possession. They are a fortunate 6-1 in games decided by 5 points or less, so there are chinks in the armor. By Pomeroy's "luck" factor, which looks at the difference between actual and expected wins based on efficiency, they are the luckiest team in the Big Ten so far this year.

But you can still be lucky AND good. As I'm sure you're not surprised to learn, OSU has few discernible statstical weaknesses. About the only thing they don't do extremely well is shoot free throws. But even then, 68% in conference is not really that bad. And they counter this by sending their opponents to the line less than any team in the country. [As an aside, that particular quality is useful in different ways. Once you've established the reputation of not fouling, you, well, get to foul more without being called. This is an extremely valuable arrow to have in one's quiver, even if it means having to let Ed Hightower and company feel that they've "shown you the ropes" to get it. Ugh.]

When Ohio State Has the Ball

They can do a lot of things. They lead the conference in both 2-point (52.3%) and 3-point (43.3%) shooting. Big Ten Freshman of the Year lock and Player of the Year contender Jared Sullinger is a force in the paint like no other in the Big Ten. Not only is he impossible to move off the block at 6'9" 280 (roughly the same size as Derrick Nix) but he has a polished back-to-the-basket game to go with it, along with 70% foul-shooting. If you double-team him he can kick it out to no fewer than 4 other regulars shooting better than 40% from 3-point range, including conference top-5 gunner John Diebler at 48%. Diebler is also the guy most often feeding Sullinger in the post, as detailed by Luke Winn, which makes sense, since teams would be least likely to sag off of Diebler to double down low, so the post entry pass should be there for him.

When they're not playing inside-out with Sullinger and Diebler they still have other ways to hurt you. In freshman point guard Aaron Craft and senior wing David Lighty they have guys who can penetrate and create shots for themselves, and Craft especially can kick it out for a jumpshot. Freshman and former Indiana Mr. Basketball Deshaun Thomas is a sort of energy-burst player, on the court for only 38% of the game but using 28% of the possessions and taking 32% of the shots when he's there. Former McDonald's All-American and 3rd team All-Big Ten guard William Buford is an excellent overall shooter with a line of.476/.435/.805 (2P%/3P%/FT%) whose primary role in this offense is knocking down open jumpshots. Finally, they have a big man who knows his role perfectly in Dallas Lauderdale. His role is to dunk the ball and block shots. He has the amusing distinction of sporting a FG% more than 40 percentage points higher than his FT%. Derrick Nix is smokin' him at the line (49% to 29%).

Did I mention that all of them except Craft are 6'5" or taller?

Amazingly, thanks to the help of a spectacular freshman class and each player's acceptance of his role, this is a team that has improved offensively after losing the consensus national Player of the Year to the NBA. This year's edition of the Buckeyes is actually 6 points per 100 possessions better than last year's Evan Turner show in conference (though offense is up across the Big Ten this year).

As I speculated in an earlier Fanshot, MSU may need to play a lot of straight-up single coverage on Sullinger, thanks to the deadly accuracy of the rest of the team. If that's the case, then this could be a watershed game for Derrick Nix, especially with Delvon Roe being doubtful at best for the game. If Nix can do even a slightly credible job of forcing Sullinger out of his comfort zone and freeing up MSU's other defenders to stay with their men, that significantly increases the Spartans' chances of survival in this game. If Nix gets some quick fouls and Green, Adreian Payne and (gulp) Garrick Sherman have to spend a lot of time guarding the post, it could be a long night.

Just as important as who's guarding Sullinger will be who is marking Diebler. That player will have to be willing to stay with him through endless cuts and fight through the multiple screens the Buckeyes run to free him up. The Spartan who best fits that description is Keith Appling, but Appling, though he can definitely get up, is giving up 4 inches to Diebler. The natural choice would be Durrell Summers, but the thought of that gives me an even worse feeling. I imagine that whatever minutes are given to Austin Thornton and Mike Kebler will be largely devoted to this thankless defensive task.

When Michigan State Has the Ball

OSU's specialty on defense is aggressive man-to-man with a lot of forced turnovers and no fouls. They are currently the top defense in the conference, allowing 1.02 points per trip. Their turnovers-without-fouls mojo is so strong that they haven't had to really excel at anything else in particular to reach the top spot. They're pretty decent at contesting shots, thanks to their length, and they're better against the 3 than the 2, allowing conference opponents to shoot better than 50% from inside the arc. They're a decent but unspectacular rebounding team.

When Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green take it inside they'll have to deal with one of the country's best shot blockers in Dallas Lauderdale, who swats away over 1 out of every 10 shots taken when he's on the floor. MSU's ball-handlers will have to deal with Aaron Craft and David Lighty, who each have steal rates of more than 3%. Sullinger is one of the top defensive rebounders in the country at 27.9%.

So the hill is steep, but Wisconsin has shown that it can be climbed. If Michigan State is going to win this game, most of the following probably has to happen for them.

  • Hang around. OSU has shown a tendency both to feed on the energy of an early blowout (Purdue, @Indiana) but also to keep teams in the game when they don't land the knockout punch. MSU may not need to shoot like they did to start the Penn State game, but they can't have another start like they had against Iowa.
  • Crash the offensive glass. 40% offensive rebounding is probably the magic number here. Northwestern, Penn State and Iowa all hit this figure in the close losses they had to OSU. This would go a long way to extending possessions where there's a scoring chance and counteracting the empty possessions OSU is going to create with their defense.
  • Share the ball. As they showed against Penn State, MSU can shoot the ball. But they shoot it much better when they are setting each other up, rather than going solo. Assist percentage is a pretty good barometer of how the Spartans offense is clicking. A 65% or better assist ratio is probably a good number to look for here.

The X factor, of course, is Josh and me being at the game. I'm figuring that's worth at least .025 points per trip for the Spartans. Hopefully that will be enough to get them over the top. If not, I'll have a long drive home from Columbus to think about what went wrong.