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MSU vs. Iowa: Keys to the Game

Well, we meet again. Not much of a preview is needed of the Iowa Hawkeyes by now: this is the third meeting of the season between MSU and Iowa and things stand 1-1 at the moment. In the first meeting Iowa took advantage of cold shooting and porous interior defense to rock the Spartans by 20. There weren't many takeaways from that game aside from motivation. In my preview of the last game I noted that

The Hawkeyes are quite vulnerable inside. Conference opponents are hitting 54% from inside the arc and they stand dead last in the Big Ten, by a good margin, in defensive rebounding percentage. Look for the Spartans to work the ball inside. . .

The Spartans did in fact make a concerted effort to score in close, getting half their 30 buckets on layups or dunks. A couple of specific tactics worked well for them and could have worked even better. And a couple of areas of concern on defense resurfaced as well. I'm going to take a look at both ends of the court with the help of some visual aids à la Luke Winn.

Offense: Feeding the Post

Although Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne had their moments, and I'm sure they'll both see quality minutes in this game, the guy I think is the biggest threat to Iowa is Garrick Sherman. Iowa has no one to overpower him on defense and he's got the best post game of the three young bigs, especially his footwork.

Feeding the post is (at least) a two-man game, though, and the best post moves in the world are no good if you can't get the ball. To take maximum advantage of Sherman's skills, his minutes should be combined, as far as possible, with Draymond Green's, because, frankly, Green is the only guy on the team right now who can get the ball in to the post. Here are two sequences to illustrate this.

Post Move 1 Post Move 2

In the first frame you can see Draymond Green anticipating, and waiting for, Sherman to establish post position. Many of the other Spartans give up on the post feed when it's not there immediately. Green keeps his dribble alive, so the defender has to give him enough space to make the pass and Sherman deftly executes a step-around, getting his leg in front of the defender who's trying to front him, and the instant he has sealed off his man, Green has the ball on its way. Sherman gets the ball in perfect post position, between the hashmarks with one foot in the paint. In this case he got fouled - and missed both free throws - but when you consider that he's shooting over 70% from the field, almost exclusively on looks like this, you have to think it's something that needs to be worked until Iowa can stop it.

Post Move 3Post Move 4

Another version of this that Green works with Sherman as well as Delvon Roe is the high-low game. Green is acting as point guard again here. Once again, Sherman's defender tries to front him to deny the ball. If he had played behind him over his left shoulder, Sherman would have been available for a ball screen near the right elbow with a view to freeing Green for a drive to the lane. As the second frame shows, this time Sherman was open for a tricky lob pass, once again a play that only Green seems able to make (and not all the time, either). Sherman, again showing his deceptive post skills, executes a tough catch and shoot for the layup as he's going out of bounds.

Offense: The Pick-and-Roll

A recent article by Michael Rothstein that was fanshotted here on TOC the other day describes how the ball screen has begun to take hold in college basketball. Michigan State is no exception. They run the high pick-and-roll with all of their big men, but not usually with a great deal of success. Typically the ball-handler either refuses or doesn't use the screen, seldom tries to hit the screener as he rolls to the hoop (or, more rarely, pops out for a jumper) or doesn't find the shooter left open by a double-team. The following sequence from the Iowa game is a good example.

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Sherman sets a good high ball screen for Lucas and then rolls to the lane. I counted about 5 high ball screens similar to this that the Spartans ran in this game and Iowa employed the same defense every time. They attempted to trap the ball-handler with both defenders and then sagged a weak-side perimeter defender into the lane to cover the screener. As the first frame shows, this left Keith Appling, who was 4-5 from three on the night, unguarded in the left corner, one of his favorite spots. Instead of getting the ball to Appling Lucas dribbled along the top of the key and got the ball to Durrell Summers on the right wing. This, unfortunately, left only 5 seconds on the shot clock to make a play, the situation shown in the second frame. This still left Summers with a couple of options: Roe had established pretty good post position in front of him and the skip pass to Appling may still have been available. Summers elected to take a tightly contested three, resulting in an air-ball and shot-clock violation.

I see two main takeaways from this. Spartan ball-handlers need to recognize this defense and react to it by getting the ball to the open man. Also, it might not be a bad idea to run this play for Summers in the corner as a way to get him going. If the shots aren't dropping they can go to someone else or abandon the play altogether.

Defense: Contain Melsahn Basabe

I've been on the Basabe bandwagon since September and I had him as one of my sleeper picks for this year. He has exceeded all expectations with an All-Big Ten Freshman campaign, becoming one of the best rebounders and shot-blockers in the conference. Even before the season I felt that, with the departure of Raymar Morgan, MSU was going to have problems with powerful, athletic power forwards, and Basabe, Trevor Mbakwe, Rick Jackson and others have borne this out.

What makes Basabe so dangerous is that he does most of his damage without needing to have the ball in his hands or to have any plays run for him. He almost seems to be at his best when both the offense and defense are scrambling, after a missed or blocked shot, for example. Below is a typical sequence that ended with a Basabe basket of opportunity.

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The first frame shows MSU in good defensive position against Iowa's half-court offense. Delvon Roe is playing the 5, patrolling the lane while keeping Basabe in sight. Adreian Payne, guarding Jarryd Cole, is circled. Iowa runs a down screen for Devyn Marble that puts Payne in no-man's-land. He tries to hedge, stepping out to meet Marble with the ball, but does not make a decisive move, leaving himself unsure whether to stay with the switch or go back to his man.

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Payne opts to go back to Cole, leaving Austin Thornton way out of position trying to catch up to Marble. Roe is forced to come up to play the ball and Basabe, smelling blood in the water heads right for lane, unguarded, where Marble hits him with a bounce pass for an easy layup.

That bucket was Basabe's second straight opportunistic basket. The trip before he had muscled Delvon Roe out of the paint to get an offensive rebound and put-back. He finished with a team-leading 13 points on 9 shots, as well as 4 boards and a block, despite foul trouble and poor free-throw shooting (1-5). MSU's CMB plan (Contain Melsahn Basabe) has to include keeping a body on him at all times. The only Spartan who can match Basabe's size and athleticism is Roe, who should spend most of his defensive minutes on this assignment. Additionally, as this play showed, Payne should probably be allowed to play the 5 on defense, freeing Roe or Green up to stick to Basabe and keeping Payne off the perimeter, where defensive lapses like this one have resulted in limited minutes for him.

Defense: In Transition

Iowa's half-court offense is not a thing of beauty, and hasn't been all season. It sports the conference's worst efficiency, worst turnover percentage and second-worst three-point percentage at under 30%. But they thrive on chaos, as this game illustrated. Despite losing by 19 they matched or beat MSU in points off turnovers, second-chance points and fast-break points. If they hadn't clanked all 12 of their threes, this could have been a very tight game indeed. Iowa beat MSU in transition several times in this game, as the following sequence illustrates.

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As the sequence begins, Iowa has just secured a defensive rebound after a Lucas drive misfired. All five Iowa players are at or below the free-throw line when the ball is secured and MSU has one player (Sherman) back on defense out of the frame and everyone else in reasonable proximity to an Iowa player. But by the second frame Iowa has sprinted out, leaving Lucas and Roe behind as they execute a four-on-three break. Summers, circled in red, is getting back but is not attempting to play a man or the ball. Bryce Cartwright is about to take advantage, charging down the middle of the floor, as he did repeatedly in this game.

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In the third frame, as Cartwright crosses half court, Summers has still not attacked the ball, taken a man or tried to step into a passing lane. With full freedom of action Cartwright fires a low bounce pass to May, who accelerates past Sherman for the layup. Though Summers at least made an effort to get back, he never affected the play, which was essentially a 3-on-2 break.

Iowa, clearly, is an energy team. They score when they're getting second chances, pushing the ball in transition, forcing turnovers and generally keeping things at a frenetic pace. Things have certainly changed from the Lickliter era. If MSU can continue to take advantage of their size on offense and show more energy of their own on defense, they stand a good chance of winning this one and keeping their tournament streak alive. A failure to match Iowa's effort, and some better luck on jumpshots for the Hawkeyes, could put the Spartans in a very uncomfortable and unfamiliar position indeed.