For the first time since I can remember, the Big Ten has a commanding lead heading into the final day of the Big Ten Challenge (when Rutgers wins its game, you know things are going well). The Big Ten leads 6-2, and two wins will secure the challenge for the land of sausages and moderate to severe winters. Michigan State can get one of those two wins when they face Notre Dame in South Bend tonight.
This used to a big rivalry back in the '70s. This MLive article does a great job of explaining why the series concluded, but in short, MSU always played Notre Dame in February, but the Big Ten schedule expanded, meaning MSU had to play four games in eight days. The Spartans wanted the ND game moved earlier, and the Fighting Irish didn't want to meet a Big Ten team early in the season. Unable to reach an agreement, the series concluded.
After 35 years though, the once rivalry resumes tonight. Notre Dame's beaten all of their inferior competition by 25+ points this season (including Navy), has an 81-68 win over Massachusetts, and the Fighting Irish's only loss this season came in a 75-74 game against Providence on a neutral floor, one in which one time MSU target LaDontae Henton poured in 38 points.
The strength of the Fighting Irish comes through their shooting. Four of the five starters for Notre Dame have made at least 40% of their threes this season, and the fifth stater is the center, Zach Auguste. What's more impressive, though, is their two point shooting. Notre Dame has made 68.8% of their twos this season, which leads Division 1. The weaknesses of the Notre Dame offense is in their ability to get offensive rebounds -- the Fighting Irish only recover about 30% of their misses (204th in D1).
The Fighting Irish defense is a step behind the offense, but still good. One aspect I found puzzling is that Notre Dame has limited opponents to rebounding 24.1% of their misses (17th in D1), but they start only one player taller than 6'5". The heights of Notre Dame's starting five are this: 6'1", 6'5", 6'5", 6'5", and 6'10". They've been able to collect such a high percentage of defensive rebounds because Zach Auguste (the 6'10" center) and Pat Connaughton (one of the 6'5" forwards, and a classic Notre Dame name that) are both in the top 100 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.
So how can Michigan State win this game? Naturally, I'm a bit worried about Notre Dame's two-point percentage, especially after the Marquette and Kansas games where both of those teams consistently were able to penetrate. However, I also see the 68.8% percentage on twos, and that screams "UNSUSTAINABLE" - the top two-point percentage last season was 56.9% (Belmont), so the Fighting Irish have to perform significantly worse there one of these games.
As for players to watch out for, there's really no one hot shooter the Spartans have to watch, as Notre Dame can put four players on the floor who all shoot really well. However, the Fighting Irish have only one really good point guard, and that's 6'5" Jerian Grant. He provides assists on 38% of Notre Dame's possessions while he's on the floor, and only turns the ball over about one in every ten possessions. He'll need to be stifled if MSU wants to win.
KenPom predicts a 67-66 Spartan victory, with MSU a little better than a coin flip (52%) to win. It's hard to tell just how good Notre Dame is from the numbers -- five of their seven games this season have been against teams with KenPom ratings in the 300s, and they haven't faced a team has highly rated as Michigan State so far this season. The Irish can really shoot though, so that may be enough to lead them to victory. Buckle up y'all -- it's going to be a good one tonight.