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Michigan State vs. Northwestern Preview - Pack Up the Cats

After a shock of Iowa last night, the Spartans face a Northwestern team with nothing to lose.

Jonathan Daniel

The Big Ten Tournament had its first significant upset last night, and the beneficiary by most measures was Michigan State. The Northwestern Wildcats, who had lost their first two games to the Iowa Hawkeyes this season by a combined 52 points, beat Iowa 67-62, thanks to 11-23 shooting from three for the 'Cats.

Now the Spartans will face a Wildcats team on a bit of a roll (they've won their last two! That counts for something!), but still a Wildcats team MSU beat twice this season: a 54-40 win slog in mid-January in Evanston, and an 85-70 victory in East Lansing last month.

Despite their victory over the Hawkeyes yesterday, Northwestern is still offensively challenged. Their three-point percentage of 47.8% last night was more than 17 percentage points above their season average of 30.5%. Only three teams (Presbyterian, Rice, and Wyoming) are worse at getting offensive boards than the Wildcats. Lastly, they don't draw a lot of fouls either, as their free throw rate is 293rd in KenPom.

What the Wildcats are good at is field goal defense. Iowa lost in large part due to their inability to make shots, they were 6-24 from three (25%) and 14-38 from two (36.8%). Even though the Hawkeyes rebounded 44% of their misses, that discrepancy on the boards wasn't enough to compensate for the vast difference in shooting accuracy between the two teams.

So how can Michigan State avoid humiliation tonight?

  • Run, run, run. MSU's offense has always looked best in transition this year, for one.  Two, only six Wildcat players saw significant playing time last night, with Tre Demps and Drew Crawford playing all 40 minutes. While fatigue shouldn't be much of a factor at this point in the tournament (and might not be at all, given the Northwestern-Iowa game was only 59 possessions), the more open shots the Spartans can find in transition, the better.
  • "PLEASE GET THE BALL INTO THE POST", WHICH I PREDICT I WILL SCREAM AT LEAST THREE TIMES DURING THIS GAME. Only one of Northwestern's players who sees significant playing time is taller than 6'7", the 7'0" Alex Olah. While Olah can and will block a few shots in today's game, the Spartans have to make every effort to get him into foul trouble -- if Olah goes out with foul trouble (unlikely given he averages 3.8 fouls per 40 minutes, but a boy can dream), MSU can start to exploit a significant height advantage in the paint.
  • Look energetic. This falls into the category of "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it".  I can live with a turnover percentage around 20% if several of those turnovers are trying to start offense in transition. I can live with a low shooting percentage if the shots are open. I can even live with Northwestern shooting 47% from three again if the help defense is good. What will drive me nuts is if MSU doesn't box out on defensive boards, stands still on offense, and generally looks full of malaise on the court.
While Iowa would have been a better team for Michigan State to face to improve the Spartans' potential NCAA seed, Northwestern is, in theory, the easier opponent - KenPom has MSU 64, Northwestern 55 and has the Spartans winning with an 85% probability. A win will get the Spartans to the semifinals to face Minnesota or Wisconsin. More importantly, how they win could provide a barometer, showing that if this team is beginning to turn the corner.