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Michigan State Spartans NCAA Tournament Basketball Preview: Georgia

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Breaking down the Bulldogs

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This feels like familiar territory. Michigan State is fresh off of a loss in the Big Ten Championship to heavily favored Wisconsin, where victory appeared to be in hand and a controversial call played a major part in the collapse. Due to the loss, a less favorable postseason draw was given to the Spartans, who now play the Georgia Bulldogs. If this game goes into triple overtime, I'm going to lose it.

At least in the 2011-12 football season, we got almost a month for the wound to heal and the scar to form. This time, we get five days. Will that matter in the collective psyche of the team? The narrative will either be that MSU showed toughness to recover from the devastation in the BTT, or that MSU's fatal flaw was that it didn't have the mental toughness to finish games (or the season). Both would be equally bullshit claims. But this is what we get.

The Four Factors

MSU is better offensively in every category except getting to the line. Defensively, Georgia is better at limiting the shooting percentage of opponents and preventing them from shooting free throws, while MSU is better at rebounding (duh) and forcing turnovers.

That last part is important, because Georgia will turn the ball over some. We know about the MSU affinity for transition opportunities, and if Georgia gets sloppy this could turn into a blowout. More on this in a second.

When Georgia Has the Ball

I can only imagine this going awkwardly. Georgia is impossibly average at everything except getting to the line, where they rank top-10 in the country. Charles Mann in particularly adept at getting to the line; Dawg Sports mentioned in my Q&A with them that he also tends to turn the ball over often and that is borne out in the stats. Forward Marcus Thornton and 5'10 guard J.J. Frazier also get the line at a decent clip.

I can see this going one of two ways:

  1. The refs call the game tight, Denzel Valentine ends up with two quick fouls, and Alvin Ellis has to play significant minutes.
  2. The refs call the game loose, Mann & co turn the ball over often, profit.
That seems to me to be the largest axis on which this game will tilt.

Georgia does have a pick-and-pop big in Nemanja Djurisic who shoots 34% from behind the arc. The defensive rotations will have to be quick on him. Also important to note, his bio states that he describes himself as "Different, cute, tall, athletic." As you might expect, he is not a great rebounder.

Kenny Gaines is injured, but will play. How much he'll play and how effective he'll be is an interesting question. Offensively, he appears to be mostly a long-range gunner, taking the most threes on the team and making 36.5% of them. If his sprained foot is an issue in his shooting motion, that could be a major impact. His teammates describe him as "Swagatistical" so something tells me he'll be gunning either way.

J.J. Frazier runs the point, has a pretty nice 2.2 assist to turnover ratio, and shoots 40.5% from deep. He seems like a perfect matchup for Tum Tum.

Nominal center Marcus Thornton does a little bit of everything; he's Georgia's best rebounder, he gets to the free throw line, and even shoots 31% from three in limited attempts. He'll probably go 2 for 3 from three or something.

Georgia's rotation will be interesting to watch. Coach Mark Fox hasn't been able to settle in on a normal rotation due to injury, and as a result just six Bulldogs play more than 40% of available minutes (or 16 minutes per game). However, eleven guys have played at least 10% of available minutes. If Fox is forced to reach deep into the bench, that could be a major advantage to MSU.

When MSU Has the Ball

The defensive four factors for Georgia look a little Izzo-ish: great field goal defense, just OK on the glass, will commit fouls but won't turn opponents over much. Yante Maten (who apparently loves snakes?), Marcus Thornton, and Kenny Gaines all have top-500 block rates.

I don't think this is the game to post up Branden Dawson, Matt Costello, or Gavin Schilling much, unless Djurisic shows some defensive weakness. Maten and Thornton will be effective interior defenders. However, all three of Dawson, Schilling, Costello and Marvin Clark should be able to clean up MSU misses pretty well. Rebounding needs to be a plus category for MSU.

Getting out in transition will be especially important in this game. Per hoop-math, Georgia is top-20 in the country in terms of non-transition eFG% defense at 42.8%, but just 70th in transition at 50.1%. If the MSU offense has to settle into long offensive sets, that could spell doom. It feels odd to say this, but Tum Tum Nairn will be key in getting the fast break started and distributing the ball offensively.

Georgia opponents have relied quite a bit on hero-ball; Georgia's defense ranks 27th in the country in terms of assists per field goals made. Given the MSU need to whip the ball around to find open looks, the defensive rotations for Georgia will be interesting to watch. Georgia blocks a fair amount of threes (2.2%, good for 16th in the country per hoop-math) and opponents shoot just 31% from behind the arc. That number may reflect a wee bit o'luck (sorry, not over St. Patrick's Day just yet). If offensive sets result in open three-point looks for Travis Trice, Bryn Forbes, and Denzel Valentine, then that should open things up for MSU.

Prediction

This game is going to be close, I'm afraid. Georgia does one thing well offensively, and it's a weak spot for MSU. And because there's such a drop-off offensively from Trice and Valentine on the perimeter to Ellis and Forbes, foul trouble could be costly. I think someone for MSU gets two fouls early and the autobench hurts to some degree.

Strange as this may be, I do envision big games for Tum Tum and Dawson as Tum might get some extra run (fouls) and has a nice little matchup with Frazier. Dawson should dominate the boards. If that's not the case, Georgia's defense might be too stifling to overcome.

A three-point win over Georgia certainly helped dress a previous wound. I think it'll do just fine this time around, too.

MSU 66 - Georgia 63