Have you caught your breath from Tuesday yet? I haven’t.
That might be because of how fat I got over the holidays but that’s not the point. Luckily for Spartan fans, the guys actually playing on the team are in significantly better shape than I am and should have no trouble feeling fresh for tonight’s game. Except Miles Bridges, who still isn’t playing. I may be fat but at least I can run MILES. Ok, that was uncalled for, I apologize.
The Opponent: Northwestern. Not to be confused with Northeastern. Ah, there’s the mindmeltingly painful flashback we were all waiting for. MOVING ON.
- Record: 12-2 (1-0 Conference / 1-1 Road)
- Best Win: vs Wake Forest (RPI: 18), 65-58
- Worst Loss: vs Notre Dame* (RPI: 50), 66-70
Last Five Games
- 12/27 — @ Penn State, W 87-77
- 12/22 — vs Houston Baptist, W 72-63
- 12/20 — vs IUPUI, W 87-65
- 12/17 — vs Dayton*, W 67-64
- 12/14 — vs Chicago State, W 68-64
*Neutral Site Game
Did you know Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament? Has that fact been drilled into your subconscious to the point where you see John Shurna in your nightmares? No?
Well, FEEL MY PAIN.
Yeah, THAT GUY. Remember him? He was the WORST. I don’t recommend his haircut, either.
Anyways, this may finally be the year that the ‘Cats go dancing. They’re 12-2 with both losses coming in November to Butler and Notre Dame — currently ranked #13 and #24 in the AP Poll, respectively. As losses go, those are very excusable.
Since then, they’ve won nine straight including beating two very solid teams in Wake Forest (RPI: #18) and Dayton (RPI: #54). As non-conference wins go, those are pretty good!
Realistically, Chris Collins’ team needs only to finish just above mid-table in the Big Ten and they should get into the tournament as a bubble team, but they are good enough to do more than just squeak in. They have more than enough team size and shooting to push anyone on a given night.
Take care of business in the games you should and mix in a signature win or two against someone like, say, Michigan State, and that is how you make the dance.
Wildcats To Know
- G #20 Scottie Lindsay (6’5” 210, Junior) — 16.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.1 apg, 41.6% 3PT
- F #4 Vic Law (6’7” 205, Sophomore) — 13.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 43.5% 3PT
- G #30 Bryant McIntosh (6’3” 185, Junior) — 12.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 5.6 apg, 25.9% 3PT
The Wildcats have improved every season under Collins and, even though they didn’t make the tournament a year ago, they had a very successful 2015-16 season matching a school-record 20 wins.
Think about this: At 12-2, Northwestern is a very manageable 9-8 finish from their winningest season ever. Ever! It has taken Collins less than four years to (probably?) put together the school’s best season EVER! Even though it’s a program with a less than sterling history, that is really impressive.
Northwestern fans have good reason to be excited about both the present and future of their program. The roster is made up of almost entirely Collins-recruited players with the only exception, Sanjay Lumpkin, also being only Senior on the team. Lumpkin is a solid player — he leads the team in rebounding at 7.4 per game, despite being only 6’6” — but his relegation to role playing senior speaks to the talent influx Northwestern has seen since Collins took over.
The three young men mentioned above — Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh — are shining examples.
Law was a 4-star recruit with offers from Creighton, Harvard, Illinois, Stanford, Vanderbilt, VCU and West Virginia, among others. Lindsey chose the ‘Cats over offers from Iowa and Vandy, and McIntosh could have gone to Clemson, Creighton, Mizzou or Purdue.
Those are recruiting battles Northwestern didn’t win before, but now with a bright young Head Coach they are starting to do just that and it’s paying major dividends.
Lindsey, in particular, is having a breakout junior campaign. The Hillside, Ill native is averaging 10+ ppg more than a year ago and dropped a career-high 31 on Penn State just three days ago. Lindsey is dangerous from every part of the floor but especially from deep where he shoots 41.6%. MSU will have to contain him if they hope to win this game.
How Does MSU Match Up
As always, size will be an issue for Michigan State.
Injuries have forced Izzo to play small ball, whether he likes it (he doesn’t) or not. Oftentimes the Spartans have no one on the court over 6’6” and struggle to get rebounds in a crowd or defend post-up’s, but Tom Izzo may have uncovered a way to minimize this disadvantage on the defensive end.
MSU's small-ball switch-everything defense may end up being a revelation.— Austin C. Smith (@ACSmith06) December 28, 2016
After getting torched by Minnesota off the dribble and in the paint for most of the game, Izzo made a fairly drastic move, going away from his usual man-to-man and employing a Golden State Warriors-esque “switch everything” defense.
After the change, the Minnesota guards were unable to create as much room with their normal offensive sets and started settling for contested jumpers. The trio of Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Nate Mason went 14-of-39 (35.8%) from the field, including only 2-of-10 from deep, and turned the ball over 8 times. Eventually MSU was able to erase a 14-point lead and get a much needed road win.
For a team with a fatal defensive flaw they literally cannot improve — unless someone knows of a height pill and needs an investor — that philosophical switch (no pun intended) is a potentially season-altering moment of self-realization: we’re going to struggle to defend the post no matter what we do, so we may as well make life a living hell on the perimeter.
There will be times when sticking with the normal defense makes more sense, but having a changeup to force teams to play a style most are not accustomed to could provide a massive lift to MSU’s defensive efforts, specifically in this matchup.
The Wildcats are a bit bigger all-around, but don’t have a true post threat. As mentioned, Lumpkin leads the team in rebounding, but only stands at 6’6” and none of the big trio of Lindsey, McIntosh and Law are over 6’7”. Keeping those three on the perimeter will be important.
Forward Gavin Skelly is a potential mismatch. He’ll have his hands full with Nick Ward defensively, but should be able to make an impact offensively. The 6’8” junior shoots an efficient 58% on 2-pointers and a very respectable 42% on 3-pointers. If he can drag Ward away from the inside, it could really open things up for the NW offense.
Northwestern is a better team than Minnesota. They have better go-to scorers and a superior head coach. Unfortunately for them, they are also a better match up for Michigan State.
Offensively, MSU should be able to pound Northwestern down low with Nick Ward but need a couple effective shooters to emerge from the quartet of Eron Harris, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford and Alvin Ellis — who, shoutout to him, had an enormous impact against the Gophers — because, as we saw on Tuesday, the double-teams are coming.
Defensively, it will be exciting to see how much MSU goes to the GSW-style defense, especially against a team like NW that can shoot pretty well from outside (four wildcats shoot 42% or better from deep). They must slow down Lindsey and Law otherwise, they’re in trouble.
Big Puddin’ continues to eat opposing defenders, McQuaid finally busts out of his month-long slump and MSU outlasts the ‘Cats in a close one.