The best time of the year is upon us once again. It’s time for some madness, baby. The Spartans are set to make their 20th straight appearance in the Big Dance starting tonight at 9:15 EST against the #8 seed Miami Hurricanes.
While “The U” is mostly known for its historically prestigious football program, the guys on the hardwood have been more prolific of late. Since hiring Jim Larranaga away from George Mason in 2011, a school he took to the NCAA Tournament three times, including a miraculous 2006 Final Four run during which he dispatched Tom Izzo’s team, the ‘Canes have had one of the more successful runs in school history.
They took a step back after last year’s 27-8 (13-5 ACC) record but 2016-17 marks their third trip to the dance under Larranaga and both of the others, including last year, have ended in trips to the Sweet 16.
Before they get the chance to shock the world and take down #1 seed Kansas they’ll have to face a mercurial Michigan State team. Who gets a shot at the Jayhawks and who goes home early? Let’s take a look.
- Record: 21-11 (10-8 ACC)
- Best Win: vs #9 North Carolina (RPI: 5), 77-62
- Worst Loss: @ Syracuse (RPI: 84), 55-70
Last Five Games
- 3/9 — vs #6 North Carolina, L 53-78
- 3/8 — vs Syracuse, W 62-57
- 3/4 — @ #15 Florida State, L 57-66
- 2/27 — @ Virginia Tech, L 61-66
- 2/25 — vs #10 Duke, W 55-50
Miami is a team capable of dazzling highs and confusing lows.
Their best wins — Duke, North Carolina, Virginia — stack up with just about anyone in the country. The problem is those are the only ones that carry any substantial weight. Their fourth and fifth best wins are Virginia Tech — a #9 seed like MSU — and Syracuse — an NIT team — and after those two the pickings get real slim, real quick. Clemson? NC State? Georgia Tech? None inspire a ton of confidence.
Working in Miami’s favor, however, is that like their wins, their losses are about as good as it gets. Of their 11 L’s, only one came against a non-tournament team, Syracuse, the #1 overall team in the NIT. The rest — Iowa State, Florida, Notre Dame, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Louisville, Duke and UNC — are all dancing and only the Hokies and Deacons fall below the #5 seed line.
However, their defeats were both too many and too one-sided. The ‘Canes average margin of defeat was 12.45 points and, with the exception of beating UNC by 15, the they hadn’t won a game by more than nine points since mid-January. To say they’ve been living dangerously is an understatement.
In a lot of ways, they’re the quintessential #8 seed — when they’re on they can be great, but when they’re off, they’re very beatable. If the wrong ‘Canes team shows up it could end up being a quick trip to the tournament for Miami.
Hurricanes To Know
Eight different players see significant minutes for Miami but they’re led by a trio of upperclassmen in Davon Reed (Sr, 6’6” 220), Kamari Murphy (RS-Sr, 6’8” 220) and Ja’Quan Newton (Jr, 6’2” 187). Reed is the proverbial “Alpha” controlling the ball most of the time and serving as the biggest offensive threat. From the sound of things, Josh Langford and Alvin Ellis will get first dibs at checking him. Which, yeah. More on that in a bit.
The upperclassmen may be the stars but future of the program is Bruce Brown (6’5” 190). The former four-star shooting guard from Boston hasn’t missed a beat since making the transition from high school. He leads the team in steals per game (1.4) and is second in minutes (31.8), assists per game (3.2) and rebounds per game (5.8). His versatility and willingness to clean the glass set him apart.
Others contribute, but the four aforementioned players account for 68.5% of their points (so close), 60% of their rebounds and 81% of their assists. Basically, they do it all. The subs aren’t slouches though, and provide a bit more consistency than MSU’s.
One player in particular, Dejan Vasilijevic (6’3” 198), has the chance to make a huge impact with his shooting. 81% (145-of-179) of the freshman’s shots came from behind the long line and he made them at a solid 35.2% clip. The Spartans have a tendency to give up a decent amount of open threes. This is not be the guy to lose track of.
Vasiljevic aside, the thing working perhaps most in MSU’s favor is the ‘Canes lack of outside shooting threats. Only five players attempted more than five shots from deep this year and only two — Reed and Vasiljevic — topped the century mark.
What they lack in outside shooting touch the ‘Canes make up for in perimeter length and athleticism. Only three players on the entire roster are under 6’5” and for an MSU team that has struggled with size all year, that’s less than ideal. However, the term “size” can also be a bit misleading.
While are a big team on the perimeter, they lack much true post height. Dewan Huell (6’11” 220) and Ebuka Izundu (6’10” 231) are the only two contributors over 6’8” and they are also the two lowest minute-getters in the rotation. This match up should be a much bigger test for the Michigan State guards than the big men.
How Does MSU Match Up
What stands out most about the ‘Canes is their tempo. They like to play slow. Real slow.
In their last 10 games, they failed to eclipse 60 points more times (4) than succeeded in topping the 70 point mark (3). That’s not great!
But to their credit, they can be a very stingy defensive team. During that same streak they beat Virginia 54-48 on the road in overtime AND beat Duke by a score of 55-50. Yes, UVA plays at a notoriously slow tempo but, still, 48 points! Plus keeping Duke to that score is incredible. Point is, they prefer to win games ugly.
Michigan State has won some gross games this season (see: Wisconsin) but that style still creates a lot of issues. Michigan State struggles to do two things that playing at this tempo necessitates: limiting turnovers and scoring efficiently in the half court.
Miami’s functional length exists in the back court, which will pose a challenge for a group of guards that loves turning the ball over and struggles to create shots on their own. MSU cannot afford their typical dumb passes, fouls and shot clock violations in this game. The guards will simply have to take what is given to them and be smart with the ball.
The Spartans’ best offense is going to come when they get the ball to their two top scorers, Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. Hardly breaking news, but this is one of the few games where MSU won’t be at a distinct height advantage up front and they absolutely must take advantage.
Another way to exploit a team that likes to slow it down? Running at every opportunity. Look for MSU to push off both misses and makes and try to score buckets in transition as often as they can. Tum Tum Nairn is a deeply flawed player, but his ability to take the roof of on the fast break gives him a chance to make a real difference in this game.
Defensively, the story is similar. MSU should be OK in the front court as none of the Miami bigs are much for scoring. Cleaning the glass and protecting the rim when Reed, Newton and Brown take the ball to the hole will be much more important. If Bridges and Ward can stay out of foul trouble and the weird bench mob of Kenny Goins, Kyle Ahrens and Matt Van Dyk can steal some minutes they should be fine.
The real problems arise in the backcourt. It’s not a secret that the Spartan guards have left a lot to be desired on the defensive end this season. This will be another big test. As previously mentioned, they don’t shoot three’s overly well and they also don’t take a ton of free throws but these guards still manage to combine for a lot of points. Tum Tum, Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford and Alvin Ellis must at least make Miami’s potent guards work for their shots. If they can’t at least slow things down, this is going to be a very tough game to win.
In a way, MSU just needs to let the ‘Canes do what they do on offense, and make sure whatever shot they end up getting at the end of the shot clock is, at the very least, contested.
This is about as big a toss-up as it gets, which makes sense. It is a #8/#9 match up, after all.
Each of these teams has a significant advantage they should be able to exploit. Miami has the more potent collection of guards and should be able to handle the Spartan back court, but dealing with Bridges and Ward on either end of the floor will be a major issue.
Ultimately, whoever is able to capitalize on their mismatches, minimize their weaknesses and dictate more of the tempo will end up winning this game. Call me a homer, but I think that’ll be MSU.
The guards bounce back from their horrific showing against Minnesota and Miami has no answer for the Bridges-Ward duo.