Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, MI
When: 6:00 pm, Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Eastern Michigan (0-0): #155 (Kenpom)
1 - Darion Spottsville (6’3” sr), Drew Lowder (6’0” so), Chris James (6’2” so)
2 - Yeikson Montero (6’5” sr), Noah Morgan (6’5” sr), Bryce McBride (6’2” jr)
3 - Ty Groce (6’8” sr), Miles Gibson (6’6” jr)
4 - Thomas Binelli (6’10” sr), Derek Ballard jr (6’8” jr), Luis Pacheco (6’8” fr)
5 - Jalen King (6’10” sr), Axel Okongo (7’0” sr)
Eastern Michigan head coach Rob Murphy typically runs a fair amount of 2-3 zone defensively, and EMU is typically quite a solid defensive team — last year the Eagles finished No. 70 in Kenpom’s defensive ratings. They make you slow down, run zone offense, they force turnovers, and they block shots. The problem with their zone defense, is that it gives up a lot of three-point shots and offensive rebounds, so if teams have the shooters to make them pay and the size and nous to attack the offensive glass, then the EMU defense can really struggle.
Offensively, EMU tends to get to the free throw line by playing inside-out both with post-ups (last year to the now-graduated Boubacar Toure) and drives (Spottsville, Morgan, and Groce will be slashing and driving as often as they can); a necessity given their terrible three-point shooting and penchant for turning it over themselves.
Despite EMU’s offensive inefficiency last year, there are clear paths to improvement for them as a team: hit free throws, and become marginally better from three-point range. If either or both of those occur then the Eagles should take a jump from the No. 318 ranked offensive team in Kenpom’s ratings to somewhere closer to the No. 200-225 range. If that occurs, and their defense remains stout, then Eastern Michigan could potentially challenge for the MAC-West division title and the league title overall.
Groce, Morgan, and Montero have to hit more jump shots and free throws. Maybe most important, though, will be stretch-four Thomas Binelli, who took a ton of three-point shots, very few two-point shots, and just did not make enough of those three-pointers. If his percentage can be closer to 40 percent than 30 percent (where he shot last year), then this EMU team can find a real jolt of spacing.
The big question will be whether or not King, Binelli, and Groce can raise their respective levels on the defensive glass. A bad defensive rebounding team already, EMU lost by far its best rebounder in Toure, and will have to shore up the glass to stand a chance against high-major teams and the top teams in their conference.
Note: Drew Lowder (Holy Cross transfer) was only just granted his immediate eligibility waiver, he should either start or come off the bench to play a major in the back-court and will prove by far the best shooter on EMU. If he can turn into a high volume shooter and maintain his three-point percentage near 40 percent (he shot 42 percent as a freshman at Holy Cross), then this team just found its offensive focal point.
This game should be a comforting win to start the season, but every Spartan fan and the coaching staff will be paying careful attention to few important items on the check-list:
- How well does the offense run? Foster Loyer and Rocket Watts will have plenty of opportunities to hit shots, direct traffic, and ensure that the zone offense runs smoothly. Even though Michigan State will not face a ton of zone defense this year, and even though those future zones will have better players and more length and quality filling in the personnel, a strong performance by both lead guards will go a long way to reassuring and settling the team.
- How well does the team hit three-point shots, especially wide-open shots? Last year, Gabe Brown, Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, Malik Hall, and Marcus Bingham Jr. had uneven success hitting open and wide-open three-point shots. The shooting acumen of the team likely gets a major bump this season just with Watts’ leg being fully healthy to start the season and with the additions of Joey Hauser and Josh Langford, but Brown, Henry, and Hall, in particular, need to demonstrate that they will be high-level shooters if given space and time. A strong opening three-point shooting performance will be a major confidence booster for these guys, and send an ominous signal to future opponents.
- How effective will Joey Hauser and Josh Langford be to start the year? If both players are fully healthy, look spry, athletic, and quick, and if both exert a constant influence on the game, then Tom Izzo will sleep well regardless of the exact box score lines for each player. These two guys should be leaders and safety-valves on offense and both should find an early comfort-zone against the paint-focused 2-3 zone.
- Who will lay the first claim to the starting center position? I assume that Marcus Bingham Jr. will start the game, and this is a great game for him to flex his rim-protection skills and to attack the offensive glass. But Julius Marble, Mady Sissoko, and Thomas Kithier should all find success against EMU as well, so tracking who makes the most mental and effort-related mistakes will likely define the early competition between those four bigs.
- Finally, how does the team (and a lesser opponent) fare playing without fans? The home-court advantage that Michigan State usually enjoys will be far diminished this season, but that, in and of itself, is less important than figuring out if any of the Spartan players feel unsettled by not having fans. The assumption should be that everyone will feel fine and shoot well; if talent and execution will play an even bigger role this year than in most seasons, then that will bode well for teams like Michigan State.
As far as the actual strategy of the game, we should expect to see Joey Hauser, Malik Hall, and Aaron Henry flashing to the post a fair amount and the bigs screening the zone. Shot-selection and discipline will be early indicators as to how far along in the season’s developmental trajectory the team is, and I expect both Watts and Loyer to be a bit gun-shy to start the game (now that I have written that, assume that Watts will lead the team in shots).
MSU 82 EMU 58