Explaining the series:
In this series, I will be looking at the top few teams in each major conference. These are teams that might be NCAA foes (some of them will be regular season foes — we already know about Virginia, Duke and possibly Notre Dame, for example), and this series should serve as a viewing guide for non-MSU games you watch. These previews will not be quite as detailed or precise as an actual preview, but rather serve as a benchmark for the matchup with each of these teams and important factors to keep an eye on for these teams. This process will “build-out” some of the initial sketches I provided in my final pre-season top-60 rankings.
The schedule will include the following conferences, in order: ACC, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Big East, and others. When we get to any actual future matchups with the teams I do discuss, these previews can serve as a starting point and point of reference.
The ACC will be strong again this year, but has considerably more unknowns than it usually does. I will take a look at UVA, Duke, UNC, and FSU.
(No. 4 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 16 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman
2 - Casey Morsell, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Carson McCorkle
3 - Thomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman
4 - Sam Hauser, Justin McKoy
5 - Jay Huff, Francisco Caffaro, Kadin Shedrick
UVA boasts a panoply of strengths: they return an uber-competent set of veteran starters including their solid, defensively excellent point guard Kihei Clark, their superb center, who really emerged down the stretch last year in Jay Huff, and Thomas Woldetensae who, after a bad start to his season from behind the arc finished the year at 36 percent. Finally, they add in a new veteran in Sam Hauser, a terrific wing-forward (and older brother of Michigan State’s Joey Hauser), who shot north of 50 percent from two-point range, 40 percent from three-point range, and 92 percent from the line. To this four-man group, Tony Bennett adds a host of guards and wings, none of whom were efficient offensive players, but all of whom can defend. Look for Morsell to get the first crack at the starting off-guard spot with Beekman and Abdur-Rahim (especially) nipping at his heels.
This team, of course, will also defend incredibly well as a unit. The concern for Bennett on defense has to be the replacing of Mamadi Diakite (UVA’s graduating all-defense forward) with Hauser who was only a moderately effective defender at Marquette. The assumption should be that Hauser has improved (with his professional hopes resting on such an improvement on that end).
The biggest weakness, every year, for Virginia is their glacial pace. It invites teams that are less talented to hang around in games and to beat them when UVA’s defense or offense has an off-night. UVA’s three-point shooting should remain a concern, despite the addition of Hauser, as the team has only four shooters who have demonstrated any competency at this level. If any of the off-guards or freshmen show a viable three-point shot, then Virginia’s offensive concerns decrease a bit.
Another concern should be interior scoring as Huff is the only guy who has shown any capacity to finish in the paint at a decent volume. Virginia’s other scorers, Hauser (low volume), Clark (awful interior finisher), and Woldetensae (almost exclusively a three-point jump shooter) do their damage outside of the paint. Conversely, Huff, a very poor free-throw shooter, got most of his two-point shots as dunks. While Clark and Hauser are good mid-range shooters, this team must rely on Hauser to carry a heavy load and for a huge step-up in usage for its other three main offensive players — a concern to be sure.
Hauser, Huff, Clark, Woldetensae, Morsell, and Abdur-Rahim; in that order. Hauser has to maintain his efficiency while taking on by far the biggest usage rate in his career, while playing with much less-talented offensive players than his brother and Markus Howard, in a much more restrictive offensive system. Huff also has to take a major increase in his usage while improving his efficiency; as does Clark. Woldetensae needs to add something going towards the basket — either interior scores, secondary play-making, or getting to the free-throw line. And Morsell and Abdur-Rahim have to be able to get into the paint, finish, and hit some open shots.
There is nothing too-bold or exciting here. Virginia will need to defend like mad-men in order to alleviate pressure from their offense, which will rely on four guys all of whom will need to step up their play in some aspect. The biggest difference is that where Bennett has relied on two non-shooting bigs (for the most part) the last few seasons, he will now have to use his off-guards as “blockers” and screeners for Hauser. Expect a fair amount of Huff at the elbow and short-corner, and expect a fair amount of Huff being sent to the line.
Unless Bennett speeds up his team, which he will not, the Cavaliers will be in for another season of slog-it-out rock-fights with occasional moments of brilliance from Hauser, Huff, and Clark.
Michigan State perspective:
This matchup would require a few things for MSU to emerge victorious: limiting turnovers and empty possessions, crashing the offensive glass against the smaller and weaker UVA team, and hitting outside shots (especially off of offensive rebounds).
Spartan fans should pay close attention to Hauser and Huff’s efficiency in higher-usage but still relatively low-volume roles, they also should pay close attention to Morsell and the trio of freshmen guards. If one or two of those young guards emerge, then Virginia really will live up to a top-five team billing.
Michigan State and Virginia are set to square off in Charlottesville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 9.
(No. 5 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 3 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Jeremy Roach, Jordan Goldwire
2 - Wendell Moore Jr., DJ Steward
3 - Jalen Johnson, Joey Baker
4 - Matthew Hurt, Henry Coleman, Jaemyn Brakefield
5 - Mark Williams, Patrick Tapé
Duke’s chief strength is the raw NBA-level of talent that it will bring to the floor every night. Assuming strong development by Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt, Duke may have as many as eight future-NBA players on its roster — that is a lot of talent. Moore will be excellent at attacking the basket and defending with strength on the wing, Hurt should have a more consistent offensive impact with added strength even if he never becomes an elite defender. Roach should excel in a limited offensive role and point-of-attack defensive role along with the very good veteran Goldwire (another very good POA defender, and likely the far better shooter). They have a true play-making hub in Johnson, an excellent shooter and scorer in Steward, and a few excellent bigs and forwards. This team has TALENT!
They will play fast, fluid offense, and find themselves in better shape than even the Zion team in terms of offensive threat-level simply because the Blue Devils will have balance.
Duke characteristically (of late) will have very little continuity in terms of roles and personnel. Coach K has not really been interested in coaching defense the last decade or so; relying, instead, on talent, athleticism, and offensive fire-power to win games. It has netted him exactly one championship in the last 10 seasons despite his having overwhelming levels of talent nearly every year — not exactly a great return, but a more sustainable requirement on him as a coach as he tires and slows down.
Three-point shooting and identifying a closing lineup will be weaknesses until they are resolved. Hurt, Goldwire, Baker, Brakefield, and Steward will be the essential guys to track from a shooting perspective — if all of them hit above 35 percent on solid volume, then this team’s offense should hum. If not, then things will get congested in the paint and bigger teams will be able to cause Duke problems.
The biggest concern that I have is that Duke has a lot of guys with basically the same skills, so sorting out their rotation will be important—a number of good players will be shut out of the rotation, so mid-season attrition is not out of the question.
Johnson has to be the dominant point-forward and chief offensive hub, Moore has to have found some semblance of an outside shot, Hurt has to be able to play hard for a full game, Steward needs to play well enough to close out games as a shooter, and Coach K will be desperately hoping that at least two of his bigs in Williams, Tapé, and Coleman prove solid and consistent enough to allow Duke to play big. Williams and Coleman look like surefire future-NBA guys, but if they end up closer to Marques Bolden or Chase Jeter, then Duke may prove susceptible on the interior of their defense.
I doubt we see much in the way of intrigue here — lots of more simple sets and actions to augment what should be a potent transition attack. Coach K loves ‘Floppy’ variations, for example:
Any kind of multiple-read, motion-driven set like this is relatively easy to coach to a mostly new group of players.
Michigan State perspective:
Big questions from MSU’s perspective revolve around player-combinations. Will Duke’s best defensive group also be their best offensive group? Can Duke’s spacing remain consistent and effective, or will teams feel comfortable daring perimeter players to shoot? Hurt, in particular, needs to prove that he can hang with bigger, stronger, and faster guys, and the point guards in Goldwire, Steward, and Roach need to demonstrate the ability to be two-way players. Finally, how good is Jalen Johnson? If he is a sure-fire lottery pick, then it means his perimeter shooting has improved a lot. But if his shooting underwhelms, then Duke will need other players like Williams, Coleman, Hurt, Moore, or Steward to take on the mantle of best-player and de facto engine-driver.
Michigan State will reportedly play at Duke (instead of at a neutral site), for the Champions Classic matchup on Dec. 1.
(No. 14 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 23 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Caleb Love, RJ Davis, KJ Smith
2 - Anthony Harris, Kerwin Walton
3 - Leaky Black, Puff Johnson, Andrew Platek
4 - Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot
5 - Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Sterling Manley
North Carolina, who national polls are at least slightly underrating, has a lot of NBA talent. Sharpe should be superb and should start alongside the returning Brooks, who was UNC’s best player last year. Bacot and Kessler — a supremely talented capable shooter and huge center— should form one of the best reserve big-man duos in the nation. The big question is UNC’s guards and wings. They add two very talented young players in Walton and Johnson, who should both provide shooting, but Harris and Black likely start as veterans. The big trick is Caleb Love, who should have a better season than Cole Anthony did last year. Love and fellow freshman point guard RJ Davis should produce far better outcomes than UNC had last year.
This team will be huge in the front court, and the returning guards will be slotted into glue-guy roles, which should play to their strengths.
This team’s bigs will not be particularly mobile outside of Brooks, who may be able to defend all five positions. But Bacot, Sharpe, and Kessler will likely struggle on the perimeter against smaller teams. UNC does not have a ton of shooting unless all of the freshmen really drill their three-point shots, and the Tar Heels also do not return a lot of impact perimeter players or bring in any really talented passers — Love, Davis, and Harris are all better as scorers rather than facilitators.
Roy Williams will continue to not scout opponents and will hope that his now more-considerable size advantage (than he had last season) and the scoring talents of his freshmen guards and wings will carry them to a better season. And this should happen. But their freshmen guards and wings have to be able to play both ends of the court, which will remain an open question until they prove they can.
Love has to hit perimeter shots, Brooks has to lead the defense, and a few of the freshmen have to really prove themselves capable on both ends. Brooks has to play at an all-league level and they really need Leaky Black to find a consistent way to contribute on offense.
The Tar Heels will try to run and play fast, but having two true-bigs on the court (whenever Brooks is out) may limit their pace. The paint will be packed and they will crash the offensive glass, all the more if their guards cannot hit shots.
Michigan State perspective:
The two major questions from an MSU perspective for any prospective matchup will concern Caleb Love — is he a lottery pick, or is he not quite that good — and will MSU have to dig or send help to any of the non-Brooks bigs. If Michigan State can defend the bigs one-on-one, then everything gets easier (this also depends on Hauser’s defense and how well the centers play — this would likely be a match-up for Mady Sissoko and Julius Marble to shine in).
(No. 20 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 19 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Scottie Barnes, Rayquan Evans
2 - MJ Walker, Nathanael Jack
3 - Sardaar Calhoun, Anthony Polite, Wyatt Wilkes
4 - Raiquan Gray, Malik Osborne
5 - Tanor Ngom, Balsa Koprivica, Quincy Ballard
Scottie Barnes — a near-guaranteed top-10 draft pick in 2021 NBA draft — and head coach Leonard Hamilton are the big strengths for the Seminoles. Barnes will drop dimes, score, rebound, and play superb defense. Hamilton will make sure that the super supporting cast of long, athletic wings and the plethora of bigs will be ready to defend and test teams in transition and inside the arc. Walker, Calhoun, Polite, Osborne, Wilkes, and Jack will need to hit some three-point shots, but that is a huge group of switchable, competitive, and veteran guys.
Three-point shooting will be a concern until some of the FSU wings prove they can shoot, and the three centers will need to show the requisite toughness to compete with the top bigs in the league that the three teams listed above will boast.
Barnes has to be everything he has been hyped up to be, and I fully believe he will. Raiquan Gray needs to have a bounce-back junior year after a bit of a let down last year — he is a very athletic smaller-brawny four and one of my favorite players in the ACC. Finally, MJ Walker needs to step to the fore and really show that he can be a go-to scorer.
Run, dominate inside the arc, and defend like Hamilton teams can. This team will be relentless and will wear down a lot of teams.
Michigan State perspective:
I would be confident in Michigan State heading into any prospective matchup, but figuring out who to hide the smaller Spartan guards on would be the key — can Rocket Watts, Foster Loyer, and AJ Hoggard be trusted against MJ Walker, or would Tom Izzo and the staff need to play Aaron Henry as a point forward and match Florida State’s personnel?
Michigan State is also reportedly expected to play another ACC foe in Notre Dame at home on Nov. 28. This could very well be the season opener for the Spartans. If this holds true, we will have a detailed game preview ready leading up to that contest.