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ACC/Big Ten Challenge Preview: No. 22 Michigan State hosts Louisville

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The newly-ranked Spartans look to improve their record against a program that has been under major fire in recent years.

NCAA Basketball: Furman at Louisville
Florida transfer Noah Locke has been Louisville’s top scorer in the young season.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

After a strong showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, the Michigan State Spartans return home to some colder weather to host the Louisville Cardinals at the Breslin Center in this year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Tip-off is set for 7:15 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday.

After not being able to finish the tournament in the Bahamas with a win against Baylor in the final, Tom Izzo’s boys will be looking to get back into the win column against a team that the Spartans have faced numerous times in the last decade-plus for some monumental battles. Something similar can hardly be expected here, considering the circumstances, but it should nonetheless be a great early season test for both teams. Let’s dive into the preview.

MICHIGAN STATE and THE ACC/BIG TEN CHALLENGE

The annual competition between the two conferences has been held since 1999 and was dominated early by the Atlantic Coast Conference. On the backs of some legendary Duke, North Carolina and Maryland (at the time) teams, the ACC won the first 10 years between the two conference before the Big Ten finally got up to speed in the matchup. The Big Ten felt so good about winning that it answered the ACC’s 10-year win streak with seven consecutive unbeaten seasons of its own between 2009 and 2015. After that, the ACC won handily for two years before a tie in 2018 and then consecutive two-game wins for the Big Ten. All in all. the ACC has a 12-7 advantage in the series with three ties.

Overall, Michigan State has been up and down in the challenge, earning a record of eight wins and 12 losses. Often times. the Spartans drew pretty tough matchups, facing the likes of Duke and North Carolina numerous times. Michigan State particularly struggled on the road, only winning one of nine games overall. MSU’s 2020 matchup with Virginia was canceled, after losing two consecutive games against Duke and at Louisville in 2019 and 2018, respectively. The Spartans’ last win in the challenge came in an early season top-five showdown with Notre Dame in 2017 at the Breslin Center.

RECENT HISTORY BETWEEN THE TWO TEAMS

The Spartans have squared off with the Cardinals quite a few times in the last 12 years and some of the games were instant classics. Both in 2009 and in 2014, the Spartans secured a Final Four berth by outlasting heavily favored Louisville teams, one of them even being the overall top seed in the NCAA Tournament. In 2012, Rick Pitino’s group returned the favor and ended Draymond Green’s last postseason run with MSU in the Sweet Sixteen, totally dominating the contest behind rim protecting center Gorgui Dieng. The two teams also met twice in the ACC/Big Ten challenge with Michigan State winning closely at home in 2015 (71-67) and Louisville beating the Spartans at the KFC Yum! Center in overtime three years later in 2018 (82-78).

STATE OF THE LOUISVILLE PROGRAM

To say that the recent decade for the Louisville Cardinals was tumultuous would be an understatement, a big one at that. Between long postseason runs, a national title that was later vacated and a number of mind blowing scandals like Rick Pitino’s off-court issues, the escort drama or the Brian Bowen saga, Louisville’s public image has taken a major beating among all these stories and being put on probation by the NCAA. Even a self-imposed postseason ban in 2016 couldn’t right the ship in the eyes of the public.

The arrival of Chris Mack from Xavier as Pitino’s successor was supposed to be a fresh start, yet, even he couldn’t avoid the dark clouds of controversy hanging over the hills of Kentucky. He was suspended for the first six games this year for not following program guidelines in an extortion case involving his former assistant Dino Gaudio. He taped a heated conversation with Gaudio who threatened to notify the NCAA of several minor violations if he wouldn’t get a substantial sum of money after his contract wasn’t renewed. Mack basically tried to protect himself here, yet had to suffer because the form in which he did it was illegal. Mack will coach his first game of the season against Michigan State on Wednesday.

Syndication: The Courier-Journal
Chris Mack has his work cut out for him at Louisville.
By Pat McDonogh / USA TODAY NETWORK

Overall the whole episode fits to Mack’s rather unlucky tenure so far. After an extremely successful run at Xavier during which he led the Musketeers to eight NCAA Tournaments in eight years, including four trips to the second weekend, he opted for the job at Louisville and has struggled a bit to find his footing ever since. While he’s had some solid seasons amidst really problematic surroundings he still hasn’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament yet.

At a historical basketball powerhouse like Louisville that has sizable expectations year in and year out, such results will heat up your seat pretty quickly. Now, Mack is not under imminent fire, but quite a few people consider him a little bit out of his weight class in a job like this. If that is actually true, though, remains to be seen. Last year the Cards missed the NCAA Tournament as an alternate with a record of 13-7, among those games were some concerning efforts like a 45-point-blowout at North Carolina or a COVID-affected 37 point disaster at Wisconsin.

Louisville’s season so far

The Cardinals started the 2021-2022 season struggling mightily out of the gate. With Mack suspended, his longtime assistant Mike Pegues took over, and not only was faced with the task of replacing Mack, but also of leading the team through an offensive transformation. Over the summer, Mack added Ross McMains to his staff with the idea that the New Zealander with plenty of G-League experience could energize the anemic Cardinals offense and increase Louisville’s overall pace. At first, the team had its issues with the new philosophy and reached a low point during an overtime defeat against Furman, Louisville’s only loss so far this season. It was actually Louisville’s first November home loss since 1972 and set off plenty of alarm bells around the program.

But the wakeup call seemed to have an effect as the Cardinals started to find their way shortly after the embarrassing showing. Louisville has actually won the Baha Mar Hoops Bahamas championship, beating the likes of Mississippi State and Maryland for the title. With a record of 5-1, Louisville is currently 39th in KenPom (Michigan State is 26th).

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

PG Jarrod West (Sr., 5-11, 181 lbs, 6.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 38.9% FG, 26.3% 3P)

SG Noah Locke (Sr., 6-3, 203 lbs, 13.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 38.9% FG, 34.9% 3P)

SF Dre Davis (So., 6-5, 220 lbs, 7.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 37.8% FG, 16.7% 3P)

PF Jae’lyn Withers (So., 6-8, 230 lbs, 7.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 50% FG, 33.3% 3P)

C Malik Williams (Sr., 6-11, 250, 8.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 41% FG, 20.0% 3P)

Key reserves

PG Mason Faulkner (Sr., 6-1, 190 lbs)

SG Samuell Williamson (Jr., 6-7, 210 lbs)

SG El Ellis (Jr., 6-3, 175 lbs)

SF Matt Cross (So., 6-7, 225 lbs)

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM LOUISVILLE

Mack is a coach who has worked himself up from the very bottom to becoming one of the more respected head coaches in college basketball. He actually started out coaching at an all girls high school in Cincinnati in the mid 1990s before making a name for himself and building a true powerhouse during his tenure at Xavier. Mack has always installed this mentality of hard work, perseverance and toughness in his teams and is doing the same at Louisville. He builds his teams on toughness, knockdown physical play and strong work on the glass. An underrated X’s and O’s coach, Mack’s offensive approach is rather methodical and usually very slow-paced. The addition of McMains shows that he is open to adjusting his system to his current personnel or the situation at hand. Nonetheless, the base for his success remains a strong defense running on heavy pack line principles, which in the past has often been referred to as the “Mack Line.” His teams clog the lane, make it hard for opponents to drive and shift their entire formation with the ball moving from side to side.

Louisville, like many teams, is going through quite a transformation in recent months. The Cardnials lost their two top-scorers from last season in Carlik Jones and David Johnson (almost 30 points per game combined in 2020-2021) to the NBA Draft and tried to rejuvenate the team by adding a bevy of transfers. Many of them, like Matt Cross, Noah Locke or Jarrod West, are already filling major roles for the Cards, which also leads to plenty of adjustments being made on the fly. The players may not know each other very well and that often leads to slower sets, guys being stuck in bad situations and overall plenty of miscommunication. The idea of running more has hurt the Cardinals on the defensive glass quite a bit, but with their personnel, rebounding should still be a major strength for them. At the start of the year the team also lacked true leadership and excitement, but Louisville has seemed to have turned that aspect around recently. With the return of Mack on the bench, the Cardinals should come into the Breslin highly-motivated and with a lot to prove in front of their real head coach watching from the sidelines for the first time.

Louisville has improved nicely over the last few games and has made true on some of its offensive innovation, yet the Cardinals remain a challenged team on that side of the floor. Their major problems from last year — three point shooting and cohesive creativity — remain issues this season as well, even if the Cardinals have improved their pace dramatically.

Many of Louisville’s top scorers are shooting below 40 percent from the field, the assist numbers aren’t very high and the Cards can struggle to find a rhythm for long stretches. That’s not surprising considering the talent loss Louisville had to endure, paired with the fact of plenty of new faces on the roster. Florida transfer Noah Locke is the most dangerous perimeter player with a fairly versatile game. Like many of his fellow backcourt mates, he struggles to consistently create one-on-onem though. In that regard, junior Samuell Williamson is probably Louisville’s most dangerous weapon overall. He has good size, is fairly bouncy for his length and can create his own shot comfortably in the midrange. But the former top-25 recruit has been plagued by inconsistency his whole career and that has continued this season, too, which is one of the reasons why he comes off the bench.

A big key for Louisville is senior big man Malik Williams. He is the anchor of the Cardinals’ physical and imposing defense, does quite a bit of work in the post for them and has to be considered one of their most vocal leaders as a senior. He missed most of last year with a foot injury, but has played fairly well this season.

CONCLUSION

This isn’t as talented a team as you could expect year in and year out under Rick Pitino with rugged, elite level athletes up and down the roster. Nonetheless, this group has righted the ship this season and even if the Cardinals may seem like a bunch of misfits at first glance, they will enter the Breslin Center with plenty to prove and plenty of confidence. Their defense, Mack’s approach to basketball and the ability to affect the game with physicality are all things that travel well. Subsequently, these are also all things that could present some of the younger or lighter Spartans with some issues. Overall, though, Michigan State should be considered the more talented team and is the clear-cut favorite with the game being in East Lansing.