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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Villanova Preview

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Michigan State Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Gavitt Tipoff Game Info/How to Watch:

Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan

When: Friday, Nov. 18, 2022 at 8:00 p.m. ET

TV/Streaming (within the U.S.): FS1

Michigan State (2-1), No. 18 (Kenpom)

What a statement the Spartans made in their double-overtime win over Kentucky on Tuesday night in Indianapolis. In a game where none of the Spartan guards played particularly well (outside of Tyson Walker’s late-flourish), it was the Spartan front-court that won the game against the veritable fleet of prime-time athletes the Wildcats committed to the fray.

The excellence on display in that gritty win came from every part of the team: Tom Izzo coached his best individual game since Cassius Winston’s senior season, the Spartan defense maintained its intensity and the high standard it set in the first two games for 50 minutes, and, most importantly, every big punch the Wildcats landed, the Spartans countered with a punch of their own — a championship-level of determination and composure exuded from every member of the team, even when they made individual errors or missed shots.

Michigan State Depth Chart:

1 - A.J. Hoggard (6’4” Jr.), Tre Holloman (6’2” Fr.)
2 - Tyson Walker (6’0” Sr.), Jaden Akins (6’4” So.)
3 - Malik Hall (6’8” Sr.), Pierre Brooks II (6’5” So.)
4 - Joey Hauser (6’9” Sr.)
5 - Mady Sissoko (6’9” Jr.), Jaxon Kohler (6’9” Fr.), Carson Cooper (6’11” Fr.)

While I expected a more open and faster-paced game, and a pace that would help some of the Spartans, it turns out that the guys most in need of big nights did it on their own, often against a tough Kentucky half-court defense.

In a huge bounce-back game, and a making a statement of his own, forward Joey Hauser carried the Spartans for much of the game on offense, hitting timely jump shots, competing terrifically on defense, and securing some important rebounds — often in traffic. Hauser shut out the noise, and played ball. A showing like that, against that level of an opponent, on the heels of one of his worst games as a Spartan was huge for the team, and bigger for him. Hauser is here to play ball.

For their parts, forward Malik Hall and center Mady Sissoko also had huge moments and, like Hauser, and the team as a whole, a series of counter-punches. Hall had a dip in concentration in the middle portion of the game where he turned the ball over a few times, missed a few rebounds and generally let himself down. However, on the heels of those miscues, Hall executed in perfect fashion down the stretch and finished the two game-extending plays, the second in a sequence that invited him to make choices other than the one he made: to cut the Gordian Knot, and conquer. That he made the choice he did indicates the maturation of his game.

Sissoko followed up his at times dominant outing against Gonzaga with an even more impressive outing against the reigning National Player of the Year in Oscar Tshiebwe. Sissoko generally stayed out of foul-trouble (if you ignore two horrendous calls against him), competed incredibly hard on the block, rebounded the ball in traffic, set great screens, finished plays at the rim and hit free throws. It cannot be emphasized enough how impressive Sissoko has been to start the season. If Mady keeps this up, then this team’s ceiling changes.

While none of the guards played as well as they can, all of them made important plays: Akins with some needed bench scoring and seven crucial rebounds; Hoggard with two clutch free throws, nine assists and a few good defensive sequences (he, especially, needs to play far better on both ends for this team to reach its ceiling); and Walker with some crucial buckets and assists in the last 16 minutes of the marathon contest.

The quality of this group has already become evident — far earlier in the season than I anticipated, actually — and if they can smooth out their offensive execution, and shoot the ball a bit better, then this team really will be a national problem by the year’s end. After the Gonzaga game, I predicted the following on Twitter (ignore my erroneous Hoggard prediction):

And the more I watch this team, and the more I watch North Carolina (very little depth), the more I think Michigan State could take that game, too.

The two biggest team-performance factors, specifically, that I am keying in on in these first few games: turnovers created, which links directly to defensive perimeter pressure, and free-throw rate and percentage, which links directly to offensive paint pressure.

The Spartans finished with 18 turnovers forced against Gonzaga and 15 turnovers forced against Kentucky — over three games, Michigan State has a 20 percent defensive turnover rate, which is good, and which I expect to increase a bit over the season.

After an ugly, and game-deciding, 18-for-28 (64 percent) performance from the free-throw line against Gonzaga, the Spartans finished 23-for-27 (85 percent) against Kentucky. Over three games, the Spartans have a 34 percent free-throw rate. MSU has not hit those rates since the two Gary Harris teams (the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons).

Villanova (2-1), No. 33 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Caleb Daniels (6’4” Sr.), Mark Armstrong (6’2” Fr.)
2 - Chris Arcidiacono (6’4” Sr.), Angelo Brizzi (6’3” Fr.)
3 - Jordan Longino (6’5” So.), Brenden Hausen (6’4” Fr.)
4 - Brandon Slater (6’8” Sr.), Cam Whitmore (6’7” Fr.)
5 - Eric Dixon (6’8” Jr.), Trey Patterson (6’9” So.), Nnanna Njoku (6’9” So.)

Scout:

This Villanova team, like Kentuky before them, will have to face the Spartans with an incomplete team — potential lottery pick Cam Whitmore is still recovering from preseason surgery and will not play. Lacking Whitmore’s star skills, athleticism and play-making, Villanova has struggled somewhat to open the season.

Daniels, Slater and Dixon remain a potent trio of upperclassmen, with all three averaging double-figures (14, 12, and 18 points, respectively). The challenge for the Wildcats has been the supporting cast. So far, Longino, averaging 10 points per game, has been the only reliable fourth scorer, with Arcidiacono basically a non-scoring fifth starter.

When Whitmore returns, this team will be dangerous, but the Wildcats play an incredibly slow pace (No. 364 in the nation!) and limited bench talent means that this team will have to grind out wins and rely on offensive efficiency given their inability to force turnovers and their allergy to offensive rebounding. Villanova continues to run a primarily “four-out” or “five-out” offense that pressures opposing bigs to read perimeter screening actions.

Despite Villanova’s quality veterans, the Wildcats simply do not have the typical pop to their offense, or stinginess to their defense that became habitual under former head coach Jay Wright. Again, this team will be better later in the season, but Spartan fans should anticipate a less-strong opponent than the game appeared to portend on the schedule a few weeks ago.

Game plan:

Pressure the Villanova guards, defend solidly and patiently against Villanova’s screens and perimeter-oriented forwards. The more pressure applied the better — note that this pressure does not require swipes at the ball, nor hacks down toward the ball when the Wildcats get in and around the paint — make them uncomfortable without bailing them out.

Rebound and run — Villanova will not contest the offensive glass, so the Spartans need to quickly clean the glass and find their guards to push pace. Every transition and semi-transition chance Michigan State gets should be a push — no let-up. Villanova is not a great half-court defensive team, so executing without wild turnovers (the Wildcats do NOT force turnovers) should be fairly straightforward.

Given the Spartans’ early-season up-and-down three-point shooting, crash the offensive glass. Sissoko, Akins, Kohler and Hall should all get multiple offensive rebounds in this one: punish the smaller Villanova team, and get into the Wildcats’ bench by drawing fouls and pressuring the paint.

Prediction:

This should be a win if the Spartans play like they have played to open the season. No emotional let-up — attack. Akins and Walker should have strong nights against Arcidiacono (the weakest Villanova starter), and both Hall and Hauser should feel confident in their matchups against the Villanova front-court.

Do not be surprised to see the Spartans match Villanova when the Wildcats go to four-guard lineups — those have been some of the best Spartan lineups this season. Michigan State wins this one going away.

Michigan State 76, Villanova 62

Go Green