After struggling through the latter part of the Big Ten season, the Michigan State Spartans played a fairly strong conference tournament. The optimism still isn’t exactly through the roof as MSU worries about point guard Tyson Walker’s availability due to an ankle injury, and the road to the high fruits of March Madness seems rather long.
It starts with a No. 7 versus No. 10 matchup against the Davidson Wildcats from the Atlantic 10, which will be led by former Spartan Foster Loyer. Let’s dive into the preview!
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina
When: Friday, March 18, 9:40 p.m. Eastern Time
DraftKings Line: Michigan State -1
The state of Davidson’s program
When basketball fans hear the name Davidson, most automatically think of Stephen Curry and his magical run with the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 2008. Other than that, the school from North Carolina recently hasn’t made much waves nationally. After leaving the Southern Conference in 2014, the Wildcats call the Atlantic 10 Conference home and have struggled a bit to gain traction there, as the team has only qualified for the NCAA Tournament twice in the last seven years. Davidson has enjoyed one of its better season this year, though, under legendary coach Bob McKillop. He is an institution at the school where he has been manning the head coach position since 1989. Over those 30 plus years, McKillop has accumulated more than 630 wins and won numerous conference accolades with his teams.
How Davidson did this year
As alluded to above, Davidson enjoyed one of its best seasons in a long time that, for the regular season at least, can match up with the great years of Stephen Curry. Being ranked sixth in the Atlantic 10 preseason polls, the Wildcats finished the year 27-6 and earned the A-10 regular season title (with a conference record 15-3) ahead of VCU and Dayton. The Wildcats’ most impressive win is clearly the road win at Alabama, which at the time was ranked 10th in the nation and has now earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Davidson reached the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid among the last four byes after the Wildcats lost the A-10 Tournament championship game against the Richmond Spiders. Davidson’s most lopsided defeat of the year was an 11-point loss against New Mexico State, another tournament team.
Projected starting five
PG Foster Loyer (Jr., 6-0, 175 lbs, 16.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 45.5% FG, 44.5% 3P)
SG Michael Jones (Jr., 6-5, 210 lbs, 11.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 46.0% FG, 42.5% 3P)
SF Hyunjung Lee (Jr., 6-7, 210 lbs, 16.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 47.6% FG, 37.7% 3P)
PF Sam Mennenga (So., 6-9, 245 lbs, 8.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 52.0% FG, 44.0% 3P)
C Luka Brajkovic (Sr., 6-10, 250 lbs, 14.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 57.6% FG, 40.7% 3P)
SG Grant Huffman (So., 6-3, 185 lbs)
SG Desmond Watson (Fr., 6-5, 200 lbs)
PF Nelson Boachie-Yiadom (Sr., 6-8, 220 lbs)
What to expect from Davidson
Davidson is a very good offensive team that shares the ball extremely well, runs a lot of sophisticated sets and can bury an opponent from behind the arc (ranking eighth nationally in three-point percentage). The Wildcats only have one starter (Lee) who shoots under 40 percent from deep and that is a player who lets it go over six times per contest (even though Mennenga doesn’t shoot it a lot with his 44 percent). Being that dangerous from downtown usually gives the Wildcats terrific spacing as opponents have to respect their outside shooting and extend on almost every player out on the floor.
But Davidson is way more than just a shooting team. The Wildcats have two rock-solid post options in lefty Mennenga and especially in Brajkovic, the A-10 Player of the Year.
The Austrian center doesn’t look that nimble at first glance, but like many European big men, possesses a tremendous arsenal of fundamentals. He probes and works tirelessly in the post, often taking a long time to back his man down. But in the end he gets good position with his methodical approach and can then finish with either hand around the basket. Brajkovic is a very good and willing passer (with a flair for the dramatic as he, at times, dishes behind the back in the post), understands team concepts and creates a lot of space for his teammates. As a pick-and-pop player, he is dangerous himself, as he shoots better than 40 percent from behind the arc on 2.6 attempts per game.
The space that Brajkovic, and to a lesser extend, Mennanga create is a godsend for Davidson’s many outside marksmen. Neither Loyer, ones, top reserve Huffman nor Lee are particularly fleet-footed or extremely advanced off the dribble. Yet, all of them can rise up in an instant and connect on deep jumpers from anywhere on the court. While Jones is purely a shooter, Lee (who hails from South Korea) has quite a bit of inside game as well. Before a bad five-point outing in the A-10 Tournament final, Lee averaged over 20 points for his last seven games.
Loyer is the de facto point guard for Davidson, but doesn’t really possess the ball as much as a traditional playmaker normally does in the half-court. McKillop rather lets his players run numerous sets with a lot of passing and motion. Often, the Wildcats stagger their sets and when they run pick-and-rolls on one side, they already have another off-ball action going on on the other side of the floor which puts plenty of pressure on a defense, especially mentally.
Davidson doesn’t push the tempo at all and plays extremely slow (Kenpom’s 304th team in tempo). It fits the squad’s overall identity of a fundamentally very sound team that rarely makes mistakes (only 9.8 turnovers per game), doesn’t foul a lot and punishes slight miscues from their opponents.
In the half-court offense, the Wildcats are very confident in their game plan, rarely act outside of their skin and work very well as a unit. That knowledge of the entire system can be seen quite well in Loyer, who doesn’t look like a much different player than he was during his MSU days, yet operates with much more confidence than Spartans fans can remember.
Loyer will rise up a step or two behind the three-point line, the Wildcats will bring him off screens and use him at times as a shooting guard. While he missed the potential game-winning three-pointer against Richmond in the conference tournament championship, that shot still shows how much he has grown as a player in a new role and also how much confidence his team now has in him.
As anyone can imagine, the Wildcats as a No. 10-seed also have their weaknesses. They aren’t a strong defensive team as their overall lack of athleticism and foot speed clearly show on that end. Davidson plays kind of a pack line man-to-man defense, yet still can be vulnerable against penetration and backdoor cuts by quicker players.
Once inside the arc, the Wildcats don’t have any rim protection outside of Brajkovic (1.1 blocks per game), and even he won’t challenge everything as he has to be careful about foul trouble. Loyer still is a liability on the defensive end and his backcourt mates — while playing fundamentally sound — don’t really qualify as defensive stoppers either.
Davidson is a solid rebounding team, numbers-wise, but given the Wildcats’ lack of athleticism, they can give up some chances on the offensive boards. As good as their overall offense is, the Wildcats are extremely dependent on Brajkovic and the space he and their sets create.
Key matchup: Marcus Bingham Jr. vs Luka Brajkovic
A lot of people might have expected A.J. Hoggard versus Foster Loyer here, and it surely is an important matchup for a number of reasons. But the tall Austrian, Brajkovic, clearly is the centerpiece for a lot of things Davidson does on offense, and with his unique skill set, he offers quite an interesting challenge. Marcus Bingham Jr. is a guy who should be up for that task, though. He is long enough to bother Brajkovic inside and he should be fleet-footed enough to chase him around the perimeter. That alone still won’t be enough as the Wildcats‘ senior center surely will have a few more tricks up his sleeve. But if Bingham can limit him or even take him out of the game for most of the contest, MSU would have taken a huge step toward winning the game.
A lot will be made about Loyer playing his former team, and such a thing if not classified correctly can quickly spiral out of control for Michigan State. We all know that March Madness works in funny ways, and it surely can happen that Loyer all of a sudden looks like a prime Steve Nash. The Spartans, though, have to remember that they play the entire Davidson team and not make it in any way, shape or form personal no matter what all the commentators say. Considering Hoggard has shown some signs of becoming a true leader for Michigan State this year and beyond, he should be ready for the matchup nonetheless.
Enjoy the game, stay classy and last but not least GO GREEN!