What up TOC Nation, hope you are all enjoying a light work week and have your stretchy-waisted pants ready for Thanksgiving. May you all have lots of Turkey, TV time, and TOC Game Thread enjoyment on Thursday as in addition to all the usual Thanksgiving traditions, we are getting a serving of Spartan Basketball to top it all off.
But beware, this game will be no picnic. Michigan State is traveling all the way to the southern California desert to take on the undefeated and third-ranked Arizona Wildcats at 4 PM ET. For the first time this basketball season, we are being joined by a writer from the other team to tell us about this opponent. So let’s see what secrets Brian Pederson from Arizona Desert Swarm can share with us.
TOC: Arizona is 5-0 right now, but your only opponent of note was Duke, who you beat on their court 78-73. What did you learn about your team in that game?
BP: It sure helps having guys with experience in big games, something Arizona didn’t have the previous two seasons (which showed in the NCAA tournaments). Getting Caleb Love from North Carolina and Keshad Johnson from San Diego State, both of whom have played in NCAA title games, has already paid dividends in this way. Johnson had the go-ahead 3-point play in the final minute and Love—who beat Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game and ended his career in the Final Four a few weeks later—made all four free throws down the stretch.
TOC: Arizona got one of the biggest gets from the transfer portal this offseason in Caleb Love from UNC. What are the early impressions of him? How is he fitting in with his new team?
BP: Love definitely brings a level of aggressiveness on offense that Arizona sorely lacked from its guards a year ago. He’s driven to the basket a lot more than I expected, and been successful there, and has also shown better effort on the defensive end than he did at UNC. He still jacks up some odd 3-point shots, but so far those have been minimal and for the most part he’s playing within the system. Remains to be seen if he’ll do that in a game Arizona is losing.
TOC: Arizona has a very even scoring distribution, with six players averaging between 11 and 14 PPG. How should a team defend the Wildcats knowing that everyone can score? Does MSU need to use a full-court press? Should they go to a zone? Should they just use all their players to keep sending Ballo (43% FT) to the line?
BP: The balanced scoring hasn’t been purposeful; it’s just worked out that way. There wasn’t a 20-point scorer until the fourth game, and there were two, and every contest has had at least five players in double figures. Because of this, Michigan State can’t really focus on trying to shut down one or two players because everyone has shown the knack to score, so it’s probably best to stick with whatever works best for the Spartans rather than cater it to the opponent.
TOC: Right now, MSU is a team that plays on the perimeter mostly. Do your big guys (Ballo, Krivas, and Johnson) feel comfortable stepping out to defend away from the paint? Or is Arizona running a zone and those guys just wait for action to come their way down low? If they do step out, are they quick enough to not have smaller players not run past them?
BP: Duke’s Kyle Filipowski hurt Arizona a bit from outside, so this could be a place to exploit the Wildcats since they haven’t been the greatest at defending the 3-point line. Johnson is probably the most adept at guarding far from the basket, because he’s more a wing than a frontcourt player and he’s very athletic.
TOC: What is the most important thing MSU needs to do to beat Arizona?
BP: Force Arizona to take bad shots and turn the ball over. The Wildcats are very aggressive on offense, taking less than 15 seconds per possession, and aren’t going to wait around too long to get a shot off. There’s not a lot of 1-on-1 play, though, so it’s about getting into passing lanes, swiping at the ball handler and putting a lot of ball pressure.
TOC: Bonus Question: Predict the final score.
BP: Arizona wins this game by 5-7 points, let’s put it 73-68. That may seem low considering how the Wildcats have scored 99+ in four of five games, but the Duke contest (78-73) is a much better barometer for how this one will go.
TOC: Unrelated Bonus Question: What do Arizona fans think about next year’s move to the Big 12?
BP: I think Arizona fans are mostly sad that the Pac-12 had to go away, because this has been the league for 45 years and there’s an identity to that. Never making the Rose Bowl in football will linger, as will being the dominant men’s basketball team in the Pac-12. There’s definite excitement on the basketball front, particularly with the annual games against Kansas, but I think more fans were hoping for the Big Ten even though that wasn’t realistic.
TOC thanks Brian Pederson for his contribution to this article.