After a pair of stress-inducing games to begin their March Madness run, MSU finds themselves in familiar territory, the Sweet-16. This will be Tom Izzo’s 15th trip to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. And in case you are wondering how Izzo-led teams do once they make it this far, well, Izzo has been to 10 Elite-8s and 8 Final Fours. So he has a 10-4 record in the Sweet-16 and an 8-2 record in the Elite-8. This year, the Spartans are going to be playing against the Kansas State Wildcats for the opportunity to make it to the regional final. Can MSU take another step towards the Final Four? Can Coach Izzo earn a record-extending 17th career victory as the lower seeded team? In order for this to happen, there are two questions that I think need to be answered.
The first question, which if you read my recap from the last game should come as no surprise (but also should not be a surprise even if you did not read that article), is if MSU can shake out of their sudden inability to hit three-point shots. To review, so far in this tournament, they have gone 5-14 against USC and 2-16 against Marquette. That total, 7-30, is a shocking 23.3%. I say shocking because their season average was 39.5%. The obvious hope and logic would be that, even if they don’t shoot 40% or better (as they had in the last few games of the regular season), they get back to shooting at least 30%, moving closer to their average. So can that be done? There are two things to consider here. First, is KSU’s 3FG defense. Simply put, it’s very good. On the season, they allowed their opponents to shoot 29.7% from behind the arc, good for a tie in 12th place nationally. Yes, there is room to interpret these kinds of stats - opponents shooting % in all games, is it good defense or good luck - but over the course of a full season, it is likely that they are doing something that is affecting the oppositions’ shots from deep. If MSU is going to shoot better than they have in the first two tourney games, than they are going to have to do better at getting shooters open. This is something they were unsuccessful at doing vs. Marquette (whether Marquette defenders were grabbing is up for discussion).
A second thing that we can look at in this 3FG conversation is the venue. There is a belief out there that college players for some paranormal reason struggle with the rims at Madison Square Garden. And there may be some truth to it. We can look at MSU’s recent history there. In the game this past season vs. (at?) Rutgers, MSU struggled in going 4-21 on their triples. This included 0-4 outputs from both Joey and AJ, 0-2 from Malik, 1-4 from Jaden, and 2-5 from Tyson. So, not good. But we can also look at MSU’s game there from the previous season, the Champions Classic matchup vs. Kansas. In that game, those same five Spartans went 3-8 (37.5%). In case you are wondering why only eight attempts, it is because former players Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham, and Max Christie took the majority of the three-point attempts (but the team only shot 35% as a whole that day).
Basically, MSU is going up against a team that seemingly defends the 3-point line well, they have been struggling with their own shot and even at creating open looks, and are playing at a venue where they haven’t had the best fortune recently. It seems like a lot to overcome.
The second big question in scouting Kansas State is their PG, Markquis Nowell. MSU has been lauded for shutting down of two excellent PGs thus far in the tournament, USC’s Boogie Ellis and Marquette’s Tyler Kolek. Can they do it again? Let’s compare the stats of these three point-guards. Boogie Ellis had averages of 17.7 points and 3.1 assists per game this season. Tyler Kolek scored less, averaging 12.9 PPG, but dished it out at a higher rate, averaging 7.5 APG. In comparison, KSU’s Markquis Nowell is doing both well, putting up 17.1 PPG and 7.8 APG. Also, he averages 37 minutes a game, so he rarely rests. So on the cover, it would appear MSU is about to go up against an even better floor general then they saw in the first two games. I think MSU being able to limit Markquis’ effect on this game will be determined by two things. The first will be when MSU has the ball. As just stated, Markquis is barely coming out of the game. So it is on MSU to either change that or just make him exhausted so he isn’t as good on the offensive end. This, of course gets done by having whichever Spartan that Markquis is guarding (probably Walker) run all over the court and around screens and picks to get away from him with the intent of making Markquis expend a higher amount of energy on defense. The second part of the plan will be how Izzo chooses to defend Nowell. We have seen MSU excel recently with help defense, and I think that is going to be a key in this game. MSU defenders need to be in constant communication with one another, calling out oncoming screens. Markquis can not be allowed to run around unchecked as this will lead to MSU having to roll defenders, innevitably leading to an open KSU shooter. So if MSU can get that help defender to stop Markquis from getting free around a screen (Mady has been very good at this lately) and otherwise keep his primary defender (Walker or Akins I am guessing) on him, then it could be a long day for the Wildcats’ leader.
In the end, MSU has a pretty clear formula for winning Thursday night: Stop Markquis Nowell and shoot the three better. Can MSU do those two things? Obviously, if you have watched the last two games the answer to that question is... maybe.
BBD: MSU wins 71-64
Andy: MSU wins 73-66
O: I am not as confident as my colleagues. I’d like to be proven wrong again, but I am not convinced by this team yet. I still worry that the version of them we saw in the BTT is lurking. I say MSU’s season comes to a crashing halt, 70-67. Please don’t hate me.