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Ask The Enemy: Michigan State at Texas

Another critical hoops game (Tuesday night vs Michigan State, 6 p.m., ESPN2), another set of questions with an expert on the enemy -- today, I talk with KJ from the superb Michigan State blog The Only Colors.  My answers to his questions can be read here.

We'll get to the game momentarily, but first: In 2007-08, had no one defected early to the NBA, Texas could have sent out the following starting line up:

PG: DJ Augustin (Freshman)
SG: Daniel Gibson (Junior)
G/F: Kevin Durant (Freshman)
F: PJ Tucker (Senior)
C: LaMarcus Aldridge (Junior)

I have to imagine early attrition has prevented Michigan State from fielding an equally jaw-dropping line up. Give us the Spartans' Izzo-era equivalent, and tell us who wins the match up with our Dream Team.

KJ @ The Only Colors: I'm afraid we'll have to concede the Dream Team game to you--at least in terms of players from the last 5-6 years.  After a rash of early entries from 2001 to 2003 (several of them of the ill-advised variety), Tom Izzo has managed to bring in players that are talented enough to compete at a high level but not so talented they're likely to leave for the NBA before they've played 4 years of college ball (which are a better fit considering Izzo's fondness for team depth).  You'd have to go back to the 2002-03 season to get a hypothetical MSU lineup that deviated significantly from the real-world lineup:

PG: Marcus Taylor (imaginary Junior)
SG: Chris Hill/Kelvin Torbert (Sophomores)
SF: Jason Richardson (imaginary Senior)
PF: Zach Randolph (imaginary Junior)
C: Paul Davis (Freshman)

Really, this year's MSU team probably has as much pure talent on it (on offense, at least) as any going back to the 1999-2001 back-to-back-to-back Final Four teams.

The Spartans have faced three quality teams in the early going, defeating Gonzaga (77-71) while dropping contests to Florida (77-74) and UNC (89-82). In what areas did Michigan State struggle against the top teams on the schedule? What signs were there that better performances against the best are ahead?

KJ @ The Only Colors: Statistically speaking, this MSU squad is better on offense than on defense, but the team has struggled in two distinct areas on offense against their three quality foes.  First, they've shot just 17.1% from 3-point range in the three games (7-41).  Second, the turnover issues that haunted the 2007 and 2008 Spartan teams cropped up against Gonzaga (TO% of 25.6%) and Florida (33.4%) in a major way.

Defensively, MSU played Gonzaga tough and played well enough to win against Florida.  North Carolina, meanwhile, came out red hot shooting the ball--racking up 50 points in the first half.

The hopeful sign, I suppose, is that MSU was pretty efficient offensively against North Carolina (outside of 3-point shooting) and may well have won that game in Chapel Hill if the Tarheels hadn't displayed such great shooting form.  The 3-point shooting has been acceptable against the other teams on the slate (.343 overall), so the hope is that the percentage we knock down against better teams reverts to the mean.

How are the Spartans trying to attack teams offensively? They appear a bit less potent on the interior than in recent years, relying quite a bit on Kalin Lucas to create offense. Is that accurate?

KJ @ The Only Colors: You're right that there's not much depth inside for MSU this season; that's the #1 concern about this team.  But Draymond Green has been a playmaker on both ends of the court as an undersized power forward, and Delvon Roe has been efficient with his scoring opportunities around the basket.

Ultimately, it's the guards that make this team go.  Kalin Lucas has shot the ball extremely well so far this season (.541/.421/.755).  Tom Izzo has been using a two-point-guard lineup, with both Lucas and sophomore Korie Lucious on the floor at the same time, more and more in recent games to take advantage of the team's speed and try to create easy baskets in transition.

Elsewhere, Chris Allen has been up (against weak competition) and down (against good competition), Durrell Summers (MSU's hero against Texas last year) has been mostly down, and Raymar Morgan is emerging offensively after dealing with ankle issues at the start of the season.

How does Michigan State deal with Big Sexy? Do they have the bodies to bang with Texas' aesthetically pleasing 6-11, 285-pound senior center?

KJ @ The Only Colors: That's a major strategic issue for Tom Izzo to deal with going into this game.  Neither Draymond Green (6'6") nor Delvon Roe (6'8") are ideally-sized for guarding taller post players.  And Pittman adds the element of massive bulk/strength to boot.  It'll be interesting to see whether Tom Izzo throws freshman Derrick Nix (6'8", 280 pounds--down 50-60 pounds from his high school playing weight) out against Pittman for a couple longish stretches to try to neutralize his size.  Nix has looked remarkable agile for his size when he's been on the court, but has caused great anguish among the Spartan fans by hitting only 3 of 27 free throw attempts.

Give us four signs -- two positive, two negative -- that, upon seeing them develop in the game, will make you cackle with delight / cringe in fear about the outcome.

KJ @ The Only Colors: Cackle-inducing signs:

  • A couple MSU players--ideally including the potentially-lethal-but-often-confidence-challenged Chris Allen--knocking down a few 3-pointers in the first 5 minutes of the game.
  • Raymar Morgan playing with confidence and good decision making against the similarly-skilled but even-more-physically-imposing Damion James.

Cringe-inducing signs:

  • A flurry of Spartan turnovers in the opening minutes.  This won't just induce cringing.  It will induce involuntary convulsions.  With as many good ball-handlers as MSU has in its playing rotation this season, we simply can't afford to give the ball away regularly and still expect to beat a top-5 opponent.
  • Delvon Roe picking up early fouls trying to guard Pittman, forcing Izzo to either play Nix (or fellow freshman big man Garrick Sherman) for major minutes or go small with Morgan at the 4 spot.

Frankly, I think a lot of things are going to have to go right for MSU to win this game.  It sure looks to me like Texas can match our team speed and has two players in Pittman and James that will give us fits around the basket on both ends of the court.  This game represents MSU's last chance to post a big nonconference win away from home.  If such a win is achieved, it will have been fully earned.