More often than not, the Michigan State Spartans spoil their fans. This week, they’re heading into yet another Sweet 16, and have a chance to advance even further by beating the impressive Louisville Cardinals, who knocked out two upset minded teams that many assumed could beat them.
The Cardinals have caught fire since winning the Big East championship, winning six straight games. If Michigan State is hot after winning five in a row, Louisville is equally as scintillating, adding some additional spice to this underrated match up of power basketball teams.
Which team will morph from “sweet” to “elite?” Spartan Jump Shots tells you about the most important things to watch as two of the game’s top coaches square off:
How Michigan State Wins: Break the press and score quick.
It’s no secret that Louisville will want to press Michigan State defensively, which means the Spartans must be ready to play focused basketball. The Cardinals are not a good shooting team, shooting only 42% from the field this season, so they rely mostly on their pesky defense to get them turnovers which lead to easy baskets in transition and better shot attempts. This means Michigan State must be ready to push through an attacking defense and play smart with the ball, just like they did in 2009. Fortunately, Keith Appling has been a good press breaker in his young career, so the Spartans have a bit of an advantage there with a player who shouldn’t panic. Brandon Wood, Austin Thornton and Travis Trice, other guards who are each good shooters, may have the opportunity to set their feet and get some open looks if they can get through the first wave of attackers. Michigan State may also be able to score fast in transition and get their running game going, putting pressure on the Cardinals to keep up. The most important thing will be to remain calm and disciplined, no matter how chaotic the pace ends up getting.
How Louisville Wins: Limit the damage of Derrick Nix and Aderian Payne.
Both Nix and Payne have been incredibly impressive early in the tournament, and each has given Michigan State a sizable advantage in the paint throughout the first two games. Spartan fans have to be encouraged seeing this, as teams have struggled to match their size, athleticism and physical abilities. For the Cardinals to win, they will need to find a way to deny Nix and Payne open looks and limit their effectiveness down low. This means that 6-11 Gorgul Dieng will need a monster game defensively, and he will need plenty of help from his friends as well. If the Cardinals can force Michigan State to be more perimeter oriented offensively, the Spartans may find themselves having to force up outside shots to keep pace. Obviously, much of this will depend on how effective their press works, so the big men should be ready to run and attempt to get buckets in transition.
The X-Factors: Brandon Wood and Kyle Kuric
Wood is the kind of player who could be the major difference maker for Michigan State in this match up. With plenty of attention on Appling and focus on Draymond Green along with Nix and Payne down low, Louisville must be careful not to forget about Wood, who is capable of heating up from three point land and getting to the bucket in creative ways. The Big Ten title game showed how much damage he can do when hot, so if Wood can stay creative while contributing around 15 points, the Spartans will be in excellent shape to win the game.
As good a player as Peyton Siva has been for the Cardinals, Kuric is actually Louisville’s leading scorer, and is capable of going into the paint as well as flashing out for longer jump shots and three pointers. If Siva goes off and Kuric scores around his 13.1 points per game average, Michigan State will have their hands full trying to keep up with two scorers.
Most Important “State” Stat Of The Game: 11, which represents the number of turnovers Michigan State had Sunday afternoon against Saint Louis. While that number is not fantastic, the Spartans improved taking care of the ball vastly in the second half after throwing it all over the place to start the game. For them to beat the press and Louisville, that number will have to stay right there. In 2009, when Michigan State upset the top seeded Cardinals, they turned the ball over 12 times all afternoon and enjoyed a comfortable victory. If the Spartans struggle with the press and get sloppy, the turnovers will play right into the hands of Rick Pitino’s offense, who will use that to stay in the game or pull ahead.
Matchup To Watch: Peyton Siva vs. Keith Appling.
In one should be of the better guard duels of the tournament, the fiery and nimble Siva will face off against the equally as competitive Appling. Siva is a fantastic offensive player who can get to the paint, while Appling has long been known as one of the Big Ten’s better young defenders. Siva can create his own shot and knock it down, while Appling showed an impressive ability to assert himself and do just that on Sunday. Don’t miss an offensive or defensive possession with these two squaring off, because whomever wins this head to head competition will likely win the game.
Intangibles: Michigan State’s mindset after surviving a plodding Saint Louis attack.
After surviving a game against a team which could only be called “not your typical 9 seed,” the Spartans should feel like they can conquer anything the rest of the way. Rick Majerus has long been known as one of the more unique defensive minds in college basketball, so the fact that Michigan State was able to pass that early test with flying colors should only help them mentally against Louisville’s press. Also, that game might have done wonders for Appling, who hit a big shot at the end to help his team win. A confident guard often times makes all the difference in March, and Appling’s confidence should be high after Sunday.
Prediction: Louisville is a team which would give anyone fits in the tournament based on style and match ups alone, but Michigan State can match them position for position and has the biggest advantage with depth and Tom Izzo. Just like he did in 2009, Izzo prepares his club to break the press creatively and get his Spartans some easy transition baskets. Draymond Green continues playing well, and Appling shows his stuff once more, getting some assistance from Wood. Louisville will control either Nix or Payne, but not both. Michigan State pulls away midway through the second half using their depth to wear down the gassed Cardinal interior. The Spartans will play for another Final Four on Saturday afternoon.
Michigan State, 72 Louisville 65