SPOKANE, Wash.—On Saturday night (8:40 EST, TNT), the Harvard men’s basketball team will take on the Michigan State Spartans in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. In part I of a two-part preview, staff writer David Freed looks at Michigan State’s tournament profile and whether its style of play increases the likelihood of a Harvard upset.
Quick Primer on Michigan State:
Record: 27-8 (12-6 Big Ten)
Best Wins: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa (twice), Oklahoma
Worst Losses: Georgetown, Nebraska, Illinois
Ken Pomeroy Ranking: 10
Star Players: Gary Harris (So. Guard), 16.9 ppg, 2.6 apg; Adreian Payne (Sr. Forward) 16.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg
The Spartans and the Crimson have just one opponent in common—the Columbia Lions. Harvard swept the Lions, winning in double overtime in New York and then pounding them by 33 at Lavietes Pavilion. The Spartans beat Columbia at home, 62-53, in a nailbiter that caused Spartan coach Tom Izzo to say afterwards: “We proved tonight we’re not ready to handle any kind of success, and that disappoints me.” Columbia led by four at the half and trailed by just two with two minutes to go, at which point it committed back-to-back shot clock violations, and Michigan State scored the final eight points.
Style of Play:
Michigan State plays in the mold of its coach as a tough defensive team with a host of rugged post defenders that clean up the defensive glass. After the Columbia win, Izzo noted that “rebounding here is a religion,” and Payne and junior forward Branden Dawson, who combine for nearly 15 boards per game, live by that mantra.
The Spartans do not play at a particularly fast pace, ranking just 208th in the country in adjusted-tempo. Michigan State is a patient and extremely effective offensive team that employs a balanced inside-out attack to pummel opponents. Four Spartan starters shoot 35 percent or better from deep, and Izzo often uses tough screeners Payne and Dawson to generate open looks for Harris and senior guard Keith Appling (37 percent from deep).
Because Payne, a 44 percent three-point shooter himself, has a devastating pick-and-pop game, opponents cannot switch off the screener. Payne’s diverse game is a nightmare mismatch for opponents and forces opposing forwards away from the paint, which opens up driving lanes for slashers Harris and Appling. This also gives Dawson, an extremely effective post player who shoots 60.6 percent from the floor, ample room to operate in the interior. Add this all up and you get a devastating offensive attack that ranks 10th in the country in offensive efficiency.