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.
Last week, I ranked eight possible Crimson first-round opponents in five categories—three-point shooting frequency, three-point shooting frequency allowed, defensive rebounding percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and opponent turnover percentage—to judge Harvard’s chances of an upset. Here is where Michigan State fits in, with its national rank (out of 351) in parentheses:
OREB%: 32.7% (83)
DREB%: 76.0% (9)
Op. TO%: 17.6% (193)
3P Freq.: 35.8% (92)
Op. 3P Freq.: 37.0% (307)
Unlike most Izzo teams, the Spartans do not profile as an extremely safe “Giant” by most of these metrics. Although Michigan State has been touted as a title-favorite—picked by both Obama and Vegas to win it all—the squad does not do the things most safe favorites do. Because the Spartans rank as only slightly above average on the offensive glass and rarely force turnovers, they do not maximize possessions to allow talent disparity to come through.
Beyond that, the Spartans are one of the 50 worst teams in the country in letting opponents get free from behind the arc. In its first matchup against Delaware, the Hens got loose for 20 three-point attempts, knocking down eight as they hung around late into the second half, despite getting slaughtered on the boards, 42-24. Good three-point shooting by Payne and junior Travis Trice (7-of-9 combined from long range) kept Delaware at bay, but the Hens, who turned it over eight times, provided the blueprint that Harvard needs to follow on Saturday.
Ultimately, the numbers aren’t too kind to Michigan State because of the injuries it has suffered this year. When healthy, the Spartans ran off 18 of 19 to start the season, and romped through the Big Ten Tournament, living up to the expectations that made them the preseason second-ranked team in the nation. Harvard is well positioned to attack Michigan State with its ability to take care of the ball and let the ball loose from deep, but the talent disparity here is far larger than against Cincinnati.
Crimson fans can take solace in the fact that Harvard certainly did not play its best against the Bearcats and that Harvard matches up well with the Spartans. With the exception of Payne, Michigan State is not an especially large team (Dawson is the next biggest starter at 6’6”) and Harvard’s defense actually ranks better than that of the Spartans. Michigan State can get out and run, but the pace won’t be anything like what the Bearcats threw at Harvard. The talent difference is vast, however, but Harvard will be in this game if it knocks down the open looks it will get from three and holds Payne and Harris relatively at bay. But, if those two get going early, this contest could evoke memories of last year’s evisceration at the hands of Arizona.
All Data Courtesy of Teamrankings.com and Kenpom.com
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.