After back-to-back losses (and the suspension of five rotational players), the Indiana men’s basketball team finds itself in a position they weren’t in seven days ago: Questioning their tournament standing. And now, the Hoosiers have three straight games against teams ranked in the AP Top 25.
IU will travel to East Lansing to face Michigan State on Saturday. Here are the strengths and flaws of Tom Izzo’s Spartans ahead of their bout with the Hoosiers.
FAST AND FURIOUS
The main thing to note about the Spartan’s offense is the pace. Michigan State loves to play quickly on offense, and a lot of it has to do with their bigs. The Spartans use their big men to get out and run in transition quickly.
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As a defense, you have to be ready to run the floor with Michigan State. IU certainly has the capable bigs with Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson, but it’s a matter of being prepared and conditioned to sprint down the court continually.
When teams do run the floor well with Michigan State, the Spartans are prone to turning the ball over. This is the downside to playing as fast as the Spartans do. Michigan State turns the ball over on 20.4 percent of their possessions, marking the highest turnover rate in the Big Ten.
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If the Hoosiers run the floor defensively like they’re capable of, they can force the Spartans into a lot of turnovers. This will take possessions away from Michigan State and it could create fastbreak opportunities for IU.
What stands out about Michigan State’s half-court offense is the ball movement. 61.9 percent of the Spartans’ baskets are assisted. That percentage ranks in the top-20 in the nation and second in the Big Ten behind Rutgers. There’s no star on this offense, but they spread the ball around and make sure everyone on the court is a scoring threat.
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It will be crucial for Indiana to make the proper rotations against Michigan State on Saturday. It will be even more important for Indiana to contain the ball so that they don’t end up behind the play and scrambling against Michigan State’s ball and player movement.
Michigan’s State leading scorer Gabe Brown is often a beneficiary of this ball movement. The 6-foot-8 senior is not necessarily ball-dominant and doesn’t create for himself, but he is very efficient with his touches.
Brown is averaging just 12.8 points per game in a balanced Spartan scoring attack, and 56.8 percent of his field goal attempts are 3s. Brown does a lot of his work from the corners, and more specifically the left corner.
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Once again, Brown is not someone who will put the ball on the ground much and initiate the Spartans’ offense. But as a 38.5 percent (41.7 percent in Big Ten play) 3-point shooter, he must be accounted for at all times on the floor. Brown can often make a living by lurking and just slightly moving to the blind spot of a ball-watching defender. Whichever Hoosier draws the Gabe Brown assignment must be alert to take away open looks.
HARD IN THE PAINT
Michigan State is also coming off back-to-back losses. In those losses, the Spartans’ defense has struggled. Despite having one of the best 3-point defenses in the country, Michigan State has had struggles defending inside the arc.
Watch how ruthlessly Rutgers backed Michigan State down at multiple positions last Saturday:
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Michigan State’s last three opponents have all shot above 50 percent on 2-pointers. The Spartans are struggling to stop teams in the paint and it’s led to them barely beating Maryland and falling to Rutgers and Wisconsin.
Michigan State’s inability to stop the post could bode well for Jackson-Davis, who is 7 of 22 from the field during IU’s two-game losing skid. Don’t be surprised to see Mike Woodson and the Hoosiers test Michigan State’s defense with a bevy of post ups for Race Thompson and Jordan Geronimo as well.
While Michigan State plays with a high tempo on offense, their defense is set up to force opposing offenses into long possessions. Michigan State’s average defensive possession takes 18.3 seconds.
Tom Izzo and the Spartans play a conservative man-to-man defense. Michigan State’s defense is built to drag possessions out instead of having offenses make quick reads that could lead to baskets.
Possessions like this one happen often against Michigan State:
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As you can see, there’s not a lot of tight pressure, on or off-ball, on Northwestern players. Instead, Michigan State’s defenders just do their best to stay in front of the basketball and force the Wildcats into a long possession.
The best way for Indiana to attack Michigan State will be by finding ways to get downhill. Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway are IU’s best two rim pressure ball handlers, so expect to see those two being aggressive in the first half on Saturday. IU’s offensive performance may just come down to Jackson-Davis’ ability to break his current slump.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND KEYS
The Indiana defense has struggled to guard 3s in recent weeks. While Michigan State doesn’t fire up a lot of 3s, they hit an impressive 38.8 percent of their shots from downtown. Limiting the makes (and attempts) of Gabe Brown and others will be very important for IU in this matchup.
IU has to be ready to run with the Spartans when necessary. Marcus Bingham, Joey Hauser and Julius Marble can all get up the court quickly for early post seals and easy dunks. The Hoosiers need to ensure that those easy shots in transition don’t happen on Saturday.
The return of five previously-suspended Indiana players should provide a boost to the squad’s offense. But the Hoosiers have now gone three consecutive games scoring under a point per possession, so it will take more than just getting those players back.
As the best player on this team, now feels like the time for Trayce Jackson-Davis to get back into rhythm and lift this program from the hectic past seven days. Michigan State’s defense is susceptible to post players like Jackson-Davis. If he can take advantage of that, then Indiana should be set up nicely at the Breslin Center.
Both teams come into Saturday struggling. A three-game losing streak on either side would spell trouble. I expect two desperate teams to come in and fight for every possession. If Indiana can nail the little things, this game will likely come down to the wire.