This is an incredibly difficult game to get a handle on, for a ton of different reasons:
- The Quick Turnaround - Tennessee and Michigan State will tip at 2:20 PM EDT on Sunday, a little more than 38 hours since the Spartans beat Northern Iowa on Friday night. There's just not a ton of time for you, me, Izzo or Pearl to get as good of a feel for this one as any of us would like.
- The History - We've never been here before. Can't speak for everybody, but I'm still feeling quite euphoric about the win over Ohio State and advancing to our first ever Elite Eight. Will we play like we're satisfied, or like we're hungry?
- Kalin Lucas - And this is obviously the biggest one. The Spartans lost their best player, who was averaging 14.8 points and 4.0 assists per game in the backcourt, to an unfortunate achilles tear against Maryland in the second round. We can relate, of course...but the difference is, we've had time to become a better team without Tyler Smith. The Spartans have played one full game without Lucas, against Northern Iowa...which makes them more difficult to figure out.
It's also a hard game to figure out because most believe this should be another to-the-wire game: Ken Pomeroy projects a 68-67 Michigan State win, giving the Spartans a 51% chance for victory. So, yeah.
So let's make three sets of observations: one from the only game we have to go on with this lineup against Northern Iowa, one on Michigan State as a whole, and one on the Vols.
Sweet 16: (5) Michigan State 59 - (9) Northern Iowa 52
The Spartans traded Kalin Lucas for Korie Lucious, and both his name and his play tried to keep anyone from noticing the difference. Lucious hit the game-winner against Maryland, then followed it with 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 39 minutes against Northern Iowa. The minutes suggest he's it at the point for the Spartans - we know he's a gamer, but will he suffer from having gone from playing 22.1 minutes a night to playing almost the whole game twice in 38 hours?
Lucious is only 5'11", swinging the size advantage back in Tennessee's favor at the position. Michigan State also got a complete game from guard Durrell Summers against Northern Iowa, as he scored 19 points. Summers has been a sharpshooter: in three tournament games, he has 59 points and has shot 12 of 24 from three. Tennessee just cooled off Jon Diebler; Summers is of similar type as a 6'4" junior, but hasn't shot nearly this well all season, at just a 34.2% clip from three for the year. He played 37 minutes against the Panthers...will he be tired, and if not, can the Vols stay on him the way they did with Diebler?
The Spartans beat UNI without a huge contribution from Raymar Morgan, who fouled out with only 7 points and 3 rebounds. But Morgan is a double-double threat, and a senior who's been there and done that, as have most of these guys: remember, the Spartans played for the National Championship last year and lost to North Carolina. Do not doubt their experience, and do not doubt their desire to right those wrongs...and we'll all attest to the fact that there are no North Carolinas left in this field. This team is experienced, and Morgan is very good.
The biggest reason the Spartans beat Northern Iowa was lockdown defense in the final ten minutes. As The Only Colors notes:
At the 10-minute mark in the second half, Michigan State led the game by just one point, 43-42. From that point to the end of the game, there were 17 possessions for each team. Northern Iowa scored 10 points in those 17 possessions. All 10 of the points came from the free-throw line (on 14 attempts). From the field, the Panthers took, and missed, 10 shots.
The Spartans will play man-to-man, but like Tennessee it'll be an active man-to-man with lots of switching. Michigan State has two guys playing almost the whole game, and others who are banged up, most notably Delvon Roe. Same as last time, the question becomes can Tennessee's ten can outlast Michigan State's depleted roster?
Michigan State on the year
The Spartans are 27-8 on the year, right there with the 28-8 Vols. Their non-conference resume was really lacking: they beat Gonzaga in November, but lost to Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, three teams that turned into disappointments. They went 14-4 in the Big Ten, splitting the league title with Ohio State and Purdue, but were bounced in their first Big Ten Tournament game against Minnesota. And again...they did all of this with Kalin Lucas.
Like Ohio State, Michigan State plays the textbook Big Ten slowdown game, averaging 66.5 possessions and 72.5 points per game. And again, like Tennessee, they can win games in the 80s and games in the 50s...which is exactly what they've done in their last two.
These teams are very similar in most offensive categories...but like San Diego State, the Spartans will absolutely go to work on the offensive glass: MSU rebounds 40% of their missed shots, 10th in the nation. 6'6" Draymond Green leads the way with numbers approaching a double-double on average: 9.7 points and 8.0 boards per game. Roe is 6'8" and can also go to the glass. Tennessee will again be bigger on the inside, and again the Vols will need to play like it.
What about us?
My grandmother would chastise me for saying it this way...but where are we at right now?
We've never made it this far, playing a group of guys who know what it's like to play for the National Championship. We're still so new at this whole being good at basketball thing, I think we'll have a healthy respect when we look across the floor and see those green State jerseys and Tom Izzo on the sideline.
I also feel like that Michigan State people look at this game and say "We have to beat Tennessee to get to the Final Four? We can do that." And I feel like Tennessee people look at this game and say "We have to beat Michigan State without Kalin Lucas to get to the Final Four? We can do that."
There are a ton of factors that suggest this is going to be another incredibly even matchup. We've each got one intangible - their championship experience, our depth - that makes each of us feel like we might have an edge.
But the place where Tennessee must create the biggest edge is, once again, on the inside. Like Ohio State, this is an undersized team that will absolutely hit the glass. And like that game, Wayne Chism and Brian Williams must make sure that we maintain our advantage.
Chism will almost certainly get more attention from Michigan State after what he did to the Buckeyes. If they double-down on him like Ohio did in the second round, ball movement becomes key. What will be available for Prince and Hopson on the baseline? And when the Vols get an open look from three, who will knock it down? Tennessee went 0 for 7 from the arc in the second half, and still beat Ohio State. I'd rather not tempt fate with those odds again.
As a 6 seed, we're supposed to just be happy to be here. But the landscape of this tournament finds six teams left standing...and with Butler in and Kentucky out, every single one of us is thinking that we can make the title game. Every single one.
As you'd expect in a 5 vs. 6, and as you'd expect in the Elite Eight, this one should be close, especially if fatigue isn't a factor for Michigan State. Tennessee has to use its advantage in the post and on the boards. If we do that, we'll get more than 38 hours to celebrate our new accomplishment.
We are 40 minutes and an even matchup away from the Final Four. And I don't know about you, but I'd rather keep dancing.