Meet the Spartans

By most accounts, Michigan State had a mildly disappointing preconference season this year - they beat eventual tourney teams Oklahoma State and Texas on neutral floors, but they also had blowout losses to Maryland and North Carolina. Let's remember, the Spartans were in the preseason top 10 and were picked by some geeks as Big Ten favorites (nevermind that pesky media). Granted, the Spartans were without uber-rebounder Goran Suton for those losses, but it wasn't shaping up to be the season many expected. Then, conference play began. The Spartans ran roughshod over a surprisingly solid Big Ten and mixed in a nonconference beating of Kansas for good measure. What went right? Most importantly, Michigan State rounded into the dominant rebounding team we always expected them to be -a big part of that was Suton's return to health, but we shouldn't discount the emergence of freshmen Delvon Roe and Draymond Green as supreme glass cleaners. This rebounding ability will be put to the test on Friday, as they face...

Kansas

The Jayhawks are the best rebounding team the Spartans have faced since, well, the Jayhawks. When the two teams met in East Lansing on January 10, however, Michigan State dominated the glass and managed a sparkling 15.7 TO% in the easy win. If the Spartans make those two things happen again on Friday and Sunday, they'll be in the Final Four. Kansas is interesting in that their strengths are the same on each end of the floor - their offense is driven by a high eFG% and rebounding, while their excellent defense limits those exact two things. Like the Spartans, Kansas has a turnover problem - they commit too many on their end, and they force too few on the other. The offensive leader for the Jayhawks is junior PG Sherron Collins, and he's amazingly efficient considering his shot diet (north of 30%). Sophomore center Cole Aldrich rebounds, blocks shots, and is an extremely efficient scorer. Kansas also gets some work done at the foul line - the Jayhawks have five regulars that draw over 4 fouls per 40 minutes. Indeed, even at home, the Spartans had Raymar Morgan and Travis Walton foul out, while Suton and Idong Ibok had 4 apiece. The Spartans have a lot of depth inside, but I'm sure Tom Izzo would prefer to be using it by choice.

I expect this to be a hard-fought game that comes down to the wire. I'll go ahead and take the Spartans, but I wouldn't bet my life on what is basically a coin toss - and get yourself a damn haircut, Anton.

Louisville

The Cardinals are the tournament's overall #1 seed at 30-5 and Big East champs, but they benefited greatly from the unbalanced Big East schedule, facing Pittsburgh and Connecticut just once apiece. Still, this is an elite defensive team. As you'd expect from a pressing defense, they speed you up and turn you over, but what really makes them great is that they also make you miss an awful lot. Unfortunately for Louisville, their offense isn't quite as impressive. Despite a hyped frontline of Earl Clark, Terrence Williams, and Samardo Samuels, the Cardinals shoot a merely-good 51% on twos, are only decent on the offensive glass, and rarely go to the foul line. Their offense basically looks like a POT, but without the turnover reduction benefit. It all adds up to the nation's 41st most efficient offense - that's not bad, but it's not Final Four quality either. The question for the Cardinals, more so than for most remaining teams, will be whether their threes are falling or not.

Arizona

The lone Cinderella in the Sweet Sixteen, Arizona probably shouldn't have even been in the tournament to begin with after losing 5 of 6 to close the season, but they've made good on their inclusion by beating an overseeded Utah team and a merely decent Cleveland State squad. Honestly, those two wins, while not bad, wouldn't be all that impressive on a resume if they happened during the regular season, so I'm still not convinced that Arizona deserves to be in this tournament. That said, here they are, and they do have the offensive firepower to pull a shocker against Louisville - the Wildcat offense is the 7th best unit in the nation, driven by the high-percentage shooting of Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, and Nic Wise. Those three guys almost never leave the court, and nobody else takes more than 15.5% of the team's shots, so you can officially dub them a Big Three. Hill is really the team's only good rebounder, which explains part of their defensive struggles. Arizona is very mediocre defensively - the only thing they do well is prevent free throws, at which they are very good (hey, even I could be good at that if I didn't have to stop anybody). This mediocre defense was on full display from February 7th onward, as Arizona allowed over a point per possession in 9 straight games to close the Pac-10 season (and often allowed more than 1.2 ppp!). The fact that they actually won four of those games tells you something about this offense. The Arizona defense was somewhat better against Utah and Cleveland State, but neither of those teams sports a top-50 offense. The game against Louisville figures to showcase an excellent matchup while Arizona has the ball, but at the other end... not so much. Unless the Wildcats really turn it on defensively this Friday, I expect Louisville to advance to the Elite Eight.

Thus far, the Big Ten as a whole has already met or exceeded preseason expectations - I doubt many predicted that the conference would have more than:

  • 7 teams in the tournament
  • 4 teams in the round of 32
  • 2 teams in the Sweet Sixteen

If the conference can get at least one squad into the Elite Eight, anything else would be gravy. The fun continues tonight as Purdue tries to slay mighty Connecticut.