(2) Michigan State vs. (3) Texas Tech
- Ky McKeon
Initial Thoughts: The Final Four is set and there’s only one question on everyone’s mind: CAN ANYONE BEAT DUKE?!... Wait, sorry, I think I read the only question on ESPN’s mind (sick burnnnnnnn)….
Tom Izzo exorcised his (blue) demons on Sunday, defeating Duke and Coach K, an individual that he was 1-11 against all time heading into the Elite Eight contest. Izzo’s Spartans punched their 8th Final Four appearance under the Hall of Fame coach, despite suffering through a season riddled with injuries. After a blazing 18-2 (9-0) start to the 2018-19 season, it appeared Sparty was ready to crash back down to Earth, dropping three games in a row to Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois. But, the plucky Spartans battled back and now have won 14 of their last 15 contests, capturing the Big Ten conference tournament title in the process. Even without key guard Josh Langford and role player Kyle Ahrens, Michigan State is a bona fide title contender.
Texas Tech has the honor of playing the Spartans in Minneapolis. The Red Raiders dispatched Gonzaga on Sunday, battling for forty minutes against one of the most talented teams in the land. This year marks the first Final Four appearance in TTU’s program history, and head coach Chris Beard has firmly etched his name next to the elite coaches in the country.
This game promises to be a cognitive, high-level affair featuring two lock-down defenses and precise offenses.
Michigan State on Offense: The Spartans rank 5th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating, keyed by their near-perfect execution on this end. As our fellow college basketball maniac, Jordan Majewski, mentioned, Michigan State employs the best ball movement in the entire country. From a passing perspective, there is no more unselfish team in the nation – the Spartans rank 1st in assist rate (67.1% baskets are assisted) and against Duke, poured in an unfathomable 71% of its buckets off an assist.
The extra pass is strong with the Spartans. In the clip above, Kenny Goins passes up an open shot and Matt McQuaid catches the defense rotating, driving in for an easy layup while Xavier Tillman clears the help.
Many know by now of Texas Tech’s historically great defense – from an advanced analytic standpoint, the Raiders have one of the best defenses of all-time. The key to scoring on TTU is to have superior ball movement and the ability to score in multiple ways. We’ve touched on Sparty’s ball movement already, but another key reason Izzo’s squad is nationally elite on the offensive end is their ability to score pretty much any way on the floor. Michigan State is incredibly balanced from a shot selection and point distribution standpoint, literally ranking near smack-dab in the middle of the country in percentage of shots attempted near the rim, via 2P jumpers, and from behind the arc. This means that Izzo, a master mid-game adjuster, can adapt his offense to what Texas Tech gives him. The Spartans love playing through Nick Ward in the post, but if he isn’t there, they can shoot from the outside or play the dribble-drive game.
Now, Gonzaga was an extremely balanced offense as well, but the Raiders held the mighty Zags to just 0.97 PPP, only the third time they’ve been held under 1.00 PPP all year. As discussed in my Elite Eight preview, Tech is so good – better than any team in the country – at helping and recovering on the defensive end that driving or finding open looks against their “pack line” style is very, very difficult. Post play is also a chore with the likes of Norense Odiase defending on the block, a 6’8” 250 lb. senior that’s allowed just 0.429 PPP on post-up plays this year (95th percentile).
The glass is the one area where Sparty can take advantage of the Raiders. Izzo’s crew ranks 24th nationally in offensive rebounding rate and TTU, while elite defensive stoppers, is not super tough on the glass (going for blocks and long rebounds plays a part in this). Gonzaga was able to exploit TTU in this area, grabbing 35% of its misses, an incredibly high rate. Look for Ward, Xavier Tillman, and Kenny Goins to feast on the boards.
Goins will be one of Sparty’s key factors on offense in this game. The 6’7” forward is 6/20 from downtown his last three games and has shown a willingness to bomb it as of late.
Tech might be content allowing Goins to try to beat them on this end, as other teams have dared him to do this season. If Tariq Owens or another TTU big is pulled away from the paint and forced to contest Goins on the perimeter, the middle suddenly looks a lot more spacious. With Goins and Tillman sharing the floor, look for Michigan State to invert its offense, playing the bigs at or above the high post, spacing the court for its guards.
Then there’s Cassius Winston, a player that most have doubted all season only to be proven embarrassingly wrong. Winston has been arguably the best guard in the country this season, conducting Sparty’s great offensive attack with his passing and scoring knack. He’ll be going up against a lengthy TTU perimeter and a stingy defender in 6’3” guard Matt Mooney. Beard may also bring over the 6’6” Jarrett Culver to cover Winston when the games gets down to the wire. Winston has consistently dealt with pressure and length all season, so he should be well-equipped to handle TTU on Saturday. Sparty as a team did a tremendous job at taking care of the ball against Duke and LSU, turning it over less than 10 times in both those games, but they did cough up the rock 22 times against Minnesota in the 2nd Round. Texas Tech forced 16 turnovers on the sure-handed Zags and rank 11th in the country in TO rate.
Texas Tech on Offense: As I’ve talked about in previous previews, the Tech offense revolves around crisp ball movement, constant screening, and Jarrett Culver. Like Michigan State, Texas Tech can shoot the three if left open, but it’s not the number one option. Culver is a master at making plays on the offensive end with his vision and ability to score against virtually anyone one-on-one, but as stated in other previews, Tech does have the tendency to stagnate and watch their superstar in isolation:
Counter this to when Tech runs its normal, fluid offense – one that has an element of mover/blocker to it where the big men are head hunting opposing backcourt defenders. Below, Culver receives a flare screen at the same time as Davide Moretti, a known knock-down shooter, comes across the baseline. The movement leaves Culver with an open driving lane and space to attack a recovering defense.
As Culver is such a high-usage, talented scorer and playmaker, Sparty’s defense will naturally be keyed on him all game. 6’5” senior Matt McQuaid, arguably the most frustrating defender to play against in college basketball today, likely earns the assignment. McQuaid has been an excellent on-ball defender all season thanks to his tenacity and seemingly undying motor. In isolation sets this year, McQuaid is allowing just 0.52 PPP (84th percentile) and on spot-ups, he’s allowing just 0.73 PPP (86th percentile). His job will be “simple” in this one – frustrate the hell out of Culver and throw the superstar off his game. Freshman Aaron Henry may also draw the Culver assignment after guarding RJ Barrett of Duke for most of the Elite Eight game. At 6’6” 210 lbs., Henry has the size to hang with the versatile wing, allowing McQuaid to chase a player like Mooney or Moretti off screens.
Tech’s defense will deservedly garner the most attention in this matchup, but Michigan State has an elite defensive unit as well. Per KenPom the Spartans are the 8th best defensive team in the land, ranking 2nd in the country in 2PFG%. Sparty held Duke to just 0.99 PPP in the Elite Eight, successfully siphoning off driving lanes, protecting the paint, and defending the glass. Like Duke, Texas Tech would prefer to get most of its shots heading towards the basket or in the middle of the floor. Sparty’s excellent help-side defense and stout inside presence should be able to largely prevent Tech from succeeding in this area.
The lineup battle will be an interesting thing to keep an eye on. Tech starts two giants up front in Owens and Odiase, but Beard often plays a four-guard lineup, as he did when Odiase went to the bench with foul trouble against the Zags. Per Hoop Lens, Tech’s offense improves with Brandone Francis playing the “4”, but its defense suffers without Odiase’s presence in the middle.
On the flipside, Beard’s starters give up an astounding 0.82 PPP when on the floor together but aren’t quite as potent with a more clogged floor.
Key Factor(s): Who can crack through the other team’s defensive wall? If Sparty can adjust to what the Raiders give it on offense and take care of the basketball, Izzo will be marching towards yet another National Title game. Tech on the other hand will almost certainly need to knock down threes, as Sparty won’t give up much off the bounce and the glass will be a non-issue.
Speaking of glass, Tech needs to protect its defensive glass if it wants to pull off the upset. The Raiders cannot afford to allow Sparty to grab 35% of its misses like Gonzaga did. Foul trouble may also be a sneaky factor in this one, especially for Texas Tech. While Michigan State goes deep in the frontcourt, Tech relies heavily on Odiase and Owens to provide shut-down defense. Both big men have faced foul trouble this season, and players like Nick Ward know how to take advantage of that weakness.
Final Predictions: This should be a fun game to watch. These are two of the most fundamentally sound offenses and defenses in the country and each features a college basketball star. Expect a tight one all the way through with the Spartans pulling away in the last few minutes on foul shots.