Notre Dame's basketball team will face its toughest test of their non-conference season Wednesday night as Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans come to South Bend as part of the annual ACC/BigTen challenge.
MSU So Far
The Spartans enter the game coming off a difficult, low scoring loss to Kansas 56-61 in the finals of the Orlando Classic. In a game that caused Izzo to lament, "I think a dead man can make a layup," the Spartans hung with the 11th ranked Jayhawks on a neutral floor. Unlike their previous loss to Duke, where they shot 54.2% eFG, MSU managed only 37.3% eFG against Kansas. They missed a number of conversions at the rim, leaving themselves disappointed, but hopeful for their future.
The Spartans have faced two top teams this season in Duke and Kansas, and those two losses came in very different fashion. Against the Blue Devils, Izzo's team boasted a 1.09 ppp efficiency, but gave up a whopping 1.25 to Duke. Although MSU held Kansas to only 0.95 ppp, they could only score 0.88 themselves. This was, by far, the least efficient offensive performance by the Spartans, driven mostly by the woeful 19-59 shooting. Where the Spartans looked back at the Duke game, they saw themselves lamenting turnovers and defensive lapses, the Jayhawk loss was disappointing because MSU did a much better job taking care of the ball than they have all season, but could only clear 67% of their defensive boards, which gave Bill Self's team a lot of extra looks. The Spartans were also whistled for 22 personal fouls and saw Kansas take 10 more trips to the stripe.
Rebounding the MSU Way
It is so rare to see Izzo's team beat on the glass, but Kansas managed the feat 33-44 in Orlando. I found it ironic this happened the day before Brett Koremenos dropped this article on Grantland.com. In his profile, Kormenos goes to great lengths to describe Izzo's focus on the gritty nature of rebounding and gets a very telling quote from former MSU assistant, Mark Montgomery:
"There's no skill involved," Montgomery says. "You want the ball more. It's in your heart. It's body on body. It's kamikaze. You go in there and come away with it."
I'll leave you to the rest of the Grantland article if you want more on MSU's rebounding culture and Izzo's foundations for his program. However, I do want to take a second to address an aspect of Izzo's teaching on rebounding technique. Here's a video of Izzo explaining 1:1 rebounding technique that was linked in the Grantland piece:
As you can see, Izzo doesn't believe in the traditional box out. He favors a technique where his man uses a forearm check to knock the opponent off balance, while his guy locates and pursues the ball. As someone who teaches boxing out to youth level teams, I found this fascinating. In fact, we run drills with kids all the way to the HS level where we do one-bounce rebounds to reward guys who can keep a man away from the ball. As you play a few of the other videos on the Grantland piece, particularly the WAR Drill one, watch to see how often the offense grabs the rebound in these drills. I'm not sure if it is sample error, but I found that hit, find, fetch seemed to be giving up a large percentage of offensive boards in the drills I watched.
The Irish on the Boards
Observing the Irish this year, it is fair to say that Mike Brey and his staff don't spend a lot of time on boxing out either. Particularly in their 2-3 look, Irish defenders tend to go to the rim instead of checking out. Here's an example from early in the Chicago State game.
Notre Dame is in a man defense, but scrambling in rotations. When the shot goes up, watch how Connaughton and Auguste both run to the rim without any regard for where the Chicago State players are. When the rebound bounces long, it is an easy scoop and score for the opponent. Connaughton runs himself right out of the play. This just won't cut it vs. the Spartans. They're trained to pursue the defensive glass, and all 5 guys are going to have to focus on keeping their man off the boards for Notre Dame to be successful Wednesday night.
Examining the Numbers
Looking statistically at the two teams so far this year, they have similar offensive profiles with Ken Pomeroy giving the Irish a 109.2 adjusted offensive efficiency rating and MSU 108.0. Defensively, both teams have held up well. As expected, the MSU defense is near the top in the country at 90.0 opponent offensive efficiency, while the Irish have improved dramatically to 96.7 this season. However, against their toughest opponent, Providence, the Irish gave up 1.21 ppp, their first time greater than 1 this season. While we can all hope the Spartans will bring their shooting slump back north from Orlando, it will be very important to watch how the Irish handle the Spartans defensively and if they can keep MSU off the offensive glass. Notre Dame has been great all year at clearing the boards, even in the Providence game, but MSU represents a whole other challenge.
From a "Four Factors" perspective, Notre Dame is the top shooting team in the nation at a 67.0% eFG, but the Spartans have only allowed opponents 41.6% eFG. The Irish have been great shooting the ball at home this year, so it is reasonable to expect the Irish to continue that trend. MSU shoots a very respectable 56.7% eFG, and the Irish are good at holding teams to 42.5% eFG. The Irish have been great at taking care of the ball, turning it over on only 15.4% of their possessions, while the Spartans have been very average taking care of it themselves or stealing it way from others. Much like the Irish, the Spartans don't make a lot of trips to the line per field goal attempt.
The Irish offense relies heavily on the three point line, with 41.7% of Notre Dame's FG attempts coming from behind the line, where 38.5% of MSU's shots are from deep. Both are well above the D-1 average of 34.0%.
Personnel and Match-Ups
From both a minutes and points perspective, 6'0" senior guard Travis Trice and 6'5" junior forward Denzel Valentine are the leaders of the Spartans. Both average over 32 minutes per game and both are north of 14 points per game. Neither man shoots the lights out with Valentine at a 57% eFG, and Trice at 55%. Valentine has taken 78 shots on the year, Trice 88, and the next closest player is Dawson at 53 attempts.
While Trice's offensive profile is very similar to Jerian Grant's, Grant uses far superior shooting to run up a lofty 147.9 ORtg, good for 14th in the country. Like Grant, Trice is a very good passer and takes excellent care of the ball. Demetrius Jackson will likely draw Trice on the defensive end of the floor, and ball pressure vs. Trice can certainly disrupt the Spartan offense. Valentine's ORtg is quite a bit lower than Trice's because he suffers a 27.2% turnover rate. Whoever picks up Valentine, Irish fans hope he continues to cough up the ball at a high rate.
Rounding out the Spartan starting lineup are 6'3" junior Bryn Forbes, 6'6" senior Branden Dawson and 6'9" junior Matt Costello. Costello is one of the nation's leading rebounders, collecting 26.4% of the available defensive rebounds, and 12.1% of available offensive boards. Dawson is another great rebounder and a skilled defender, with a 3.6% steal percentage, on par with DJ's 4.0. Forbes is a proficient shooter who takes good care of the ball for MSU.
From a match-up's perspective, DJ will certainly draw Trice, but who guards Valentine will be interesting to watch. Anyone who was skeptical about Mike Brey's praise of Steve Vasturia's progress as a perimeter defender will get to see proof Wednesday night if he draw's Valentine. That would leave Grant on Forbes, Connaughton on Dawson and Auguste on Costello. From an Irish perspective, DJ gets an inch and 30 lbs on Trice, Grant gets 2 inches and 25 lbs on Forbes, Vasturia gives up 9 lbs to Valentine, Connaughton gives 7 lbs. to Dawson, and Auguste gets and inch on Costello. Physically, these teams match up very similarly.
Given the Irish history of good performances in big games at home, there's plenty of cause for optimism Wednesday. Versus common opponents, in this case Navy, the Irish have looked better. While the Spartans have faced tougher tests in Kansas in Duke, the Irish looked very good in their match-up's with UMass and Providence. I think this game will come down to 2 things. First, can the Irish keep MSU off the offensive glass and keep the total number of shot attempts fairly even by making up for any rebounding miscues by turning over the Spartans? Second, can the Irish run on the Spartans and get themselves going with some easy offense if their shots aren't falling?
Tune in Wed night to find out.
**Unless otherwise noted, stats and ratings are via KenPom.com