Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. Here are the Butler and West Virginia previews. Today we delve into Michigan State’s chances during their sixth Final Four under Tom Izzo.
Crucial Tourney Moment(s): Michigan State and Maryland played a two-minute stint of basketball during their second round clash unrivaled in this NCAA Tournament. Timeouts, fouls and other stoppages were few and far between. Instead, up-and-down basketball, star players making season-deciding buckets and one backup point guards’ clinching shot at the buzzer made the difference. After Greivis Vasquez capped off a heroic late game performance with a leaner that gave the Terps the lead, it was the roundest point-forward in the land, Draymond Green, finding a streaking Korie Lucious under the ducked head of Delvon Roe for a three-pointer that sent the Spartans to St. Louis, and, following victories over Northern Iowa and Tennessee, on to the Final Four for the second straight season.
It's Mr. Izzo's time of year
Advantage Area: Coaching can often be overstated. After all, it’s ultimately the players on the floor and their individual decision making and skill level that decide games. Yet there’s something about Tom Izzo and his ability to construct a basketball team that peaks when the stakes are at the highest level. A Spartan team mired with chemistry issues, injuries and suspensions for most of the season has rallied around a single goal and are somehow playing into April. Everyone gives Izzo, aptly nicknamed Mr. March, full credit for the turnaround and the program’s annual success. Everyone except Izzo, of course. There are three other great coaches in Indianapolis this year, though, and the games are determined on the floor. Where the Spartans hold an advantage is their ability to run effective sets in the halfcourt, overall athleticism, capability of functioning at different speeds and the versatility of players like Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green. The second half they played against Northern Iowa on the offensive end was a thing of beauty.
Potential Downfall: There are two areas of great importance that the Spartans lack and both could prove their ultimate downfall- steady, experienced point guard play and reliable low-post scoring. Korie Lucious has done a commendable job replacing the Spartans floor leader Kalin Lucas thus far, but often surrendered careless turnovers to the heavy ball pressure of Tennessee’s Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins. No team defends as physically in the halfcourt as Butler. Both Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored are pests that force turnovers at a decent rate. Lucious shouldn’t worry about wowing anyone under the bright lights of Lucas Oil Stadium; instead, focus on taking care of the basketball and running sets, finding Durrell Summers off screens, locating Draymond Green for open mid-range shots and controlling the pace of the game. Michigan State also lacks a true low post scorer that can go toe-to-toe with Matt Howard. Delvon Roe is playing with a torn meniscus and Derrick Nix is a freshman without much experience. Should they advance, neither West Virginia or Duke possesses a consistent scoring threat on the low block.
X-Factor: Raymar Morgan is the ultimate x-factor in college basketball. When Morgan plays up to his talent level, the Spartans are a team to be reckoned with. Durrell Summers shooting stroke is also a major x-factor in Saturday’s game. Summers has been Izzo’s most valuable offensive cog in the last three games: 25-39 FG, 14-22 3pt and 66 points. The Spartans were able to knock off Northern Iowa largely because the Panthers defense dares opponents to make long jump shots and Summers delivered. He exploded onto the scene as a sophomore last March and will look to do the same this year coming off screens and hitting jumpers. With Chris Allen hobbled and Lucious worried about running the offense, it’ll be up to Summers to bail Michigan State out on more than one occasion late in the shot clock when the Butler defense imposes their will in the halfcourt.
Key Semifinal Matchup: Shelvin Mack vs. Korie Lucious. As it does so often in the Final Four, this game could come down to point guard play. The entire world will be judging Lucious on how he steps up in the absence of Kalin Lucas. It is Mack’s job to annoy Lucious as much as possible, much like Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins gave him as little room as possible to operate. It’s not just about defense for Mack, though. His game on the offensive end has made leaps and bounds from his freshman to sophomore seasons, likely due to his experience playing for the Under-19 U.S. team this summer. Mack drained 39% of his threes this season and also has a strong, built body that acts like a bulldozer attacking the basket. It’s up to the defensively challenged Lucious to contain Mack and force more of the scoring load on Gordon Hayward.
Crunch Time Performer: Tom Izzo doesn’t have one main option down the stretch like West Virginia with Da’Sean Butler or Butler with Gordon Hayward. He could diagram a play to get Durrell Summers an open look from deep, isolate Draymond Green and let him operate (ran this play late in the Maryland game), or even clear out for Lucious if he has confidence in him (ran this play late in the Northern Iowa game). And it was Raymar Morgan who found himself open down the floor against Tennessee. Rather than one player the opposing defense can focus on, Izzo has the luxury known as unpredictability. There’s nobody better in college basketball following a timeout than Izzo.
Experience: The experience factor is clearly advantage: Spartans in this Final Four. Nearly everyone that sees regular minutes played on last year’s runner up squad with the exception of Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman. Even Lucious hit two threes in the semifinal win against Connecticut. Not to mention Tom Izzo will be coaching in his sixth Final Four, a mark only Coach K can replicate. Raymar Morgan is the Spartans team captain and will need to step up leadership-wise on the floor should Michigan State fall into a deficit against Butler.
Forecast: Many casual fans are labeling Michigan State as “lucky” they received a mid-major 5-seed in the Final Four rather than Syracuse or Kansas State, a point I respectfully dispute. Butler beat both of those aforementioned teams and will be playing in front of a plethora of navy blue-clad Bulldog fans in their backyard, much like Michigan State experienced last year in Detroit. Butler is an extremely fundamentally-sound, well-coached team with talented players that are operating at their best at the most opportune time. All of those factors also apply to Sparty, though. Should they eclipse Butler, West Virginia or Duke will pose a tremendous threat in the title game. Both the Mountaineers and Blue Devils have more talent across the board than the Spartans, especially without Lucas in the fold.
Prediction: I foolishly doubted Tom Izzo and picked Maryland, Northern Iowa and Tennessee all to beat Michigan State. I figured the shaky Spartans I watched the entire month of February would rear its ugly head at some point in the tournament and it still hasn’t happened. Michigan State simply makes winning plays in March and Izzo is the best in the business this time of year. Spartans advance to the final.