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Scouting the Opponent: Michigan State

Earlier today, basketball beat writer Brady Buck previewed Duke's matchup with Michigan State, but as tonight's 9:45 p.m. matchup between between the Blue Devils and the Spartans draws closer, we present a few more scouting-oriented notes about Tom Izzo's squad.

  • Michigan State's calling card is defense. They don't generate a ton of turnovers, but that's about the only knock on a unit that has been the sixth-most efficient defense in the country. Point guard Keith Appling is a tough, physical defender who excels at applying on-ball pressure, while 6-foot-6 small forward Branden Dawson is one of the most versatile wing defenders in the nation, averaging nearly a block per game to go along with 1.6 steals per contest. Even freshman shooting guard Gary Harris, who is known more for shooting than defense, has chipped in 1.3 steals per game as the perimeter defense has held opponents under 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc. On the interior, Derrick Nix has the size at 270 pounds to keep any post player off the low block, and 6-foot-10 Adreian Payne has developed into a quality shot-blocker, swatting 1.3 shots per game.
  • The tough, physical Spartans are nearly impossible to keep off the glass on both ends, since they have so many excellent rebounders in their rotation. Big men Payne and Nix average 14.0 boards per game between them, but Izzo also gets standout rebounding efforts from Dawson (6.0 RPG) and 6-foot-5 freshman Denzel Valentine, who pulls down 4.2 rebounds per game off the bench.
  • Michigan State will have the edge on Duke in strength and size, but aggressive backcourt defense from the Blue Devils will help stymie the Spartan attack. Appling is a solid workhorse point guard but not an elite distributor, and he can be turnover-prone at times. Harris, though a deadly spot-up shooter, is not much of a ball-handler, and Valentine, who handles the point at times in Appling's stead, adds 2.0 turnovers per game to his 2.5 assists.
  • If the Spartans can get the ball into the paint consistently against Duke, Michigan State will have a decided advantage in the game. The Spartans do an excellent job finishing inside, with four of five starters converting at a 50 percent clip or better from inside the arc. Harris' shooting ability, Dawson's aggressive athleticism, Nix's sheer size and Payne's developing post game give Michigan State a variety of ways to score at close range.
  • As good as the Spartans are at scoring inside, only Harris is a real threat to score from beyond the arc. The freshman made 42 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but Appling shot just 32 percent from long range as the only other frequent perimeter shooter. Among the Sweet Sixteen, only Marquette takes fewer 3-pointers as a team than the Spartans.
  • Like Duke, Michigan State is a team that relies heavily on its five starters. Valentine is a significant contributor as a sixth man, and Izzo uses 6-foot sophomore Travis Trice on occasion when he wants another perimeter threat on the floor, but 81 percent of the scoring comes from the starting five. The balance among the lineup is also outstanding: Four of the five starters average double digits in scoring, and the fifth—Dawson—is not far behind at 9.1 points per game and possesses arguably the most offensive upside of the group.
  • The game could ultimately come down to a battle of mismatches on both ends of the floor. When Payne and Nix are both on the court for Michigan State, Duke will not be able to match their size inside, but neither of the Spartan forwards have the defensive quickness to stick with Ryan Kelly on the perimeter. Dawson may also have his hands full on defense, since Duke lacks a conventional small forward for him to mark, so he'll have to work to contain a smaller, quicker guard like Rasheed Sulaimon for much of the game, which could affect his ability to contribute on the glass.

Overall, tonight's game will be a battle between two teams with very different personnel and contrasting styles, so the team that can establish its preferred brand of basketball will have a significant advantage. But regardless of the style that prevails, this meeting of two balanced, experienced squads has all the makings of a classic March contest.

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