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Michigan State Preview

It's time to welcome that old friend back to the Longhorn basketball team. You know him as adrenaline. He'll be bringing his crew energy, hustle, and urgency to the party Saturday in a 1 o'clock tip time at Houston's Reliant Stadium a gym in Houston. It'll be a party that features the 5th ranked Texas Longhorns facing off against the 22nd ranked Michigan State Spartans. As Longhorn fans, hopefully we can finally chalk up the past two uninspired performances against Texas State and Texas Southern as letdown spots. Playing flat. Playing down to your competition. You can choose your own cliche. But the point is, if Texas plays with that kind of lack of energy and emotion in this game, they will be run out of the gym. Michigan State is talented, and not dissimilar in both talent and style to the Villanova Wildcats, a team Texas struggled with just a couple weeks ago.

The Horns must keep Lucas out of the lane.

So, let's start with Sparty's personnel.

The Backcourt

Kalin Lucas. The Spartan threat on the perimeter begins with this 6-1 lighting quick super soph. Lucas has the ability to blow by good on ball defenders despite the fact that he's not a legitimate shooting threat. Think poor man's TJ Ford. And while Kalin isn't near as athletic around the bucket as Ford, he's still averaging a Ford-like 7 assists and a paltry 1 turnover per game on the year. Lucas' Achilles Heel is his shooting ability evidenced by his 33% field goal percentage, so opposing guards need to invite the jumper from the little guard and keep as much of an on-ball cushion as possible. If Lucas gets in the paint, however, the Spartans become a completely different offensive team. A very dangerous offensive team.

Chris Allen. The 6-3 sophomore guard has really done a nice job filling in as a deep threat with the departure of gunslinger Drew Nietzel. While Allen isn't the automatic threat from deep that Drew was, he has shot a torrid 14-30 from 3 in December. He's also quite a bit bigger than Nietzel which has translated to more help defensively and on the backboards. Allen is still more of a catch and shoot guy and not a real threat to put the ball on the deck and create offense. His game is similar to Corey Stokes, the 3 point specialist for Villanova. Note: Chris Allen has been coming off the bench but he plays starter's minutes.

Travis Walton, in case Horn fans don't remember him the last couple years, is a 6-2 senior guard who has been a steadying influence in the Spartan attack in his time at East Lansing. While he's not nearly the dynamic get to the basket threat that Lucas is or deep shooting threat that Allan is, Walton excels at getting other players involved and generally running the show on the offensive end. Defensive is where Walton's bread is buttered. Travis is one of the better on ball defenders in the nation and he gives opposing lead guards fits trying to get their respective teams into an offense. Walton's play on the defensive end will be one of the keys to the game in Houston. But we'll get to that in a moment.

Will Raymar Morgan light a fire under Damion James?

The Frontcourt

Raymar Morgan. The Spartan frontcourt is led by the enigmatic 6-8 Raymar Morgan who has spent time coming off the bench and out of Tom Izzo's doghouse at points during the year. His talent is unquestionable, but Raymar has a habit of disappearing in games on the offensive end and on the backboards. With his skill and athletic ability he should be a double double guy night in and night out. He compares favorably to Texas' own Damion James. He can be a ferocious rebounder and is at his best offensively when he's slashing to the basket. He doesn't have quite the range that James does, however, but he's a similar force inside the paint.

Delvon Roe is a 6-8 freshman and former McDonald's all-american who is just now getting healthy from micro-fracture surgery on both knees. Since his addition to the starting lineup Roe has shown the ability to be an elite rebounder and shot blocker. If he can round into form offensively, he can be a star.

Idon Ibok is a 6-11 center who gives the Spartans their only legitimate size until Goran Suton is back to full strength. Ibok is a starter in name only, averaging just over 7 minutes per game, but he'll probably need to play a bigger role in this contest considering Texas' size in the frontcourt. Ibok's not much of an offensive threat, so teams can usually help off of him to Morgan or the penetrating Lucas.

The Bench. Izzo has been experimenting with bringing Allen off the bench for a spark and it has paid dividends as Allen's December numbers will attest. The other guard getting significant minutes is 6-4 Durrell Summers, and he gives MSU more of a wing look off the bench. Summers is athletic enough to be a difference maker on the boards averaging 4 a contest, and he's a legit threat to hit from deep as he's shooting over 50% on the year. Look for Summers to Spell Walton when Izzo needs offensive firpower.

Frontcourt depth is provided by two old stand by's, Goran Suton and Marquise Gray. Both are bangers in the paint and can score the ball if you don't work hard early in possessions to prevent them from getting good position. They are also good position rebounders that can hurt you on both the offensive and defensive backboards. These are classic Izzo ballers.

Keys to the Game for Texas

When Texas is on offense...

Play inside out. One silver lining in Texas' unimpressive win over Southern was the Longhorns willingness to get the ball in the paint from a variety of post entry angles. Remember, we've been saying this all year, a post entry that collapses a defense is just as effective as a TJ Ford drive that collapses a defense. Texas is no different than any other team offensively. They become much more efficient when they can cause opponents to help and recover to talented shooters and penetrators. Then, they become much better offensive rebounders when teams are helping the help. Pittman, Chapman, Johnson and company need one touch on the low block each prolonged offensive possession for Texas to be at peak efficiency in the halfcourt. If this happens at a 50% or better clip, Texas wins.

Shot Selection. It goes hand in hand with the first key. In the last 4 ball games AJ Abrams has made himself a better shooter by taking better shots. He's also made others around him better players because he's taking better shots. That's leadership. Instead of 12-27 night out of AJ, we're seeing 10-17 with 5 additional dunks from other players. And against a Spartan defense that makes you work to find good shots, Texas will need Abrams and James to let the game come to them while keeping teammates, namely postmen, involved. If Texas has a good shot selection night, they can't lose.

Convert the Gimmies. In its only loss of the year and most of its wins, Texas failed to convert a high percentage of point blank layups and dunks. With the caliber athlete Texas recruits, these misses have to be psychological and not physical. Saturday, point blank looks will be at a premium, and Texas needs to hit them at a high clip.

Texas on defense...

Transition Defense. Justin Mason's move to the point guard spot is the main culprit in Texas' shoddy transition defense this year. In previous years, Justin was allowed to attack the offensive glass knowing Augustin and Abrams would rotate back to stop the ball. This year Mason has to get away from attacking the offensive backboards especially when Abrams penetrates or shoots. The Spartans will put a very athletic group on the floor, and they'll look to get easy baskets in transition before Texas can set its stifling D. You obviously coach Mason to get back more consistently, but I'd also give him some help by jamming the outlet pass with a big frontcourt player who happens to be near the rebounder. It's the same effect as putting Dex or Chapman on an inbounds pass.

Recognize Shooters. The Spartans have similar guard personnel to the Fighting Irish in that they've got a tremendous shooter and a couple of guys that don't shoot it as well. Kalin Lucas gets the Tory Jackson scouting report. I'm enticing jumpers from him and giving him a cushion so he can't penetrate and create for others. If I'm helping to him on a catch, I'm helping under control and not honoring shot fakes. If he hits a couple like Jackson did, I tip my cap. When Summers and Allen catch it, however, I'm jumping on their shooting hand forcing them to put it on the floor. Bigs that are helping to their penetration need to do so under control to invite a midrange shot. If we over contest Lucas or Walton at the arc and it leads to dribble penetration dish to dunk or kick to three, my sons are running suicides.

Varez Ward better lace 'em up tight for Lucas.

When Michigan State is on Offense...

Get out and Run. Texas really hasn't faced a team as quick and athletic as Michigan State top to bottom. If Michigan State can control the defensive glass and get the ball to Lucas or Walton quickly on the move, they can really hurt what has been subpar Texas transition defense. The Spartans, with their lack of bonafide perimeter shooters, do not want Texas to get set up defensively since the Longhorns are one of the top defensive teams in the country.

Attack the Backboard. Especially when Texas is in its smaller 3 guard lineup of Ward, Mason, and Abrams. Other teams have had success on the backboards against Texas...teams with far less athletic talent. Texas will roll out a better shooting club than MSU and extra possessions on the offensive end for the Spartans will mitigate this advantage.

Take Care of the Basketball. Since there really isn't a big time shooting threat outside of Allen, the Longhorns should be able to smother, swarm, and in certain situations trap the basketball in halfcourt settings without having to worry about getting beat by the 3-ball. Lucas and Walton will have to do a good job against the best group of on ball defenders they've seen all year, including North Carolina. In the game against the Tar Heels, the Spartans were run out of the gym as a result of committing 21 turnovers.

When the Spartans are on defense...

Pressure. Justin Mason has been great at PG this year, but he and his backcourt mates can still get out of sync when faced with backcourt pressure. The quickness of Walton and Lucas, and the length of Morgan and Allen could really go a long way in keeping the Longhorns out of rhythm.

Switch all ballscreens. Up until last week, Texas has struggled to enter the ball to the post effectively and if I'm Izzo I'd dare them to show they can enter effectively against my athletes. I would switch all screens, especially those that involved Atchley since he's looking to float to behind the arc. Texas has seldomed shown the patience to allow the mismatched big in a ball screen switch to find his way to the block when an entry passer has a good angle to deliver the basketball. I would take advantage of this impatience by thwarting the easy look by switching the ballscreen.

Key Matchups

Morgan vs. James
I'm thinking a headliner like Raymar Morgan is just what the doctor ordered to get Damion out of his funk. Damion has the quickness and skill to draw Morgan away from the bucket and do damage. Hopefully he does it patiently. If I'm Morgan I try to get James on the block to get him in foul trouble. James has the tendency to press on both ends and silly fouls are not out of the question.

Everytime I call Dexter Pittman an aircraft carrier Al McGuire smiles.

Abrams vs. Walton
The Spartans have the luxury of putting a defensive stopper that can devote most of his energy on AJ Abrams. Most teams deploy a shooting guard that needs to score and a point guard that needs to run the show and their games suffer when they chase Abrams for 30 minutes. Walton can go balls to the wall defending AJ knowing Allen will shoot it and Lucas can handle it.

Dex Pittman vs. the Spartan Frontcourt
The Spartans don't have anyone physically capable of slowing Dex down if Texas is patient enough to establish him. Hell, Texas can run offense through Pittman, if Dexter continues to recognize double teams and pass out of them when appropriate. On offense, Michigan State needs to go right at big Dex because he's not nearly quick enough to handle Roe and Morgan.

I like Texas to win by double digits here. They've had a really crappy week, and they have to be chomping at the bit to show their play against the Texas directional schools was a case of dead legs and coming out flat. Most of the matchups favor Texas as well. If Texas can keep Lucas out of the Lane and keep Morgan from going nuts, I don't see the Spartans having enough firepower to keep up with a Longhorn team that can beat you by running or pounding you down low. 73 to 63 Texas.