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Hoops Preview: Michigan State Spartans vs. Texas Longhorns

The Horns travel to East Lansing tonight to take on the 12th ranked Spartans at 6 pm in the second leg of back to back brutal roadies. There was a lot of angst going into the UNC game that the Horns wouldn’t be able roll out their optimal offensive lineup due to size mismatches on the other end of the floor. The specters of Henson and Zeller playing volleyball on the glass against Texas’ smallish frontcourt would even frighten Bill Little’s grandchildren. So you would think with big, bad Michigan State on the horizon, the Horns would be in for the same type of matchup concerns.

Think again.

Fortunately for the Horns, this year’s Spartan squad is more perimeter centric than they’ve been in recent memory. They’re far more likely to rain threes down on your head than they are to bash it in on the glass. In fact, the Spartan frontcourt is nearly a perfect analog to the interior group the Horns feel most comfortable with—Hamilton, Johnson, and Thompson. The squads are almost mirror images of one another, let’s see who’s the fairest of them all.

The Spartan Backcourt

MSU plays a core group of 5 guards comprised of Kalin Lucas, Korie Lucious, Durell Summers, Keith Appling, and Austin Thornton. Even though Lucious comes off the bench in most contests he’s still logging starter’s minutes along with Lucas and Summers.

Kalin Lucas is the unquestioned leader of the Spartans and Izzo’s squad typically goes as the senior lead guard goes. If he controls the game, the Spartans win. When Lucas has struggled like he did vs. Syracuse, the Spartans are usually in trouble. Lucas was shaky with 5 and 6 turnovers respectively in losses to Syracuse and UConn. His sloppy 5 turnover performance against upstart Oakland kept UO in the game until the final buzzer. Interestingly enough, Lucas is shooting the ball better this season than he has at any other point in his career. Chase Lucas off his jumper and pressure him into mistakes seems to be a winning formula for the Horns.

Opposite Lucas in the backcourt is Durrell Summers who happens to be shooting over 45% from deep on the season. Summers concerns me because he’ll most likely draw Hamilton when the Spartans are in their three guard look. Hamilton’s struggles guarding off the ball have been well chronicled, and Summers is at his best being hard to guard by moving without the basketball for a deadly catch and shoot. You’d almost rather have the Spartans go big so Hamilton can tag a less dangerous player, but I doubt Coach Izzo plays along.

Korie Lucious is the third guard getting starting minutes. He’s water bug quick and can create havoc by getting in the paint, but he struggles with his stroke and is hobbled by an ankle injury. I doubt he has much of an impact in this game, but if he’s in, I’m making him make a couple before I close out too hard. In the open court, I’d like to see some pressure to test that ankle.

The other two guards are specialists. Appling is shooting nearly 50% and must be contested once he leaves the locker room. Thornton is more of physical presence with size and athletic ability to defend smaller threes, but he’s not much of an impact player on offense.

The Frontcourt

As mentioned above this isn’t your father’s MSU team. The Spartans aren’t overflowing with 6’ 8" bruisers that maul you on the glass. Draymond Green, Delvon Roe, and Garrick Sherman get the majority of minutes in the frontcourt. Green is the most dynamic of the three. He can play some point forward for the Spartans, but he’s also a wide body who can carve out space and wreak havoc on the glass. Green leads the Spartans in rebounding with 9 per contest and is second on the club in assists with 4.2 per game. The good news for the Horns is that he’s the perfect cover for Gary Johnson who has the lateral quickness/strength combination to tag Green on the perimeter and still compete on the glass. It’s also important to note that Green has added a credible shooting stroke to his repertoire so Gary better pay attention to his scouting report and honor Green’s Jay.

Delvon Roe is a shell of his former athletic self after injuries, but he still gives the Spartans some length and size on the glass. Offensively he’s little more than a finisher off of dimes and offensive boards. He’s the perfect cover for Thompson in that Roe’s lack of offensive prowess allows Thompson to play the flyswatter role for the Horns without worrying about post defense. Sherman is a big body who’ll likely draw Hill or Wangmene when the Spartans go big.

Keys to the Game For the Horns

Embrace Tempo

The Spartans don’t really have a choice but to play at a faster pace given their strength is in the backcourt. I suppose they could go big and run offense through Green in the halfcourt, but that’s not really who they are so I expect the game to be a faster pace. That’s good news for the Horns because it means they don’t have to try to manufacture tempo by pressing or pushing the ball. Pick your spots to pressure the Spartan guards, and then run when you have numbers.

Shot Selection

Given the Spartans propensity to turn the ball over and the likelihood that the Horns should be able to play even on the glass, this won’t be a game with a huge shot attempt disparity, so the game is going to boil down to field goal percentage. The Horns have to take good shots whether it’s in a halfcourt, transition, or the secondary break. This means not settling for jumpers and getting Thompson and Johnson involved in the offense off of penetration. No heat checks from Hamilton or Brown early in shot clocks regardless of pace is a good place to start.

Balbay vs. Lucas and Johnson vs. Green

This is your ballgame if your Texas. If these two have good defensive games for the Horns, then the Spartans are sunk. Balbay will get 25 plus minutes in this game unless he gets into foul trouble and he needs to make life difficult for the Spartan lead guard. Johnson has to harass Green, a player who’s struggled with the turnover bug, by pressuring his dribble and banging him in the paint. No easy money for Lucas shooting ball or for Green on the glass.

Make Green Guard

This is a huge strategic advantage for the Horns. When the Spartans go big and move Green to the 3, Texas has to find Hamilton and punish Green. There’s no way Green has the chops or lateral quicks to tag and then stay in front of Hamilton on the perimeter. When the Spartans play their 3 guard, Gary Johnson has to lift Green away from the bucket and punish with the face up game. Both of these matchups are keeping Izzo up at night and Texas needs to take advantage.

On the other end, Texas needs to send help at Green in either the big or small scenario. The good news is that they have some doubling options with either Roe or Sherman on the floor. The key is that the Horns have to make it count when they have the basketball. Finding Hamilton and Johnson when Green’s guarding is a must on as many possessions as possible.


I love this matchup for Texas purely from and X and O and Jimmy and Joe standpoint. The spot in the schedule is an entirely different story considering the Horns are coming off an emotionally draining road win and the Spartans haven’t played a real opponent in over a week. The Spartans are rested but the Horns have more matchups to exploit.

I’ll call it 74 to 70 Texas in a 40 minute dog fight.