Iowa (9-3) vs. Michigan State (13-0)
Time: 8:00 p.m. CT
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Tickets: StubHub (Tickets sold out through U of I.)
TV/Streaming: Big Ten Network
Line: Iowa -3
Michigan State visits Iowa City tonight, in the first of two games that these two teams will play against each other in the span of a little more than two weeks. The big headline going into tonight's matchup is the fact that Michigan State will be without their star player, and one of the best players in the nation. Denzel Valentine's injury leaves a gigantic hole in Michigan State's per-game output that they are going to have to make up through other avenues. Do the Spartans have enough firepower to overcome his loss? Or will Iowa simply be too much at home?
Let's take a look at what the numbers say.
When Iowa has the Ball
Both teams are very good on this end of the court. Iowa is a great shooting team this season that doesn't turn the ball over very often, and hovers around average when it comes to grabbing offensive rebounds. Michigan State, on the other hand, is a team that does everything very well except for forcing turnovers. Tom Izzo's defenses have never put an emphasis on forcing turnovers, though, so think of Michigan State like Wisconsin in that they don't really gamble for steals, but play physical defense and force you to hold the ball deep into the shot clock. For reference, their opponents' possessions this season have lasted an average of 18.5 seconds, which is 339th out of 351 teams. The Division I average is 17.1 seconds, so the Spartans are forcing opposing teams to really execute their half-court offense.
This has me concerned for Iowa on offense if the Hawks can't open up some transition opportunities. In their three losses this season the big problem for the Hawkeyes was their half-court offense bogging down. Guys weren't penetrating the defense when they had the ball and they weren't really moving around when they didn't have the ball. If the transition opportunities are limited for Iowa, a motionless motion offense could be killer.
Of course, it's not all gloom and doom. Iowa does have mismatches here. For instance, Jarrod Uthoff should be tough to guard for Michigan State. The Spartans have some very athletic guys that play the forward position, but guys who are athletic enough to guard Uthoff have a 2-3" height mismatch, while guys who are tall enough to guard him are too slow to cover him away from the rim. Uthoff should be able to get his shot when he wants it in this game, but he's got to want it and he has to take smart shots. In other words, he can't disappear for long stretches of time and he can't get complacent and settle for contested fade away jumpers.
Outside of Uthoff, Iowa, as a team, is going to likely have to shoot the ball well in this one because Michigan State does not allow offensive rebounds and it is highly unlikely that Iowa is going to get to the free throw line at a high clip. Michigan State has been incredibly good at contesting shots this season, however, so this should be a good test to see just how potent Iowa's offense is this season.
When Michigan State has the Ball
On offense, this is where Michigan State will likely feel the absence of Denzel Valentine. That being said, I'm not exactly sure which of their four factors will really be affected by his absence. Shooting could be the main one, though there are still plenty of good shooters left on the team. And Valentine was meh when it came to turnovers, offensive rebounding, and getting to the foul line. Without Valentine, the big hole that is left is the shot-creating void he leaves, not only for himself, but for others. Eron Harris will likely step into those roles, but that could be a little drop off in production and the offense could potentially look clunky as they get used to life without Denzel.
The Spartan offense did fine against Oakland, but Iowa is a bigger defensive test to pass without their star player. The Hawkeyes contest shots well, force a few turnovers here and there, and don't foul much. The biggest concern on this side of the ball is the rebounding battle. Michigan State has the ninth-best offensive rebounder in the country in Deyonta Davis and the 92nd best in Matt Costello. If Iowa can't keep them off the offensive glass, second chance opportunities may erase any advantage the Hawkeyes had with no Denzel Valentine on the floor.
Of course, because Michigan State is missing a National Player of the Year candidate, I do have to give Iowa an advantage here.
Style of Play
As I've already mentioned, Michigan State plays a bit slower than the Hawkeyes, averaging about 68 possessions per game to Iowa' s almost 71. However, that does seem to stem mainly from the fact their opponents are really holding onto the ball this season. While they may be 339th in defensive possession length, they are just 105th in offensive possession length. One caveat to that, however, is that Denzel Valentine's ability to play point-forward may have had something to do with that and their offensive possessions could be longer in his absence. In addition to that, Iowa is 267th in the country in defensive possession length, so this game could slow down a bit. And I would say that could favor Michigan State, for reasons I already mentioned above.
Shooting-wise, Michigan State's shooting tendencies are right around the Division I average, while Iowa favors the three-point shot a little more.
And both teams shoot the ball really well from anywhere on the court. However, Michigan State will be without Denzel Valentine's shooting abilities. The senior was shooting 52% from two-point range and 40% from three-point range on the season. His absence leaves them without a key long range threat.
As for scoring, Michigan State is again close to the average team, except for getting more of their production from outside instead of at the free throw line. Iowa, meanwhile, really gets a lot of their points from downtown.
Players to Watch
I threw in a new chart this week because I am trying to show how big of a loss Denzel Valentine is. I mean, obviously losing a guy who is currently in second place for Kenpom's Player of the Year designation is a big deal, but how do we visualize that? Well, I hope this gets the point across.
On the chart, players are plotted on the horizontal axis by their usage rate, which gives us an idea of how big their role is on the offensive side of the ball. They are then plotted vertically by their offensive rating, which tells us how efficient they are when it comes to scoring. So, essentially, these coordinates should give us an idea of quantity and quality. Finally, though, in order to give us an idea of how often each player is actually on the court to do those things, the size of the circle identifies their playing time. Thus, a bigger circle indicates that a guy plays a lot of minutes, and vice versa.
Now, we can see that Denzel used the most possessions out of any player on this roster, and did so very efficiently while playing a lot of minutes for the Spartans. Michigan State's offense is going to be without 18.5 points per game and the third-best assist man in all of college basketball. That's huge.
So who replaces his production? Well, a lot of people actually. No, seriously, Tom Izzo uses an extremely deep rotation of 10-11 guys at times. (So this will be a long section.) But speaking more specifically, Bryn Forbes' role automatically becomes bigger as a result of Valentine's injury. Forbes is a completely different player than Valentine, however, in that he is pretty much just a shooter. He's a deadly shooter, but he's not going to facilitate the offense the way that Valentine did, and he's not going to create his own shots. Instead, Forbes' game is more about running off a variety of screens in order to get open looks from distance. Two-thirds of his shot attempts are from beyond the arc, and he is connecting on 49% of them this season and scoring 14 points per game. He scored 32 points against Oakland a week ago, and he did so largely by going 7-for-9 from three-point range. If you are looking for a guy who could do what Travis Trice did to Iowa last season, look no further. Iowa will do their usual aggressive hedging on screens to make sure that Forbes doesn't get too many open looks.
But if Forbes doesn't quite do everything Valentine did, who does? Enter Eron Harris. You may remember Harris from his West Virginia days a few years back when he was scoring 17 points per game. At 6'3" and 185 lbs., Harris is a smaller guy than the 6'5", 220 lb. Valentine, but he moves into Valentine's spot at the small forward position. As you can tell by his usage rate on the chart, Harris already plays a significant part in the offense when he's in the game. It's just now that Valentine is injured, he steps into a starting role and the 17 minutes per game he was averaging is going to go up. This already became apparent against Oakland when he scored 27 points in 33 minutes of play.
As for his arsenal, he is shooting 38% from three-point range this year, but he is also taking 60% of his shots from inside the arc where he is less efficient (46% on the season). He does help make up for that, however, by drawing a good amount of fouls and making a living at the free throw line. In addition to the scoring, he is also the third best assist man on the team (and 220th in the nation), which helps fill the Denzel Valentine-sized hole in the offense.
Lourawls Nairn also helps pick up the slack of facilitating the offense and handing out assists now that Valentine is gone. As the starting point guard, he was already the second-best assist man on the team (151st in the nation), but that number will likely go up while Valentine heals. Outside of handing out assists, Nairn isn't much of a scorer, but he does provide value by not turning the ball over.
Next, Deyonta Davis is an impact player off the bench. Davis is new to college basketball this season, but he hasn't taken long to adjust. The 6'10", 240 lb. behemoth is a beast in the paint. He's converting on 64% of his shots this season and he's currently the 9th best offensive rebounder in the nation. On the other side of the ball, he's pretty good on the defensive glass and he's the 18th-ranked shot-blocker in Division I basketball. His points per game are at 8.5, but that is mainly due to Izzo playing him only 17.5 minutes per game. He is capable of more output if he gets more opportunity.
Why he doesn't get more opportunity is because senior Matt Costello is ahead of him at the center position and commands 20 minutes of playing time per night. Costello is averaging 7.6 points per game, is shooting 50% from two-point range on the year, and is pretty good at initiating contact. Additionally, he provides value in the rebounding and shot-blocking areas for Michigan State. He is currently ranked 91st in offensive rebounding, 163rd in defensive rebounding, and 177th in blocked shots.
After that, Izzo uses a lot of other guys in limited minutes. The power forward position is manned by a rotation of Javon Bess (40% of the time), Marvin Clark (31% of the time), and Kenny Goins (18% of the time). Bess can shoot from inside and draws fouls at a great clip; Clark is a decent shooter from inside, but a better rebounder; and Goins seems to be a combination of both, but younger and more inexperienced, thus he has played less. Of course, looking over the last couple of games, Clark's minutes have decreased and Goins' have gone up. So that could be something to watch in this game.
Finally, if this section wasn't already long enough, Gavin Schilling and Matt McQuaid should be mentioned. Schilling is a guy who played 17 minutes per game at center last season, but who has been hobbled by injury this year. He's played 11 minutes in both of Michigan State's last two games, though, so he looks to be easing back into the swing of things. But he's another big body that can do a little scoring in the paint, and can really rebound the ball. I would say Michigan State has that market cornered pretty well...
Anyway, last but not least, Matt McQuaid is a guy who can come off the bench and provide a spark from three-point range. His 42% shooting from long distance can help make up for the absence of Denzel Valentine's three-point prowess.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #17, Michigan State #5
Projected Outcome: Iowa 72 (49%), Michigan State 73 (51%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.06, Michigan State 1.07
Projected Possessions: 68
First things first here, Kenpom's projection does not take into account the loss of Denzel Valentine. That alone should give Iowa fans hope that the Hawkeyes could really win this game. However, this game still makes me nervous and I don't think we should go in expecting an automatic win, let alone an extremely easy one.
While not having Valentine for this game is a huge loss, Michigan State does have a lot of depth to help make up for his missing production. Not many teams can bring a guy off the bench that used to average 17 points per game. On top of that, Bryn Forbes can help keep them in the game with his three-point shooting and Iowa doesn't match up very well with Michigan State when it comes to rebounding. Harris' increased production, Forbes' shooting ability, and Michigan State controlling the glass could mean an Iowa loss. This game seems to me like it could be one of those where Iowa jumps out to an early lead in the first half, only to see Tom Izzo make halftime adjustments that help Michigan State win a close one.
On the other hand, I am cautiously optimistic that Iowa can win this game at home. But they can't afford a cold night shooting or a long offensive scoring drought, because the rebounding and free throw categories are not in their favor. If they can create some transition opportunities and their three-point shots are falling, they do have a legitimate chance at winning this game. Let's hope they can do that.