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Dispatches from Blogfrica: The Only Colors Talks Iowa-Michigan State



What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: KJ at The Only Colors, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Michigan State.

1) On paper, this looks like a fairly typical Michigan State team: very stout defensively, very efficient on offense, very good at rebounding. Does the reality of this MSU team sync up to that interpretation? How has this team looked so far this season?

This season is a bit tough to sum up at this point. That's partly because of the injuries you mention below. But also because the team has posted a record befitting its #3 preseason ranking (18-2) without looking quite as dominant as a team with this much returning talent might be expected to. They struggled against a couple weak teams in conference play (Columbia, Oakland) and needed overtime to pull out two home wins in Big Ten play (Ohio State, Minnesota).

In some ways, this is actually a fairly atypical Tom Izzo team. The rebounding is OK, but not elite--particularly on the offensive end where the team ranks just 143rd nationally in rebounding percentage. More broadly, it's a much more perimeter-based team than we're used to seeing in East Lansing, relying on limiting turnovers, shooting three-pointers, and attacking the basket off the dribble. Defensively, they take more risks than past Izzo teams, looking to create turnovers leading to fast breaks. In stretches, this has been an extremely effective combination.

2) Of course, that answer probably deserves a caveat because Michigan State has so rarely been at full strength this year, between the injuries to Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, and now Branden Dawson. Which injury has hampered the Spartans the most this season and how have they been able to compensate for the injuries?

I think the absence of Payne over the last five games has hit the hardest, partly just because of the timing of being in conference play. The team played through earlier injuries (Gary Harris, most notably) as the nonconference schedule naturally poses less consistent opposing threats. Without Payne on the court, MSU really has no legitimate post threat, so the perimeter-oriented nature of the offense becomes even more evident. Dawson's self-inflicted injury last week obviously heightened the rebounding and interior defensive issues, as he plays at least half of his minutes at the power forward spot.

The expectations for this team were based more on the returning talent at the top of the rotation (Appling/Harris/Dawson/Payne) than on overall depth, as there were really only three other known quantities coming into the season (Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello). Other guys have now been forced to step up, and the bench guys did make some key contributions against Michigan on Saturday despite the team coming up short at the end.

3) Gary Harris has been excellent so far this season, playing at an all-Big Ten level (18.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.2 spg, 44% FG, 81% FT, 35% 3FG). What does Iowa need to do stop him -- or at least slow him down? Who are the other Iowa players that Iowa needs to worry about when Sparty is on offense?

Harris has slowly ramped up his game since coming back from an ankle injury and is now playing at a clear All-American level. He's scored 23+ points in each of the last three games, without consuming a ton of shots. His jumpshot was strangely out of whack to the start the season, but he's knocked down 10 of 16 three-point attempts in those last three games. And he's attacking the rim and getting to the line with regularity. If I'm Iowa, I just try to contain him and force other players to beat you.

With Payne and Dawson out, MSU's other two options to initiate offense are Keith Appling off the dribble and Valentine off the pass. Appling's been struggling with his jumper of late, partly due to an ongoing wrist injury, so he's looking to get to the basket. Valentine has great court vision, but is also struggling with his jumpshot. Trice and Kenny Kaminski (starting at power forward for the moment) are both solid outside shooting threats (43% and 52%, respectively, on threes) when they're set up by other players.

4) Michigan State is playing at a faster tempo this season (67.5 possessions per game) than they have since 2009 (67.3 possessions per game), which is coincidentally the last time the Spartans made the Final Four (and national championship game). Is that just a function of the make-up of this team, with guards like Appling and Harris and quicker bigs like Payne and Dawson? What sort of tempo do you think MSU will want to play against Iowa? Will they try to run with the Hawkeyes or will they try to slow things down and make the game more of a defensive grind?

Tom Izzo talks about pushing the push on offense almost every year, but this year the team is actually doing it with frequency. As you note, that's a function of the personnel. Almost everyone is scoring efficiently in transition, with Appling, Trice, and Valentine pushing the ball up court after both misses and makes by the opposition.

The current lack of depth might make Tom Izzo lean against the team trying to run up and down the court with Iowa, but given the limited number of half-court scoring options right now I think the team may have no other choice. Either way, it'll be on Appling and Harris to get to the rim to open up other things.

5) What are 2-3 things that MSU must do if they're going to beat Iowa tonight?

First, I'd say the bigs (Costello, Alex Gauna, Gavin Schilling) have to help keep Iowa off of the offensive glass. Those guys combined for 14 rebounds against Michigan, which is much more productive than they've been in previous games. (The 6'5" Valentine is actually the team's most consistent rebounder right now.)

Second, MSU has to defend without fouling. They were very aggressive defending the perimeter against Michigan and the officials "let 'em play." Iowa looks like a team that can take advantage of contact, score easy points at the line, and make MSU's bench even shorter due to foul trouble.

Third, Trice and Kaminski have to knock down open threes. If they're not hitting shots, the Iowa defense can really collapse on Appling and Harris.

6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?

Long ago, I took an oath of non-prediction-making. (It was at a monastery just outside Vegas.) But I wouldn't say I have a great feeling about this one. Iowa is a team that can go toe to toe with MSU in transition. At full strength, Aaron White and Melson Basabe would have been pretty good match-ups for Payne and Dawson. Now they become clear strengths up front. And it's just MSU's second road game against a likely NCAA tournament team this season.

MSU won't go quietly--the winner of this game will have a much easier time reeling Michigan back in in the Big Ten title race--but KenPom says Iowa by 7, and I have a hard time making the case that number should be any lower.

Thanks for being a good sport, KJ, although I still hope your team loses by 50 tonight. You can check out KJ and the rest of the TOC crew at The Only Colors. You can also follow KJ on Twitter at @KJatTOC and TOC at @TheOnlyColors. The Iowa-Michigan State game is in Iowa City on Tuesday, January 28, and is scheduled to start at 6:00 pm CT, with television coverage from ESPN.