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: Pete at The Only Colors, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Michigan State.
1) When last we met, it was nearly a matchup of top ten teams. Now it's a matchup of two teams clinging to the fringes of the top 25. Iowa's gone 4-4 since that game and Michigan State's gone 3-5. We have an idea or two about what's gone awry for Iowa -- what's gone wrong for the Spartans?
Well, that's more of a question of "what's gone right" for the Spartans, and it hasn't been much. Two of those wins were at home against Penn St. and Northwestern. The third, at Purdue, was a 15 point win, and although it was a good victory, Purdue put up much more than a point per possession in that game, which hints at MSU's problems throughout the stretch - whenever they've played effectively enough offensively (against Michigan), the defense has let them down. The help defense isn't nearly as helpful as it has been the past few games; both Michigan and Illinois lit the Spartans up from the perimeter. The worst part, though, has been the body language. It was fairly obvious there were significant chemistry issues after the Illinois loss, which led to the dreaded "players-only" meeting.
In short, when the Spartans haven't been shooting well, their lack of defensive cohesion has been exposed.
2) Michigan State's lost their last two home games to the likes of Nebraska and Illinois. It looks like the offense was a major problem in both games -- 51 points on 34% shooting against Nebraska and 46 points on 39% shooting against Illinois. Why's the offense been in such a funk? And are you excited about playing an Iowa defense that's been a bit... porous of late?
Part of it has to do with Keith Appling getting significantly more playing time. Appling was shooting 40%+ from three before he had to sit due to his wrist injury. While he says he's healthy, if you watched any of the Illinois game, his free throws belie that comment completely. Backup point guard Travis Trice is the better shooter and an increase in Appling's minutes means fewer shots for Trice. Second, in the past few weeks MSU's offense has significantly shifted more to the perimeter. When it works (against Purdue and Michigan) it's nice, but it needs players to be consistent in hitting those threes. In the Nebraska game Gary Harris was 4-13 from three, and in the Illinois game Denzel Valentine was 1-5 from three. When no one's insisting on scoring inside, that's a problem.
3) Injuries has been a key storyline for Michigan State all year, with several Spartans spending time on the bench in street clothes. What's the health status of Michigan State right now? Is anyone going to be out for the Iowa game? And given that the conference title is out of reach, has been there any thought to resting guys until the post-season tournaments roll around?
No one should be out for the Iowa game, although as I said earlier, it's been a point of discussion whether Appling's minutes should be reduced and by how much. While the conference title is out of reach, it's all about March at this point, and the starters need as many reps together at this point to duct tape a happy ending out of the pile of crap that's been Michigan State basketball throughout February. Resting guys at this point would serve no purpose. Giving guys fewer minutes because they haven't been performing consistently? That's still on the table.
4) What's your take on the Big Ten? Is it a really good conference full of good teams that have been beating up on each other for the last two months? Is it a somewhat overrated conference full of flawed teams that have been picking off one another? Or does the truth lie somewhere in-between?
I think it's still the best conference in the land (NOTE:the past sentence was paid for by FarmersOnly.com). Seriously though, the Big Ten has five of the top 17 teams in KenPom, the ACC has three, and no other conference has more than two. Michigan's the champ, but they're also the team I can see getting upset early out of the five - one off shooting night and a just-good enough defense has been the hallmark of many a March upset. Wisconsin has turned it on in February due to the lack of sunlight and garlic being banned in Madison. I still think Iowa can surprise - they're 332nd in KenPom in Luck; in short, that means they're 2-3 games better than their record. Ohio State, with their defense, is going to be absolutely frustrating to play against in March.
I still think the Big Ten will get those five teams into the Sweet Sixteen. At least my wallet hopes so.
5) Michigan State entered the year with pretty lofty (but plausible) goals: a Final Four trip and, if things broke right, possibly even more than that. Do you still think Sparty can get healthy and/or hot enough to make a run like that or have your expectations been downgraded after a brutal Big Ten campaign?
This may seem Pollyannaish, but... yeah, I think so. In 2010 Kalin Lucas tore his ACL against Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and MSU still went to the Final Four, thanks in no small part to Kansas getting bounced by Northern Iowa and the Ali Farokhmanesh show. That team is still the one I wonder the most what could have been, because they just barely lost to Butler in the Final Four, and could've taken out a below-vintage Duke team in the finals had Lucas been healthy.
The talent's there, the heads need to be in the right place. It's going to take a lot of luck if Izzo wants to keep the streak of all of his four-year seniors reaching at least one Final Four, but if things get weird, it can still happen. However, Izzo needs to figure out a constant substitution pattern and starting lineup quickly.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
Iowa by 5, because the universe constantly heads towards entropy and as MSU fans have learned in the past month, hope is a human construct designed to make life bearable.
Thanks for being a good sport, Pete, although I still hope your team loses by 50 tonight. You can check out Pete and the rest of the TOC crew at The Only Colors. You can also follow Pete on Twitter at @PeteAtTOC and TOC at @TheOnlyColors. The Iowa-Michigan State game is in East Lansing on Thursday, March 6, and is scheduled to start at 8:00 pm CT, with television coverage from ESPN.