The Michigan State Spartans excellent blog "The Only Colors" responded to our questions to give us an insider peek on the Spartan's crazy basketball season. A season in which they began at number 2 in the nation and closed having to win a game against #9 Purdue just to make sure they would even be in the tournament. LVS of The Only Colors and I traded short interviews.
BN: The Spartans were preseason #2, yet ended up enduring one of their toughest seasons in years. What happened?
TOC: Well, this is easy to say in retrospect, but most serious MSU fans thought that the preseason ranking was quite optimistic. The team didn't lose a ton of players from last season's Final Four squad, but the departed players were significant contributors. Additionally Kalin Lucas was coming back from a very severe ACL tear, which has never fully healed. Finally, in recent years, MSU has tended to underperform low preseason expectations and overperform low expectations.
But even as compared to slightly lowered expectations, the season has been a disappointment. The departure of Chris Allen (and later, the unexpected departure of Korie Lucious) sapped the team of much of its depth at guard and shooting ability. Durrell Summers has performed at a level far below what we had hoped. Derrick Nix's development has been sporadic. Delvon Roe's surgically repaired knee flares up frequently and is a constant worry. Draymond Green has struggled with his shot at times. And while Kalin Lucas has improved markedly over the past two months, his recovery from a torn ACL in the second round against Maryland last season has resulted in him playing much of this season at a level far lower than he showed in recent years. The team has usually played solid defense, but scoring has been a major problem (103.1 offensive efficiency).
In some seasons, I think MSU's record can be a bit misleading, but this year, 19-14 is probably a fair representation of how well the team has performed. MSU played a brutal non-con schedule (UConn, Washington, Duke, Syracuse, Oakland, Texas), but also won 2 conference games in overtime and won 4 others by 5 points or less. It's been an up-and-down year, and the season certainly has included more struggles than we're accustomed to.
More after the jump.
BN: How good is Kalin Lucas and is the ankle sprain going to affect him?
TOC: The sprained ankle is not on the leg which he tore up in last season's tournament. Izzo will probably take it a bit easy on Lucas in preparing for Thursday's game but I think he'll be more or less at full strength.
Lucas is an outstanding player: he's very dynamic offensively and and can catch fire with his shot. Before the ACL tear, he was absurdly quick; now he's merely very fast. It's hard to envision MSU winning if Lucas doesn't have a good game, but if he's on, MSU won't look anything like a 10 seed. (E.g., Lucas's 30 point performance in the 74-56 demolition of Purdue last Friday.)
BN: One of the ESPN "experts" called the Spartans' just Kalin Lucas and a bunch of average players. Obviously, Michigan State is a lot more than that, but who besides Lucas is key for the Spartans?
TOC: Well, as described above, Lucas is the most important cog. Draymond Green is a do-everything point forward who is an outstanding rebounder and passer. You can bet that the announcers will spend quite a bit of time singing his praises on Thursday; his reputation kind of precedes him at this point. Delvon Roe is a great rebounder and an outstanding interior defender who has performed very well against far bigger players this season. Keith Appling, a freshman, has a nice outside shot and has developed into a very good perimeter defender.
Also, Doug Gottlieb is a cheating, stealing moron.
BN: UCLA offensive strength is its inside game: Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson have at times dominated teams. How has Michigan State done this year against good centers and big men?
TOC: Up-and-down. The Big Ten features two of the country's best big men, Jared Sulliger and JaJuan Johnson, and MSU struggled somewhat against both players. Draymond Green (6'6") and Delvon Roe (6'8") both play taller than their heights but there's only so much that savvy and positioning can accomplish when facing much bigger opponents.
MSU has two relatively inexperienced big men who are likely to see a lot of minutes against UCLA: Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne. Nix is a very brawny and very talented player who has struggled to transition to college basketball. Still, tough matchups seem to bring out the best in him, and he's shown a lot of improvement in the past few weeks. Payne, a freshman, was one of the most highly-recruited players in the country last season, and not surprisingly, has talent to burn. One of his best performances this season came while matched up against Sullinger. He's one of the most likely MSU candidates to have a breakout day. I understand that Smith and Nelson tend to do most of their damage down low; if so, Nix and Payne might have a decent shot at keeping them in check. They've been most susceptible against forwards and centers who can step back and hit jumpers. Also, Garrick Sherman will see some time; hes decent offensively but has been a major liability on defense.
BN: The Spartans are one of the most experienced teams in the tournament but they also just went through their worst season in a long while. How hard will be it able to put the season behind them? Are they rounding into form the right time or are they madly inconsistent?
Tough to say. The "never bet against Izzo!" predictions are a bit simplistic, but it is true that MSU hasn't been knocked out in the first round since 2006. The core of this team has played in two consecutive Final Fours, and none of them have ever been knocked out in the first weekend. So, they know how to win these games, and certainly won't be flustered by the big stage.
As you say, they've been wildly inconsistent this season. But, they really needed a win last Friday against Purdue to clinch a tournament spot, and responded with one of the best performances by any MSU team in the past 5 years. MSU fans sometimes take tournament success for granted, but that's only because year in and year out, Spartan teams have been at their best when the lights are the brightest. The team certainly has flaws, and UCLA may be able to exploit them. But, even in the aftermath of the worst MSU season in 15 years, I'd be stunned if the Spartans didn't put up a hell of a fight on Thursday.
Big thanks to the team at The Only Colors and be sure to check out The Only Colors for more from the Spartan perspective.