9:20 PM EST, TNT – Line: Miami (Fla) -2, Over/Under: 126
After experiencing very uneven campaigns, a pair of teams that are no stranger to the NCAA Tournament face off in the Round of 64 as the Eighth-Seeded Miami Hurricanes battle the Ninth-Seeded Michigan State Spartans at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As was the case for most teams in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, Miami (21-11, 7th in ACC) experienced most of their issues once the traversed their league schedule, going 10-8 in conference play after a 10-2 start to the Regular Season. Jim Larranaga’s troops certainly experienced their share of highs and lows, balancing some impressive victories over their ACC brethren (North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech) with some ugly losses (Syracuse, Wake Forest, Florida State), yet made enough of an impression on the Selection Committee to earn a spot on Eight/Nine Seed Line of the Midwest Region. Of course, it’d be one thing if the Hurricanes had built up a head of steam on their way to the Big Dance, but instead they find themselves mired in disappointing skid in which they’ve dropped three out of their last four games. Needless to say, momentum is not in their possession at the moment. In their last outing they were pummeled by ACC Champion North Carolina in a 78-53 beatdown, in which they were outscored 44-24 over the final twenty minutes of play. In essence, that was a terrible matchup for Miami, even though they defeated the Tar Heels in the season, for if they can’t control the tempo of the game, they oftentimes find the game getting away from themselves. Let’s be honest, this is far from one of Larranaga’s better teams in his time at Coral Gables, particularly on the offensive end of the court, where their clear limitations have proven to be a persistent hindrance throughout the term. Out of 351 teams in Division-1 Basketball, the ‘Canes rank 264th in scoring (69.4) on 45.3% shooting from the field (124th Overall), while netting just 6.4 three-pointers a game (268th Overall). In a lot of ways, this team compares very favorably to another ACC outfit, Virginia, who must slow the game to a grinding crawl so that their offense can manufacture points at their own rate. However, if the tempo speeds up too much, look out; of their eleven losses this season, all but three of them came by at least nine points, with five of that number by fifteen points or more. Where Larranaga’s charges differ from the Cavaliers though, is that this is a very isolation-heavy offensive attack, or in other words, there isn’t much ball movement; Miami dishes out just 11.9 assists (271st Overall), with just four players averaging over half an assist a night, leaving the brunt of the playmaking to the likes of Davon Reed (15.0 PTS, 43.1% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.3 STL), Ja’Quon Newton (13.4 PTS, 45.3% FG, 3.6 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.1 STL), and Bruce Brown (11.9 PTS, 45.8% FG, 5.8 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.4 STL). With all that said, this group defends like hell, proving very adept at making life miserable for their opponents on the opposite end of the floor. The Hurricanes have permitted just 63.7 points (24th Overall) on 41.4% shooting from the field (54th Overall), including 45.9% from within the three-point arc (63rd Overall) and 33.1% from beyond it (76th Overall), while besting the opposition on the boards (Plus-4.6), and limiting their distribution to just 11.8 assists (60th Overall). Furthermore, they don’t foul much either, for the opposition has attempted a scant 508 free-throws against them, eighteenth-fewest in the nation. If you can’t speed the tempo up and run these guys out of their comfort zone, then it will take a very disciplined and efficient approach to eliminate them.
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the 2016-2017 campaign has been far from what we’ve come to expect from Michigan State (19-14, 5th in Big Ten) under the watch of Tom Izzo over the past two decades. The Spartans entered the campaign ranked Preseason No. 12, but by the third week of the term found themselves out of the rankings altogether, only to remain that way for the rest of the ride. Simply put, this is the most inconsistent this team has been in ages; Michigan State only won more than three gams in a row three times, while experiencing some truly dreadful spells, including a 4-4 start and a three-game losing streak in Mid-January. Granted, their hellish non-conference schedule (Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, Wichita State, and Duke) played a role in their early struggles, but the Big Ten (where they went 10-8) as a whole wasn’t nearly as strong as it’s been in recent years. Furthermore, like their opponent tonight, they failed to carry any momentum whatsoever into the Tournament, losing three out of their final four contests heading into Selection Sunday. With that said, there is still room for optimism in East Lansing, for after all, there are few coaches out there with a better NCAA Tournament resume’ than Izzo; in twenty consecutive tourney appearances, he has led his charges to the second weekend thirteen times, including seven Final Fours, and a National Championship in 2000. However, Fifteenth-Seeded Middle Tennessee State managed to stun his Second-Seeded Spartans in the First Round a year ago, leaving many to wonder just how this team will perform when they take the floor tonight. If their body of work is any indication, expect a sluggish, defensive slugfest, for like their opponent tonight, Michigan State won’t inspire many on the offensive end, but may just knock your teeth out on the defensive side of things. This team yielded 68.4 points (81st Overall) on a solid 40.7% shooting from the field (32nd Overall), including 43.6% from within the three-point arc (15th Overall) and 34.7% from beyond it (168th Overall), while outrebounding the opposition by 3.6 boards a night, and permitting 12.9 assists (168th Overall). Furthermore, they are very active around the rim, blocking a stellar 4.8 shots per game (34th Overall). Offensively, they’re far more efficient than Miami, yet still prefer to play at a comparable plodding pace; despite averaging 71.7 points (215th Overall), they’ve shot an excellent 46.8% from the field (60th Overall), including 53.4% from within the three-point arc (62nd Overall) and 37.6% from beyond it (64th Overall), while dishing out a serious 17.0 assists (15th Overall). The problem though, has been the Spartans have been prone to giving the ball away quite frequently, committing 14.5 turnovers (298th Overall), translating to a poor Minus-3.2 Turnover Differential. Compounding matters, they don’t get to the Free-Throw Line very often either, attempting just 18.6 per game (243rd Overall), and even when getting there they only shoot a miserable 66.3% (292nd Overall). And in arguably the most non-Izzo-Like stat of all, these guys have been uncharacteristically bad on the offensive glass, securing just 9.5 rebounds of that variety (229th Overall) for yet another negative differential (Minus-0.8). Without the benefit of easy points from the Charity Stripe or in Transition combined with a dearth of Second-Chance Opportunities, there has been a much heavier onus placed on the Offense to execute, which has at times been too daunting of a task. Of course, it would have helped had Izzo and Co. had the good fortune of a healthy Miles Bridges (16.7 PTS, 48.1% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 8.3 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.6 BLK) for the duration of the term, who in all likelihood will be off to the NBA after the Tournament concludes after his lone season in East Lansing. The highly-recruited Forward has been dogged by injuries throughout the campaign, missing seven games, while being hampered in a number of others. His shooting percentages increased greatly during Big Ten play (49.2% FG, 42.0% 3FG), which was coincidentally when he returned to full health, making him one to watch in this first weekend of action.