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Game Preview: #9 UNC vs #4 Michigan State

The young Heels get by far their biggest test of the non-conference schedule

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Michigan State Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The highly anticipated championship game of the Victory Bracket of the PK80 Invitational Tournament is here, and it is as most hoped for and predicted: In a matchup of top-10 teams coached by Naismith Hall of Famers and led by preseason All-American candidates, the Spartans of Michigan State will take on the North Carolina Tar Heels. For the Tar Heels, this game will be the biggest test so far for a team that has looked much better than expected (and at preseason #9, the expectations weren’t chopped liver). The same cannot be definitively said for MSU, which played against and lost to Duke earlier in the season. This game will, however, have a sense of redemption to it for the Spartans, both to redeem themselves in a high-profile game after losing their first one this season, and on a larger scale, for head coach Tom Izzo, who is 0-7 against UNC since Roy Williams started coaching the Heels.

Michigan State

Christian Schneider wrote a bit about Michigan State in his PK80 Preview here, and here’s the important part:

Last year's theme was that NPOY favorite Miles Bridges basically had no help and was repeatedly called on to conjure up the Spartan attack by himself. This year he has help: Joshua Langford has grown into a better scoring threat from the wing, Cassius Winston looks more comfortable running the offense (except, y'know, against Duke's zone), and Nick Ward looks leaps and bounds better in the post than he did last year. In addition, freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. has made strong contributions right away and gives MSU arguably the best frontline in the country (with Bridges, Jackson, and Ward).

While all eyes have been on Bridges, both for his prodigious talent and his heartwarming story, Michigan State has put a really deep team around him. Izzo uses 10 players, all of whom average at least 10 minutes per game and none of whom, not even Bridges, averages over 30 (this was true even before the PK80, during which Bridges has been dealing with a sprained ankle that kept him from playing against DePaul and limited his minutes against UConn). All five players mentioned in Christian’s preview average double figures scoring for the Spartans, with Bridges leading the way with 16.3 points per game (He was at 19 before his injury-hampered 6-point outing against UConn). The Spartans are a decent outside shooting team; Bridges, Winston, Langford, and Matt McQuaid are all 35% or better from behind the arc. While they can do some damage from outside, though, they don’t go to that well often. Only 31% of the Spartans’ field goal attempts have been long-range shots, which is near the bottom of the nation. MSU’s primary threat is its inside game, with one of the best frontcourts in the country. The Spartans hit 59% of their inside shots, good for 30th in the country, and that’s after a low-efficiency game against UConn. Before that, they were at 62% and 14th. The Spartans play bully-ball, and do it really well: 45% of their attempted field goals come at the rim, and they make 73.1% of those shots. About 23 of those are assisted, showing how good Michigan State is at getting the ball into the post in addition to finishing possessions down low. Michigan State is an outstanding passing team in general, near the top of the nation in assist percentage with 19 per game on 31.2 shots per game. On the other hand, they do have a propensity for turnovers, averaging 15 per game.

The Spartans’ defensive traits are fairly predictable once you know about their offense. The Spartans are the best interior defensive team in the nation. They block 20.6% of their opponents’ shots at the rim, hold opponents to 34% shooting inside the arc (including an absolutely staggering 18% on 2-point jump shots), and don’t foul very often; only the freshman Jaren Jackson averages more than 3 fouls per game. Fortunately for their opponents, this interior domination comes at the cost of perimeter defense. Michigan State has not defended the perimeter well; they have allowed opponents to make 39% of their three-point baskets, one of the worst marks in the country. The Spartans are also, unsurprisingly, a great offensive rebounding team, grabbing almost 40% of their own misses. Their defensive rebounding isn’t bad, but it’s not at the same level, with a DRB% of 69.6%. And while Michigan State’s defense is stifling, it isn’t very disruptive, as their opponents’ turnovers have been very low so far this season.

North Carolina

While most expected this year’s North Carolina team to be a little different from previous years’ teams, I think it’s safe to say that nobody anticipated that the team would be led in scoring and rebounding by a stretch 4, namely Luke Maye. Five games into the season, it’s past time to stop looking at Maye for what people think he should be and start looking at what he is. He has an extraordinarily varied offensive arsenal, ranging from a great three-point shot to classic back-to-the-basket post moves, great basketball IQ, and ferocious hands on the glass, and he is producing on the level of the best players in the country right now. Could he take most of them one-on-one? Maybe not. But the great thing about basketball is that it’s played 5-on-5, and Maye is excelling and shows no signs of slowing down. Against Arkansas, where the whole team got lost among the trees in the Razorbacks’ frontcourt, Maye found ways to score all over the floor en route to a new career high of 28 points. Actually, he led the Tar Heels in all 3 major categories, setting a new career high with 16 rebounds and tying his career high with 5 assists (he did have 5 turnovers, just to remind everybody that he is in fact human). Arkansas is a good team, ranked 39th by Kenpom. It’s time to stop saying Maye will be limited against better competition and start looking at him like one of the best college players in the country. He has demolished every argument otherwise.

The rest of the team isn’t bad, either. Maye has been the biggest story early, but like I said earlier, basketball is a team sport, and UNC has exemplified this perfectly. The stat that one immediately goes to for confirmation of team chemistry is AST:TO ratio, and UNC is 15th in the country with a 1.56 number. 56.2% of the Heels’ field goals are assisted, which is a tad low for a UNC team in recent years but above average compared to the rest of the country, and this number should climb as the team’s lineups gel. Like Izzo, Roy Williams has played 10 guys for over 10 minutes per game, leading to some chaotic lineups that probably won’t see too much time after the New Year. Joel Berry, still working back from a broken hand, had an inefficient day against Arkansas, but managed to get to the line often to offset a 3-12 shooting day, finishing with 13 points. This doesn’t reflect his leadership; he managed to quell every run Arkansas made in the second half with well-timed drives, defense, and energy. He also handed out 4 assists and didn’t turn the ball over.

UNC’s starting wings have been all over the floor. Theo Pinson flirted with a triple-double against Portland and quietly approached a 4x5 (that’s not a thing) against Arkansas: 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks. He also had 5 turnovers, a rarity for him. Kenny Williams is doing whatever he wants to right now; he has scored in double figures in every contest and showed up in every column of the stat sheet against Arkansas, with 19/8/2/1/1 and lockdown defense on whoever was handling the ball for the Razorbacks. The freshman big men did not play much against Arkansas given their skill and size inside, and the same figures to be true for Michigan State. The freshman bigs are good, but not quite experienced enough yet to really compete against one of the best frontcourts in the country.

What to Expect:

Tom Izzo’s Tobacco Road struggles have been well-documented: He is 0-7 against Roy Williams at UNC and has a similarly poor record against a school 8 miles down the road. Izzo’s defenders will point to what they perceive as a massive talent disparity between Izzo’s teams and those Roy Williams usually brings in, but as a counterpoint, the last time the two teams played was in the 2013-14 season, when unranked North Carolina (no starters headed for significant NBA playing time) beat #1 Michigan State (led by NBA borderline star Gary Harris) 79-65. That wasn’t just an upset, it was as close to a dominating victory as you get with two elite programs. Like during that year, Michigan State comes into this year with higher expectations than UNC, though the programs are more evenly matched this time than they were then. The coaching matchup is going to be as intriguing as it has ever been. On the court, these two teams are built very similarly, from the inside out. Neither team takes a lot of threes, though UNC is significantly more proficient at making them count, and both look for high percentage looks inside, where Michigan State is more adept. Michigan State is going to try to win the way they always do, by bullying inferior competition underneath the basket. The key for UNC, as it was against Arkansas, will be not to bully back, but to maximize spacing on offense, taking open threes when they’re available (and they will be), and, after establishing an outside threat, attacking the basket without the threat of help from the perimeter. The teams’ strengths, weaknesses, and styles match up interestingly with one another, and the result should be a fascinating game, fitting for a top-10 clash.