Scouting Michigan State
Without question, Michigan State will serve as Maryland's toughest test of the season to date. The Spartans, much like the Terps, prefer an up-tempo game pace and like to accrue as many points in transition as possible. The Spartans also, much unlike the Terps, rebound very well, particularly on the offensive end, which means they can set up shop effectively in the halfcourt offense when forced to slow down.
Michigan State's balance might be its greatest asset against a Terps squad that is extremely guard-reliant. Late last month, I got a chance to make it up to East Lansing to speak with Coach Tom Izzo and watch a Spartans practice. Izzo said this year's squad excites him because it more naturally suits his preferred fast-paced style.
In recent seasons, Izzo had to slow things down to adapt to star guard Drew Neitzel, who needed to set up his shots more in half-court sets. Last year, Michigan State finished 27-9, tied for fourth in the Big Ten and advanced to the Sweet 16. With Neitzel graduated, the team will rely much more on its speed.
So far, the Spartans are 2-0 with victories over Idaho (100-62) and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (70-59). The road win over IPFW might have been more challenging than Izzo and the Spartans expected, though Izzo is known for the intensely difficult non-conference slates he routinely schedules for his squads. After the Old Spice Classic, Michigan State still must face North Carolina, Bradley, Texas and Kansas.
Against IPFW, the Spartans needed a 13-0 run late in the second half to create some separation from the home team. Michigan State prevailed on the boards (38-28) but did not shoot particularly well from either the field (42.9 percent), from three-point range (27.3 percent) or from the free-throw line (67.9 percent). But the Spartans protected the ball well (just 10 turnovers) and utilized its speed to eventually wear IPFW down.
Taking over the keys to the Spartans' offense is 6-foot-0 sophomore guard Kalin Lucas, a player on which Izzo is very high. During our conversation, Izzo compared Lucas favorably to well-known Michigan State point guards of the past, such as Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell. Izzo said Cleaves was "quick, but not strong quick," and Bell was "pretty quick, but not with the ball." Lucas, Izzo said, has both qualities.
In two games this season, Lucas has recorded 12 assists and just one turnover. He also has averaged 15 points per game. The area in which Izzo said he needs to see the most development from Lucas this season is in leading the rest of the team.
"One of the things is he'll come in here and workout, and he'll workout extra on his own," Izzo said. "He's a hard-working kid, but a lot of times last year he'd be by himself and I'd say, 'You ain't showing me no leadership skills that way. Now, when you drag two guys with yah, then you become a pied piper and a leader.' And I think he has that" ability.
Izzo raved about Lucas's abiliy to get a shot off in the lane, as well as his precision at the free-throw line. In recent seasons, when the game was on the line, everyone knew the ball was going to Neitzel for the last-second shot. Now, Izzo said, Lucas is the go-to guy.
"The difference with (Lucas) and Neitzel is he doesn't need a pick for it and he can get a shot for himself a little bit better," Izzo said. Neitzel had a knack for making big shots, but in some ways, I think Kalin will be able to do it better because he can get it more ways."
In addition Lucas, Izzo said two other players will be key in order for Michigan State "to go from being pretty damn good last year to the elite, to be a real contender in our league."
One of those players is 6-foot-8, 225-lb. junior foward Raymar Morgan, who was inconsistent down the stretch last season after a great start. Izzo attributed Morgan's struggles to several different factors.
"Pressure?" Izzo said. "Maybe. The media started writing that he was going to (enter the NBA Draft), and then he started getting more of the attention because (Neitzel) wasn't having a banner year. I don't think it was a lack of work; I think it was a lack of confidence. Raymar gets down on himself. He misses a shot and slumps his shoulders. He's not mad, just bummed out. 'Give me a chance to be hard on you,' I tell him. 'I'll be hard on yah. That's what I'm good at.'"
Overall, Izzo said Morgan needed to improve his ball-handling, specifically on the perimeter. Morgan was a second team all-Big Ten selection last season after averaging 14 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. He also shot 55.8 percent from the field. In the Spartans' first two games this season, he has led the team in scoring (21.5 ppg).
The team's leading rebounder, 6-foot-10, 245-lb. Goran Suton, is the other player Izzo mentioned as critical to the team's success. Last season, Izzo said, Suton was stationed at the power forward position and, while he was not quick enough to guard some of his smaller opponents, he was smart enough to make up for it. This year Suton is playing at center, which Izzo believes will give him a greater advantage.
Suton "can't jump over a phone book, but he can block shots and he can grab rebounds," Izzo said. As it turns out, Suton also can create steals, as he finished second on the team in that category last season.
All told, Izzo expects his team to be one of the last few standing at season's end. It would appear the Spartans have the talent to support their coach's claim, which will make Thursday night's match-up even more of a measuring stick for the Terps than they might know.
"Can we be a Final Four contender? Yeah, we can be," Izzo said. "Now, I don't think that's a bad thing to say, but it always comes back to bite you in the ass if you don't get there. I think we're one of those 12-14 teams that has a chance."
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