Michigan State basketball has another talk task ahead of it: upsetting Kentucky. What must the Spartans do in order to accomplish that?
For the second time in the span of five days, Michigan State basketball will be facing a top-five team on a neutral court.
The first top-five opponent for the Spartans pieced together a big second-half comeback to hold off an unranked Michigan State team on the USS Abraham Lincoln, 64-63.
Michigan State played a nearly-perfect game, given the circumstances, and nearly upset the No. 2 team in the country. That one-point loss stung because the Spartans had the win locked up before a late-second-half meltdown, but they’ll get another chance to prove themselves on Tuesday night against No. 4 Kentucky in the Champions Classic.
The Wildcats are 2-0 and returning elite big man Oscar Tshiebwe. Don’t expect this matchup to be any easier for the Spartans than Gonzaga.
Here’s what the Spartans must do if they plan on pulling off the upset.
1. Lock down the perimeter
Last year, Kentucky was not a very good 3-point shooting team. This year, things have changed drastically. The Wildcats are averaging 11 made 3-pointers per game and they’re shooting over 50 percent from deep. A big reason for this improvement has been the addition of CJ Fredrick from Iowa.
Fortunately, Michigan State has some plus defenders on the perimeter in AJ Hoggard, Tyson Walker, and Jaden Akins. All three guys must lock down that 3-point line. No easy shots from deep. If Michigan State can force the Wildcats into some mid-range jumpers or contested shots in the post, it’ll take away what has been the biggest strength for Kentucky thus far.
2. Crash the post when Tshiebwe touches the ball
We saw Drew Timme in an absolute torture chamber on Friday night when Michigan State doubled the post after he caught the ball. Well, that was when Mady Sissoko was on the court, not so much Joey Hauser. When Mady was in and the wing or guard on that side crashed on Timme, he turned it over or took a bad, contested shot. More of that with Oscar, please.
Tshiebwe is likely to play on Tuesday night, according to reports, and that’s going to be a huge test for Mady. If he holds his own and the guard crash on him, forcing him into some uncomfortable doubles, they’ll be able to limit his damage.
This is the most dangerous man on the floor when he’s healthy.
3. Shooters need to shoot
Michigan State doesn’t have a great post game this year although Mady has shown that he might be better than people expected. So since that’s the case, Michigan State’s shooters need to shoot.
No more hesitating like I saw quite a bit against Gonzaga and Northern Arizona. I want to see more of the Joey Hauser I saw against Northern Arizona or the Tyson Walker we saw in the exhibition or the Jaden Akins we saw in the opener. Don’t be afraid to go up with the open shot.
That’s not me saying to take ill-advised and contested jumpers, but no more passive play that leads to a rushed shot with three seconds left on the clock.
Shooters have to shoot and quite the hesitation game.
Bonus: Get to the foul line
I wrote this whole thing out and realized that one of the biggest things Michigan State basketball needs to do wasn’t included. So here I am with a bonus task for the Spartans: get to the dang foul line.
Michigan State barely shot free throws against Northern Arizona and struggled to pull away. They played too much around the perimeter and didn’t work the ball inside enough. Plus, AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker were too quick to pass instead of looking for their shots or driving. We saw plenty more foul shooting against Gonzaga and the Spartans nearly pulled off the win because of it.
Of course, when Michigan State gets to the line, it needs to make those freebies. But getting Kentucky into some foul trouble with aggressive drives and good ball movement will be a major key to pulling off the upset.