The 3-0 Michigan State Spartans get back in action on Monday night against Eastern Michigan at the Breslin Center. Eastern is 2-1, with the loss coming to Oakland by 10 in Auburn Hills. The Eagles were 21-14 last year, 8-10 in the competitive Mid American Conference. MSU beat EMU by 20 in the matchup last year at Breslin Center. As some likely recall, Eastern is coached by former Detroit Crockett coach and Syracuse assistant Rob Murphy, who has carried a lot of Jim Boeheim’s approach over into his job in Ypsilanti…so expect plenty of matchup zone out of the Eagles.

BACKCOURT – Eastern’s big gun was expected to be guard Raven Lee, who had a breakthrough season last year averaging almost 17ppg and was expected to be among the best players in the MAC this season. However, he was suspended indefinitely for “violation of team rules” by Murphy on November 13, the day before their season opener. There has been no indication he’ll be back for this game that I’ve seen. With him being out of the lineup, Eastern turns to a pair of JUCO transfers to run the show. Willie Mangum is off to a big start offensively for EMU, averaging 21ppg in the early going. The 6’1″ native of Virginia has shot 47/45% so far, which is significantly up from what he did at San Jacinto College last year. 6’2″ Ty Toney is running the point after transfering in from a JUCO in Georgia. He’s had 14 assists to 7 TOs so far, but has struggled shooting the ball, as he’s just 8-28 overall and 0-7 from deep. He was a 44% shooter last year in JUCO though, so reasonable to expect he might improve some from an admittedly rough start. He’s done a lot of his scoring via the foul line, going 15-17 so far, so penetration is obviously a big part of his game. At the other guard spot, 6’7″ sophomore Tim Bond is following up a decent first year with a solid start to his second season in Ypsi, averaging almost 9 ppg. The 6’7″ swingman isn’t much of a deep threat, however.

Off the bench, 6’1″ soph Ethan Alvano provides point guard relief to the tune of almost 11mpg, though his production has been very limited. Freshman LaMonta Stone may also see some spot duty at the point. The big offensive threat is swingman Jodan Price. Price is a 6’8″ former Country Day player who started his career at DePaul and played as a reserve last season at Eastern. He’s expanding his role a bit this year, averaging 7.7ppg so far. His size and skill set should help him serve in a key backup role for this team, giving Murphy some length on the perimeter for his zone.

FRONTCOURT – Brandon Nazione is a Howell native who came to Eastern via a JUCO last season who was a starter about a third of the time last season and contributed a bit (less than 4 ppg and 4 rpg). The 6’8″ senior brings some physicality and has really stepped up into a bigger role so far. He’s second in scoring at 11.7ppg, staying inside the arc exclusively, and is tied for tops in rebounding at 9.3 per game. 6’10” freshman James Thompson looks to be a great recruiting get for Murphy. He’s averaging 7.7ppg but is shooting better than 50% and his impact has come mostly on the glass (9.3rpg) and on defense, where he’s averaging 2.67 blocks per game so far. That’s a great start for him and this program has to be very excited, getting that kind of production out of a freshman, when they’ve been so dependent upon transfers and JUCO guys of late.

Jordan Nobles is another freshman who will see time off the bench for Eastern. The 6’9″ native of Canton is a little undersized at a bit under 200lbs but he is giving Murphy 4.3ppg and 3.7rpg in just over 11 mpg, so his production rate has been solid.

THE 5 KEYS

1. Motivation – These games always have some degree of danger associated with them when you play an instate school with a chance to make a statement for themselves with a win…ask Michigan how that went for them against these guys last year. Eastern actually doesn’t have the number of Michigan kids some other schools (like, say Oakland) will have, so this is probably a bit less of a factor in this game than in some others MSU could play but still, they have to counter what will likely be a lot of emotion from the Eagles.

2. Ball Movement – Always a key to evaluate how MSU is playing on offense, but especially necessary when facing a zone. Eastern plays a little different zone than MSU saw from UAPB. The matchup tends to extend more and Murphy recruits to it, which is why you see perhaps a few more long guards than other mid majors might have. For MSU, as with any zone, a key is finding space in the gaps and getting the ball there to force the zone to collapse. I would expect to see a variety of players filling that free throw line extended role but this is one thing I tend to think a kid like Bess could potentially really excel at, as his vision and ability as a passer is part of what you want for that role. He won’t be alone, though, as I would expect Izzo to roll several guys through that spot throughout the game. The other thing unique about facing a matchup is that, because it utilizes some man principles, you can run some of your “normal” man offense against it and I’d expect to see MSU do that at time, with some high screening action in the mix as one example of what you’ll likely see.

3. Boards – Eastern is a plus rebouning team on the season. MSU’s rebounding numbers have been ridiculous, though…almost a plus 23 overall per game and about a 15-7 offensive rebound differential per game. Now, some of that certainly is distorted by the complete wipeout against UAPB but MSU was strong against KU as well, so I think it’s fair to conclude the Spartans are showing to be a good rebounding group so far…and that’s without Gavin Schilling or mostly Marvin Clark. This will be a stiffer test than UAPB provided by any measure, though, so you want to see MSU continue on this path toward board dominance.

4. Free Throws – Through 3 games, MSU is at just under 69% as a team. That’s just about acceptable (70% is generally your cut off for being considered “solid”) but we’ve seen variance so far. MSU was great against Kansas but less than that in the other two games. In particular, I think you look at a guy like Bess and expect more. Because of the way he plays, he’s going to get to the line a decent amount (he’s tied with Denzel for most attempts so far with 13), so he has to do better than the 54% he’s shot in the early going. Looking at his stroke, he *should* shoot better than that…when I see him shoot, he looks to me like a guy who should be at 70% or better.

5. Arc Differential – MSU’s been good so far from deep, hitting 38% as a team. The thing is, you feel as if they can get better from here. Forbes is at 50% and McQuaid is a ridiculous 71% so far but Zel dropped to 30% due to a rough night on Friday, Eron Harris hasn’t gotten going yet, Marvin Clark has barely played, etc. OTOH Eastern’s been miserable at 24% from three. They also tend to not use the shot much (probably smart, given the percentage) as threes represent just over 25% of their overall shots from the floor. MSU should have a decisive advantage in this component of the game if things go according to script.

OVERALL – Another good test for MSU in a game they should win, but against a team with enough elements to force them to play with some sharpness in order to win. Eastern lost to Oakland by 10, but that was on the road and Oakland is a legitimate NCAA caliber team this year IMO…I might be inclined to take the Grizzlies over a couple of Big Ten teams I’ve seen thus far. So, that loss isn’t any kind of condemnation of Eastern or its potential.

They are definitely hurt by not having Lee in there. He had a great season and finally was making good on the vast athletic potential he was showing years ago as a high school player in the Detroit area. If they had him combining with Mangum and Toney, that would be a heck of a 3 guard rotation to be working with. As it is, Eastern’s still got some decent pieces.

For MSU, the challenge is much as it was against UAPB… you want to see MSU play the Game as much as the opponent. I thought MSU’s focus was really good for about 3/4 of that game. If we see something similar on Monday night, MSU wins easily, as Eastern simply can’t match MSU’s talent, athleticism and physicality. If MSU doesn’t focus and if the Eagles get uncharacteristically hot from deep or something of that nature, they have enough to make it interesting for awhile.

I expect sharp play from MSU. It seems clear to me that the Italian trip has had the effect most people talk about as a positive to that kind of thing, that your group comes together earlier, freshmen are better prepared to contribute right away, you’re more cohesive, etc. We’ve seen signs of all of those things in the first 3 games and because of that, I’d expect to see more of it against EMU.