MSU gets into “real” action at the Wooden Classic on Thursday evening when they face the Boston College Eagles (technically, the EMU game was part of the event). BC is 3-0 on the young season and coming off an impressive 13 point win over Harvard in their most recent game, following up a dismal 16 point first half output with a 53 point second half outburst to put away the Crimson, who are once again a better team than you typically see in the Ivy League. BC is generally expected to finish at or near the bottom of the ACC but coach Jim Christian is in his second season at the helm after successful runs at Kent State and Ohio (he is the all time winningest head coach in MAC history by percentage) and he’s slowly starting to put together the kind of team he wants to play with, as he’s employing an extremely young roster this year comprised largely of his recruits. He’s also got former Izzo assistant Stan Heath on his staff, so there are MSU connections at work in this game. MSU is 2-3 all time versus BC, with the most recent meeting resulting in an away loss in 2006. Izzo is 1-1 versus the school.
BACKCOURT – BC is led by 6’2″ grad transfer Eli Carter. Carter is a well travelled player to say the least, having spent two seasons at Rutgers and then two more at Florida before coming to Boston to finish out his career. He’s an experienced, productive player, having entered the season as a career 1000 point scorer. He’s off to a great offensive start, averaging 18.7 ppg so far and shooting decently (39/38%). I wouldn’t describe him as a true/pure point guard but he’ll be the main guy creating for this team I think. He’s also a penetration threat, having already attempted 21 FT so far (fortunately, he’s only made 12). He’s joined by 6’5″ freshman Jerome Robinson,who is the only other Eagle averaging double digits so far at 13.3 ppg. He’s a guy they think can be a big part of the program going forward, having a nice combination of size and skill set, as he’s a decent shooter and can handle the ball some as well. The third starter may be a familiar name to some MSU fans…6’7″ freshman AJ Turner. Turner started his HS career at Warren De LaSalle before moving to an East Coast prep school. He was on MSU’s radar at one point due to his size and versatility (there was even some talk of his possibly developing into a combo guard) but he’s ended up at BC, starting as a freshman. Turner has struggled with his shooting in the early going but in the long run, I think it’ll be his versatility which makes him a key part of BC’s core. As with Robinson, strength is an issue at this stage of his development.
Off the bench, BC remains very young, with three freshmen being the guys most likely to see action. Matt Millon is a 6’4″ Floridian who leads BC from deep so far, hitting 7 of his first 11 three point attempts on the season. 6’3″ Sammy Barnes-Thompkins is a 6’3″ product of Arizona who has also shot well from the arc. Gordon Gehan is a 6’5″ Texan who has played in all three games so far but only for a total of 6 minutes, so his time will likely be sparing.
FRONTCOURT – Dennis Clifford gives BC legit experience and size in the paint, checking in as a returning starter who goes 7feet, 250lbs. He’s only averaging 6.7ppg and hasn’t shot well (42%) but is grabbing 10.7 boards per game, including 3 per game on the offensive end. Garland Owens is the other starter, an undersized power forward at 6’5″ 225. He was a key reserve last season and has stepped into a starting role as a junior but so far his statistical contributions have been limited, as he’s averaging 3ppg and 3.7 rpg.
Off the bench, Christian is going with a trio of freshmen as his reserve core in the frontcourt. Ervins Meznieks is a 6’7″ Latvian who has shot very well early on, hitting 6 of his 12 threes en route to 8.3 ppg. He has not been much of a physical presence inside but with 4 assists shows signs of being a skilled post player for this team. A pair of 6’10” freshmen give Christian some size options as well, with Idy Diallo and Johncarlos Reyes each playing a bit under 10mpg. They are different players despite similar heights. Diallo is 250lbs, so he’s physically ready for this level but is very raw. Reyes is only about 215lbs and needs more strength but is a bit more polished in terms of skill set.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Defend the arc – BC has shot the lights out from deep early in the season, hitting 42.6% of their threes so far. MSU has done a good job early in the season in limiting the number of good looks they’re giving up from outside, and that’ll need to continue in this game.
2. Experience – BC has a few veterans in guys like Carter and Clifford but this is a VERY young team when you look at the playing group as a whole. MSU’s superior experience should provide them a distinct advantage. You look for that to show up in a number of ways…shot selection, attention to detail at both ends, ability to defend without fouling, and turnovers being some of the more obvious signs.
3. Boards – MSU continued its unreal run of rebounding dominance on Monday night with a shellacking of a decent EMU group. BC has done very well on the glass itself early on, operating at a plus 7 per game (and better than plus 5 per on the offensive boards) early on but they haven’t seen anything close to MSU’s level of play so far. MSU should control the glass in this game.
4. Depth – As Izzo noted, MSU is in the midst of a tough stretch at the moment. THey’ll play 3 games in 4 days in SoCal and then come home for a game early next week against Louisville. This is a time where the depth that MSU has supposedly developed needs to show through. A game like this one in particular would be where you’d like to see a comfortable second half lead which would allow for some key players like Zel to be rested, as those guys will likely need to carry heavier loads in the games to come in this tournament. Strong play from reserves with little dropoff from the starters would be a very welcome sight, as it’ll allow Izzo to keep everyone fresh.
5. Free Throws – BC has gotten to the line at a good clip early on but they’ve been terrible once they’ve gotten there, shooting just 61% as a team. MSU hasn’t set the world on fire but they’ve been improved over last season’s production rate. This should be another area of separation between the two teams.
OVERALL – Jim Christian has done a lot of winning over his career. He was very good at both Kent State and Ohio, but struggled in a stretch at TCU. This is probably a career-defining stop for him, as he’ll either build BC into a credible ACC program or fade out of the Power 5 coaching ranks, likely for good. It was a rough go last year for him, as BC went 13-19 overall and won just 4 games in the ACC, but he’s already turned over his roster in short order. Out of the 11 guys in his likely rotation in this game, an amazing 8 of them are freshmen or redshirt freshmen and only Clifford and Owens are guys he didn’t bring to Chestnut Hill. So, for better or for worse, this is truly HIS team, something which is normally tough for a guy in his second year to have.
BC has some decent pieces. Carter is a legit high major guard, having done some good things at Florida, so he’s a guy MSU will need to contend with. Clifford is a big body to deal with in the paint and he’ll pose a challenge for the MSU big kids. I’ve seen Turner play before (albeit a couple of years ago) and he’s got a decent combination of skills and size, and the other freshman guard is off to an even better start. They also appear to have a chance to put together a pretty good three point shooting team.
Overall, though, this is a game MSU wins comfortably if they apply the same level of focus they’ve brought to their other contests this young season. One good thing about Christian having such a young group is that they may not realize they’re not supposed to compete with MSU…sometimes ignorance is a good thing. However, I would expect MSU’s experience, strength and talent level to wear down the young Eagles and put the Spartans into the semifinal with relative ease.