MSU will face the Providence Friars on Sunday night in the championship game of the Wooden Legacy. The Friars are 6-0, fresh off a thrilling victory over #11 Arizona in the semifinal last night. Ed Cooley has seemingly finally made good on the promise created a few years ago by some well regarded recruiting classes. He’s been to two straight NCAA Tournaments and this might be his best team yet, as it’s filled with aggressive, tough and athletic players and a true superstar in guard Kris Dunn.
MSU is 3-0 all time against PU, with the most recent win coming in November of 1999…so it’s been awhile.
BACKCOURT – Kris Dunn is a legitimate National POY candidate and a guy who seems to have a great shot at being a Lottery pick come 2016. In fact, his decision to return to PU for this season rather than declare for the draft surprised many, especially given the lack of quality point guards available. He has the total package…great size and strength at 6’4″ 220lbs, explosive athleticism and a refined skill set. I think he’s the best one on one player in America…with his handle, speed and strength, he can get his own shot more or less at will. He leads PU in scoring and assists at 18.7ppg and 6.7apg. He’s also grabbing 6.3 rpg, making him one of the nation’s most complete players. If there is a weakness (and it’s relative), it’s with the long ball. He’s at only 23.5% from three thus far and was “only” a 35% shooter from deep last season. He’s fully capable of hitting 3s but MSU would do well to turn him into a deep jump shooter. Junior Lomomba is a 6’5″ junior wing who is also an explosive athlete. He’s scoring 7ppg and has shot exceptionally well, though his 57% three point shooting should be taken with a grain of salt, as he’s only attemping a little more than 1 triple per game. Freshman Ryan Fazekas, OTOH, is a guy whose game is predicated on his shooting ability. He’s hitting 44% on triples and is attempting 3.5 of them per game, so it’s a big part of what the 6’8″ newcomer brings to the table for the Friars.
Off the bench, 6 foot sophomore Kyron Cartwright will play the majority of the reserve minutes for Cooley. He’s a quick point guard who is averaging 3.7 apg in just about 18 mpg, and that ability to create for others via penetration is a prime part of his value to the Friar attack. He has not shot particularly well thus far (33/33%). Freshmen wings Ricky Council and Drew Edwards might see spot duty but neither is averaging more than 5 mpg, so they’ll likely be asked to do not much more than give someone a quick blow until a media timeout.
FRONTCOURT – I was really impressed with 6’9″ sophomore big man Ben Bentil against Arizona. He is a multi-dimensional player. He’s got great strength and athleticism but he also showed some range on the jumper as well, though his shooting numbers on the season, both this year and last, suggest that he’s a work in progress. Regardless, his body and motor make him a very difficult guy to deal with and he should pose a legitimate physical challenge to the Spartan posts. 6’8″ 225 sophomore Rodney Bullock is similar in terms of his athletic ability and energy. He’s averaging 15 points and a team high 7.5 rpg thus far and seems to get a lot of work done via playing hard and letting his athletic ability take over. He was a highly regarded recruit who is just now getting an opportunity to play for Providence after sitting out his first year due to a suspension for violation of team rules and then an injury last year. These are two guys who pose problems for opponents due to their strength, leaping ability and work ethic.
6’7″ sophomore Jalen Lindsey is really more of a guard in terms of how he plays, but given that he actually has some height he’s nominally the Friars’ top frontcourt reserve. He’s been struggling with the deep ball thus far but has shown a willingness to go inside the arc and produce when it isn’t falling. 6’8″ 285lbs freshman Quadree Smith is the other Friar player who may see spot duty. He’s still got a long way to go in terms of conditioning and he’s not playing much at all (4 games played and 5.5mpg when he’s gotten off the bench) but I can see a scenario where he might be needed for a few minutes here and there in this game.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Dribble Penetration – It seemed as if Providence shot a lot more than 17 free throws against UA but that was the final number. On the season, though, they’re averaging 24 FTA per game and it’s easy to see why when you watch them play. They’re not a great jump shooting team and they don’t have a true back to the basket dominator inside. What they do have are a lot of athletic, tough kids who seem to be more than fine with looking to get to the rim as often as possible. MSU has been inconsistent so far this year in terms of denying penetration. I thought they did a nice job of it against Kansas. I thought they were less impressive in each of the first two games of the Wooden Legacy. They need to be closer to the KU level of defensive focus…turn PU into a jumpshooting team and they’re a lot easier to handle. They’re only hitting 31% of their threes as a team thus far.
2.Boards – MSU has been crushing people on the glass so far but I thought Boise did a very good job in contesting the Spartans in that area. Providence has not been a great rebounding team thus far but they’re a little better than the overall stats (which have them as a minus group) would suggest, because they are grabbing 12 offensive boards per game, which is a decent raw number. Still, this is an area MSU needs to control.
3. No Shootout – This could be one of the best individual matchups of the season with Kris Dunn going against Denzel Valentine. The thing is that a large part of what makes both players so great is that they aren’t just guys who go get shots…they are fantastic passers and creators and each need to resist the temptation to try to take the game over offensively. Zel has exceled in a lot of areas so far this season but I think the best thing he’s done is, generally speaking, let the game come to him. Very rarely has he seemed to force anything in terms of looking for his own shot, trying to make spectacular plays where a simple one will suffice, etc. It can be toughest to do that when you are going up against another great individual player and maybe even more so when that player does a lot of things well, just like you do. It’s important for both players to play the game and not each other individually.
4. Bryn – Bryn hasn’t gotten a lot of looks lately. I think some of that yesterday (actually most of it) was due to the fact that he was in foul trouble but I also do sense that opponents are paying even more attention to him this year and are really focusing on limiting his open looks. That puts an onus on him and on MSU to find shot opportunities for him more consistently. MSU’s coaching staff is right at the top of the list in terms of ability to tweak and adjust their sets to counter what defenses are doing and I suspect we’ll see the fruits of that borne out in the games to come.
5. Depth – Providence isn’t a deep team. They’re playing only 7 guys in a consistent sense, with a couple of others getting 4 or 5 mpg here and there. Even with a day off, that should play to MSU’s advantage. MSU didn’t have anyone play even 30 minutes against BC and had 10 guys in double digit minutes. Against Boise, it was a different story with Zel playing 37 minutes and Tum playing 34, but still MSU got 8 guys into double digit minutes and Kenny Goins played 7. I would look at the last 10 minutes of the game to see how each side is holding up. I suspect that if we’re going to see an impact in terms of depth, rest, accumulated minutes, etc. that’s where it’ll show up. The one caveat is that Dunn did get plenty of rest against Arizona, the enforced kind due to foul trouble, and so he should be fresher than we’d normally have seen for this game.
OVERALL – I’ve been impressed by Providence. You can see a culture and a style of play emerging for Ed Cooley. A guy like Lansing’s LaDontae Henton helped establish it, bringing a lunchbucket approach to the court every night and now he’s got some guys who have more size and athletic gifts using that same mindset. The Big East is shaping up to be a pretty good league this season but I’ve seen enough from the Friars to believe that they can put themselves squarely in the mix within it.
Dunn vs. Valentine is a great individual matchup, though I think it’ll be interesting to see how often they’re each guarding one another. I can see MSU using Tum a lot on Dunn…he’s played bigger guards well before and he has the athleticism and toughness to be considered a viable option. I can also imagine MSU rotating several guys…McQuaid, Zel and maybe even Alvin Ellis, on him over the course of the game. The other way, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Providence try to play Zel some with Junior Lomomba, in order to try to keep Dunn out of foul trouble…they sort of got away with one on that front last night.
To me, this is a fairly simple game to evaluate. If MSU can limit Providence’s penetration and turn them into a jump shooting team, it’s going to be tough for the Friars to win. If MSU can control the glass, it gets tough for PU to find a way to a victory. If MSU is, as I suspect they will be, the fresher team down the stretch, that plays to their advantage.
This is another good matchup for MSU to have under its belt. Providence brings a Big Ten level of athleticism and physical toughness to the floor and their attacking mindset is something MSU needs to be able to deal with. Should be a fun game.