MSU returns to the Breslin Center on Wednesday night to face the #24 Louisville Cardinals. Louisville has had a wild ride in the 7-8 months since the Spartans last saw them in the two schools’ Elite Eight classh won by Michigan State. The Cardinals lost several players from that team, gained two grad transfer guards to salvage what might have otherwise been a very rough backcourt situation, and underwent a prostitution scandal which is still far from resolved. It was fair to wonder what kind of season Louisville would have, given all the unrest, but they’re off to a 5-0 start, though admittedly they haven’t played anyone of note yet. MSU will represent their first serious test of the season.

MSU is 4-5 all time against the Cardinals, with the most recent meeting resulting in an OT Spartan victory in last season’s Elite Eight. Tom Izzo is 3-2 against Louisville and 2-1 against Rick Pitino, with all three meetings coming in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This is the first time they’ve met each other in the regular season.

BACKCOURT – The Cardinals were saved from what might have been devastating personnel losses from last year’s roster by the 5th year grad transfer rule, adding not one but two high level guards to their mix. Those two players, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, are the top two scorers on the team thus far. Lee was a big time player at Drexel, a classic example of a guy recruited to a mid major program who developed into a high major talent. He was the nation’s 4th leading scorer last season at 21.4ppg and is sitting at 17.4ppg so far this season. He’s a big guard at 6’6″ who uses his size to finish well but can also shoot from deep (56/36 in the early going). Lewis transfered in from Cleveland State where he played a year with Spartan guard Bryn Forbes. He started his career at Penn State but developed at CSU, averaging 16.3ppg last season. He’s currently at 12.4ppg for UL, shooting 38/36% so far. The other key so far has been the continued growth of sophomore point guard Quentin Snider. Snider developed over the course of his freshman season and was a pretty reliable rotation guy at the end of it. Now he’s emerged as a starter and is third in scoring so far at 10ppg and tops in assists at better than 4 per contest (he’s got a better than 4:1 assist to TO ratio going as well, so he’s not making a lot of mistakes).

Deng Adel would be playing a big defensive role in this game and in fact had been starting but he’ll miss this contest due to injury. That likely reduces the reserve guards who will see the floor to two. 6’3″ freshman Donovan Mitchell is a physical guard who can play either on or off the ball. He’s scoring 7ppg so far, doing most of that damage inside the arc as his deep shot isn’t quite reliable just yet. David Levitch is a 6’3″ junior who is a former walk on but has emerged as a rotation guy, though he’s not playing a ton…he’s seen action in every game so far but only to the tune of about 6 mpg. The Cardinals’ three starters are all averaging above 28mpg, so it’s reasonable to expect we’ll see a lot of those guys, some of Mitchell and maybe a quick turn or two for Levitch and that’s about it.

FRONTCOURT – Chinanu Onuaku is a 6’10” sophomore center who is the latest Cardinal big man to emerge as a serious two way player. He’s averaging 9.6ppg and 7.4 rpg so far and doing a great job of playing within himself, as he’s hitting 65% from the floor. He’s also active defensively, leading the team with 7 steals and 9 blocks. 6’10” junior Mangok Mathiang got the start in their most recent game at the 4, so I’m guessing he’ll be there against MSU but he’ll play a lot regardless. MSU fans may remember him as the guy who split two free throws with 4.9 seconds left in regulation, taking the game into OT. He too has been a very active rebounder (7.2) per game and has shown some improved offensive ability as well, also tending to play mostly near the rim.

Ypsilantin product Jaylen Johnson has started 4 times already and will play a role whether or not he’s out there for the opening tip in this game. He’s a big and athletic forward, going 6’9″ 225lbs who has also been productive mostly around the rim. 6’10” freshman Ray Spalding and 7 foot sophomore Anas Mahmoud round out an exceptionally tall playing group for Pitino’s bunch. Spalding is a guy they’re very high on prospectively while Mahmoud has developed into a reliable 12 mpg or so option at either the 4 or 5 as well. This is a big, big team.

THE 5 KEYS

1. Pace – I think for older fans especially, the perception of Louisville is always frozen to some extent around the Darrell Griffith “Doctors of Dunk” era, and it’s true that they’ve generally had great athletes on their roster. However, I don’t think this is an example of a year where Pitino wants to go running and gunning, particularly against a team like MSU. Louisville is really, really, REALLY big inside and though those guys aren’t stiffs, I don’t think it’s to UL’s advantage to go up and down the floor with MSU. Thus, it’s on MSU to push the tempo and try to get out into transition as often as possible. Easy baskets mean you’re not setting up and trying to score against what’s been a very good halfcourt defensive team thus far.

2. Recognition – Louisville in recent years has been known for doing something well that few teams even try, never mind execute at their level…switching back and forth between man and zone within the same possession. This year, I don’t expect to see as much of it but you can’t completely rule it out. They hadn’t been playing much matchup zone up until their last game against St.Louis, when they went back to it. Pitino has said he doesn’t expect to use much zone against MSU which does make some sense, given MSU’s ability to move the ball and shoot from deep. However, I don’t necessarily take Rick at face value. If Louisville starts to spring the zone occasionally, MSU has to be able to recognize it and get into its sets quickly. If Louisville can start to do that switiching stuff within possessions again, I think it becomes an even bigger weapon, given the shorter shot clock.

3. Boards – Louisville is a big team and they’ve rebounded like it. They are averaging an insane 16 offensive rebounds per game and have a 21.4 rpg edge overall . MSU by contrast is averaging 12.8 Orpg and has an 18.3 rpg edge overall, though I think it’s fair to say they’ve faced better opponents than have the Cardinals. Regardless, this game sets up as one where rebounding is going to matter a great deal. Louisville is going to throw big man after big man after big man at MSU, so guys like Costello, DD, Bess, Clark, Goins, etc. are going to need to hold up. UL is also getting great rebounding collectively out of its wings, which puts an onus on MSU’s guards to hold their own as well.

4. Legs – There’s been lots of concern raised about MSU’s energy coming off a late return from the West Coast. Personally, I expect them to be OK because of the number of people they were able to play in those games and I think coming back to EL as opposed to traveling somewhere for this game helps as well. However, if I’m wrong and MSU is tired, that could be a major factor in the outcome, as I’d expect Louisville to be fresh.

5. Support – MSU beat Providence for many reasons, not least of which is the way that several guys combined to pick up what was, by his standards, an average effort from Denzel. Seeing guys like Harris, Forbes, Davis, McQuaid, Goins, etc. make big contributions was a very welcome sign for this team, as Zel had carried us offensively during earlier games. Learning how to win when he’s less than dominant or not even on the floor is critical and I think some progress was made in the last game on that front. It needs to continue…you don’t beat quality teams with a one man band and MSU has far too many guys capable of making plays for it to be a one man show.

OVERALL – It’s another good test for MSU in this game, facing a big Cardinal team which can offer some of the same challenges physically that a team like Kansas did. As with KU, Louisville is going to roll out a lot of big bodies…can MSU compete with that size and perhaps find ways to exploit it as well with smaller but more agile (and more skilled) players at the power forward position?

I do think transition basketball is important in this game. It just feels to me like Louisville could be a bit vulnerable to what MSU can do in the open court, provided the Spartans rebound well enough defensively to get into break situations. Otherwise, the usual “musts” are in play…MSU has to move the ball quickly, accurately and with purpose. They’re going to need to make shots from range and that may in turn force the Cardinal big men into extending further out onto the floor than they’d like to. Big men have to finish plays at the rim at a better clip than we’ve seen over the past couple of games, DD excluded (who’s been fantastic finishing all year).

I don’t believe Louisville is at the level of their last several teams but this is still a group with a lot of positives and a great coach (in a basketball sense) leading them. Expect a tight, hotly contested game. You’d hope that home court and maybe a bit better cohesion for MSU’s group is enough to get the win.