#1 ranked Michigan State gets back into action on Wednesday night when they host the Hawks of Maryland Eastern Shore. MES is a member of the MEAC and is picked to finish in the middle of that conference under coach Bobby Collins, who did a remarkable job turning their fortunes around last season (their 18 win total was the most the school had produced in 41 years…think about *that* for a second). So far this season, they’re struggling at 1-7, with the sole win coming against St.Francis (PA). They’ve lost all three games against Power 5 schools (Kansas State. Missouri and GTown) in blowout fashion. This is the first meeting ever between the Spartans and Hawks.

BACKCOURT – Devin Martin has been the main man for the Hawks early on. The 6’4″ senior leads the team in scoring, assists and steals and is third in rebounding. He’s a threat from deep (42/35% shooter so far this season, with about half of his attempts coming from outside the arc, and he was even better from 3 last season, hitting 40%). 6′ freshman Ahmad Frost may get the call at the other guard. He’s started 6 times but only plays about 18 mpg, so it’s really a committee type deal. He’s really struggling with his shot, so his production has been limited for MES.

Ryan Andino is the top reserve for Collins. The 6’2″ soph is mostly a deep shooter, with about 75% of his attempts from the floor coming from outside the arc. He hasn’t hit as well as they’d like to date (33%) but he was a 42% shooter last season, so there’s reason to hope he’ll improve from here. A trio of other Hawks will also likely see double digit minutes in this game. 6’5″ freshman Dontae Caldwell is a native of Los Angeles who has earned an early role for MES. He’s scoring 5.4ppg, mostly inside the arc. JUCO transfer Thomas Rivers is a 5’11’ point guard who isn’t getting his shot to fall in the early going (26/22%) but is still playing almost 18mpg due to ballhandling and defense. 5’11” junior Mark Blackmon has given his team a little bit of a spark as a shooter so far, but in fairly limited turns.

FRONTCOURT – Dominique Elliott is the big man, figuratively and literally, for this Hawks team. The 6’8″ 260lbs senior was third team All MEAC last season and is off to another strong start, averaging 10.8ppg and 6.3 rpg so far. He actually has a little bit of a face up game but expect him to do most of his damage in the paint, as would be suggested by his size. Bakari Copeland is a 6’6″ 235lbs JUCO transfer who has started 7 of the first 8 games in his MES career. He’s seen as a guy with some offensive versatility but is off to a miserable start shooting the ball (33/17% with about 40% of his attempts coming from 3). He does provide another strong body and he’s grabbing almost 5 boards per game so far, so he’s producing some value even as his shot isn’t dropping. Joshua Warren is a 6’8″ 245lbs JUCO transfer who has started half of MES’ games so far, though he’s only averaging a little over 10mpg. His production has been limited due to the minutes played.

Collins has at least 3 guys who should see time off the Hawk bench down low. Derrico Peck is a 6’7″ wing who is a grad transfer from Northeastern. He’s not playing a ton (just about 10mpg) but is 8-9 from the floor on the season, all from inside the arc, so he’s given his team a conversion rate from the floor they can desperately use. Isaac Taylor is a 6’7″ 250lbs freshman from storied prep school program Montrose Christian. He’ll be a future post presence for this program but for now is contributing in limited relief of Elliott. 6’5″ junior Shane Randall is also playing regularly, though only at about 6 mpg.

THE 5 KEYS

1. Play The Game – Soon enough, this won’t be an issue as the competition gets turned up from here and MES is the last “who’re they?” opponent (Florida is a known commodity obviously and though Oakland and Northeastern are mid majors, those should each be challenging games for MSU). With the #1 ranking freshly bestowed on the program, I suspect there’s been some talk about playing like they’ve earned it. You demonstrate that best by bringing energy and focus to the court, regardless of the opponent. To date, I think MSU has done a nice job against these types of teams in that area. They need to do it one more time.

2. Boards – The Hawks are not a good rebounding group but they do have some physically strong guys, so MSU needs to take the challenge seriously and work a team they ought to dominate on the glass. Again, it’s about habits more than anything else.

3. Penetration – I’m not sure that MES is a great test in this area but every team has guys looking to get to the rim in this environment. I thought MSU showed some slight improvement in their last game, though you do have to acknowledge the level of opponent. It’s a similar situation here. Look, you can only play the guys in front of you, so regardless of how good or bad MES is, MSU needs to do a better job in containing penetration. That’s a team wide deal.

4. Eron – Other than the fact that Tum’s shot is the thing which will keep MSU from extending its Tourney streak (kidding, kidding…sort of ), one of the more popular points of discussion for MSU fans, and a legitimate one IMO, is the development of Eron Harris. Expectations were very high coming in for the WVa transfer and though it’s fair to say he hasn’t met them yet, it also has to be acknowledged that he’s shown flashes suggesting what he could yet be for this team as the year progresses. I think at the outset, most (myself included) saw him as a starter and a major offensive weapon in that he gave MSU an off the dribble element they lacked a season ago. That may still pan out, but I think right now as I look at him, the role and importance of what he can be and needs to bring to this team is maybe a little more focused. MSU needs a second dynamic force on offense besides Denzel. Ideally, it’s someone who can both allow him to get some rest and who can play alongside him at times and let him have to expend less energy creating everything on O (which should help Zel on the defensive end as a knock on effect). Harris is the guy capable of doing those things on this team. He needs to tighten up his defense considerably before he’ll play the kind of minutes where his playing that role would have a major impact, so that’s where it starts. Offensively, though he hasn’t shot the ball as well as expected, I don’t have a ton of complaints. He’s been as advertised in terms of getting to the rim, he’s proven to be a clever and willing passer, and he forces defenses to pay attention to him in a major way when he’s attacking.

5. Jumpers – This is a very, very good jumpshooting team. We all know that. In their last game, MSU was uncharacteristically off the mark, though. Not to a massive extent, but just not where we’ve been accustomed to seeing them, as they missed a lot of good shots. Would be nice to see a solid 38-40% type game from three as a team to get back on the beam.

OVERALL – As mentioned above, this is probably the last obvious walkover type game MSU will play. Not that they won’t blow some other people out but this is the final bottom line mismatch type of game, as everyone else on the schedule has at least some small chance of hanging in there and even beating the Spartans. MSU’s had a couple of days to work on itself this week, which is great. In general, the schedule lightens up considerably from here for a few weeks…after tomorrow MSU will only play 3 games in the next 20 days. Now, there is Christmas and finals in the mix during that time as well but it’s still going to be a period where MSU can focus on itself and historically, this is where we’ve seen real improvement from Tom Izzo teams.

This one is mostly about maintaining good habits and maybe somehow finding a way to start to tighten up the rotation, though I think that latter thing will remain difficult to do when you don’t have clear separation among so many players. It’s both blessing and curse to have so many guys roughly at the same level (though they all bring different elements, I think the overall production once you get past the top 4-5 guys is very even) but better to have too many guys deserving of time than too few.