#1 ranked Michigan State returns to action on Saturday evening at the Breslin Center against a big name opponent in the Florida Gators. This is a meeting between the two participants in the 2000 national title game and the national champion Spartan team will be honored at this game (and man, how old does it make everyone feel that it was 15 years ago?). Florida was a low/middle of the pack SEC job before Billy Donovan got there and elevated the program into consistent contender’s status. He won back to back titles in Gainesville, reached 4 Final Fours, 7 Elite Eights and made 14 NCAA trips in 19 seasons. During this period, the Gators joined Kentucky as the only consistent national factors out of their conference.
Donovan left after last season for the OKC Thunder of the NBA, however. It was a move long rumored and in fact one he actually made once before, taking the Orlando job before reconsidering and returning to the Gators. In his place, Florida made what most consider to be a very good hire in former Louisiana Tech coach Michael White. White never made the Tournament at LaTech but he had a 4 year winning percentage of 71% and won 3 straight conference titles (just couldn’t win the tournaments).
This is supposed to be something of a rebuilding year in Gainesville. Not only is a new staff in place but the talent returning is coming off a 16-17/8-10 season. Thus far, Florida has played more or less according to script. They’re 6-2, with the losses coming by double digits to Purdue and Miami. For the Gators, this game represents a real chance at a statement win, something they could use to build momentum and give White’s era a signature victory to use as a foundation.
BACKCOURT – Kasey Hill is a 6’1″ junior who hasn’t ever matched massive expectations set for him coming out of HS, where he was a McDonald’s All American. He’s struggled shooting the ball heading into this season but does seem to have made some progress now as a junior, as he’s up to 40% from deep, though that’s on only 10 attempts on the season. His overall percentage is 35% though, not quite what you want, even out of a guard. His decision making is also only OK (25 assists to 14 TOs). As he’s now in his third year, it may simply be a situation where the Gators have to accept that this is who he is and that matching expectations he had initially may never come to pass. He’s joined as a starter by 6’2″ freshman KeVaughn Allen. He’s struggling from the floor, shooting 32/22% and right now isn’t much of a playmaker for his team either. In time, they expect him to be an athletic scoring weapon on the wing.
Chris Chiozza is the main guy off the Gator bench. A 6′ sophomore, Chiozza is playing more than 19mpg and has done well in his PT, hitting better than 40% overall and from deep and leading the team in assist to TO ratio at about 2.5/1. Brandone Francis-Ramirez is a 6’5″ redshirt freshman who is also playing a lot, seeing about 18mpg. He’s been significantly less productive than Chiozza though, as he hasn’t shot well but gives the team some size and defensive potential on the wing.
FRONTCOURT – Florida’s top player is 6’8″ senior Dorian Finney-Smith. Finney-Smith leads the Gators in scoring and rebounding, putting up 14ppg and 8.6 rpg so far. He’s an athletic 4 man for this group, and his combination of explosion and skill set (he’s second on the team in assists and has the most made 3s on the team and is hitting 42/36% so far) makes him a tough cover. He’s definitely a guy MSU must account for and attempt to limit. The center spot is manned by 7 foot soph John Egbunu. Egbune transfered in last season from South Florida after considering several schools, including MSU. Watching him play a couple of times this season, I can see why Izzo was interested. Egbunu is a big and athletic kid. He takes up space but can move at the same time. He’s averaging 12.9ppg and 7.9 rpg and also leads the team in blocks with 10 in 8 games. I wouldn’t describe him as a major post threat yet but he can do some things on the blocks. He’ll present a challenge for MSU’s big men. The third starter will likely be 6’8″ sophomore Devin Robinson. He’s third on the team in scoring so far at 11.1ppg. He’s considered an inside/outside threat but his deep ball has been far less productive so far and he takes a lot of them (4 attempts per game) at 26%. He’s also been very good on the glass at 7.8 per contest.
White will likely play 3 guys off his bench at the forward spots. The top guy is 6’6″ junior DeVon Walker. He’s getting 16mpg but his production hasn’t been up to snuff thus far. 6’8″ junior Justin Leon is a JUCO transfer who is primarily seen as an energy guy. Kevarrius Hayes is a live bodied 6’9″ freshman who has made a little bit of an impact as a shot blocker and rebounder thus far.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Defensive glass – Florida is averaging better than 15 offensive rebounds per game. They are a team with a legit and athletic big man in Egbunu and two lively athletes flanking him…those three guys in particular are the players MSU needs to limit. Controling the defensive glass is where it all starts for MSU. It means you’re closing out defensive possessions, not allowing for second chances (and when facing a middling at best shooting group like Florida, that matters a lot). It also allows you to get transition happening and that’s always a goal for the Spartans.
2. Perimeter defense – Florida isn’t living at the foul line so far this year…they’re averaging just under 21 FTA per game, not a massive number in the current era (it’s just slightly less than MSU is getting, and MSU isn’t a big penetration team). However, they have legit high level athletes and given their struggles with the jumper, I would guess White is going to try to get what he can out of Florida’s guards in looking to get to the rim. We’ve seen what I think (and more importantly, what Izzo thinks) is improvement over the last week in terms of denying penetration but this will be a test of a different order. As with clearing the defensive glass, the key here is to make Florida have to beat you by doing things they don’t typically do well, and that’s make jump shots.
3. Poise – MSU’s been OK in terms of turnovers so far, averaging 12 per game. However, in a game against an athletic opponent who may try to run a bit with the Spartans, it’s important to not give possessions away with mistakes.
4. Ball Movement – It’s generally been outstanding this year but I do think MSU got a little bit off kilter at times in the MES blowout. Florida is not a great team this year but one thing they have done well is play defense…they’re limiting opponents to 37/32% so far and I can understand why, looking at their length and athleticism. Yet, I remain convinced that when MSU has it’s ball and man movement humming at maximum levels, there isn’t much any defense can do to prevent them from getting a clean look. Florida is good enough defensively to give MSU problems if they aren’t locked in offensively, looking to move the ball with speed and purpose.
5. Emotion – With the 2000 team in town, there will be a lot of hoopla around this game. MSU also has to learn to deal with taking the best shot other teams have to give. I think they’ve seen some of that already…Providence and Louisville were clearly jacked to play the Spartans, and they should expect something similar out of a Florida team which shares some physical characteristics with those two squads. MSU has to walk a line between using their emotion as fuel for what they do and yet not getting out of their comfort zone and away from what matters most, and that’s playing within themselves at both ends.
OVERALL – This should be another good test for an MSU team looking to get tuned up for Big Ten play. This is not a Gator team at the levels of Donovan’s best but it is one with plenty of highly regarded players, some good size and athletes all over the court.
MSU has a big advantage in terms of skill sets. Florida doesn’t shoot well and I don’t think they move the ball particularly well either. However, if they can succeed in uglying the game up some, they can compete against the Spartans. I think the game really does start on the glass. If MSU can limit what the Gators can do on the offensive boards, it becomes very difficult for Florida to win…at that point, they’d have to shoot at a very uncharacteristically high level if they’re not getting second chances. Clearing the defensive boards would also allow MSU’s break to get rolling, and against a pretty good halfcourt defensive team, easy baskets would be nice to have.
Florida will bring Big Ten type athletes and physicality to the floor, so MSU is going to have to meet those things with a strong and focused effort in order to win its 11th game of the season.