MSU will try to complete an unbeaten non conference season for the first time since 2000-01 and in the process set an all time record for wins to begin a season when the 12-0 Spartans face the 7-3 Oakland Grizzlies on Tuesday night at The Palace in Auburn Hills.
OU was expected to be a contender in the Horizon this year (Valpo is the favorite but OU had some first place votes in the media poll at the start of the season) and they’ve more or less looked the part. The 7-3 mark includes single digit road losses to Colorado State, Southern Illinois and Georgia, but the Grizzlies are coming off two fine road wins, beating a decent Toledo team by 12 and then pounding Washington in Seattle by 14. They have two common oppenents with MSU, as they beat Eastern by 10 and Binghamton by 11 (MSU had much larger margins of victory against each of those two, fwiw).
The history of this series is one sided in terms of wins…with MSU a perfect 13-0 against OU. However, there have been some nail-biters in there…two years ago, MSU beat OU by just 4. In 2010, it was a win by just a single point and in 2007 MSU won by 4. Last year’s game was a surprisingly easy Spartan victory. the results have tended to ebb and flow between tight contests and MSU runaways, but it hasn’t always been easy to see which one is coming.
BACKCOURT – For real, no BS, this will be one of the better backcourts MSU sees all season long, IMO. You start with Kay (formerly Kahlil) Felder, a pack of dynamite put together in a 5’9″ frame. He’s a junior out of Pershing High who has exploded this season, going from a very good Horizon player to perhaps one of the top handful of guards in America. A cousin of Steve Smith, Felder averaged better than 17ppg and 7 apg last year, the only player in the country to do that, but he’s gone up a level…he’s currently at 25.9ppg and 8.9 apg, just stunning numbers (and he dropped 38 on Washington last night, so don’t think they’ve been piled up against cupcakes). I first saw Felder years ago as a freshman backup for Pershing but the first real extended time I saw him get was playing in an U15 game for REACH against an Ohio Red team featuring Nigel Hayes, Marc Loving and Cha Cha Tucker. He was fantastic in that contest but he was so small (I’m guessing he was about 5’5″ or 5’6″ at that point), it was hard to know where everything would end up for him. He’s found a way to translate his game to the next level and it would be foolish to rule out an NBA future for him. He’s also averages 4.7 rpg at his size…just remarkable stuff. He’s basically good in every phase of the game offensively…he gets to the line for 8.2 FTA per game and hits them. He shoots 39% from three but only takes about 1/3 of his shots from out there, so he’s an all-levels scorer. In totality, he is going to be an absolute handful. Part of the problem in defending Oakland is that you can’t just load up on Kay, though. He’s now got both of the Walker boys flanking him, all of whom played together at Pershing. Martez made his OU debut against Washington and scored 18 points. A transfer from Texas, he’s a 6’4″ wing who can hit the three (went 3-6 against UW) and yet has the strength and toughness to score inside the arc as well. Sherron Dorsey-Walker (no relation) started at Iowa State before coming home to play at OU. He’s another physical wing who is leading the team in rebounding at 8.9 per game, and scoring 9.7ppg while hitting 48% of his threes.
Off the bench, coach Greg Kampe has another major weapon to use in 6’6″ senior wing Max Hooper. He’s averaging better than 12ppg as a designated shooter. All 88 attempts he’s had from the floor this year have come from outside the arc, so you know what his role is coming in without any question…spot up and take open shots. He’s hitting 43% from deep so far. Nick Daniels is a 6’1″ sophomore out of Westland John Glenn who will probably see his minutes reduced somewhat by the arrival of Martez Walker but he’ll still play a big reserve role after starting the first 9 games of the season. He’s averaging 4.9ppg and though his deep shooting is down considerably from last season (he led the Horizon at better than 48% from three), he’s still a threat out there and he also offers Felder some help in running the offense, where he’s third on the team in assists. 6’2′ freshman Jaevin Cumberland (a cousin of Cincinnati and former Michigan recruit Jarron Cumberland) is playing about 6 mpg so far but he’s been in every contest, so look for him to buy a few minutes here or there for one of the starters, but his production has been very limited.
FRONTCOURT – OU had a big loss, figuratively and literally, from last year’s team with the graduation of C Corey Petros. However, Kampe went to a familiar source to help solve that problem…he’s been very good historically at bringing back kids from the area who went to bigger programs but didn’t find the minutes or success they’d hoped for, and those kinds of players have helped OU build a very strong basketball program for its level. He did it again with Iowa State transfer Percy Gibson. Gibson was a guy who when in HS (teammate of former MSU Spartan Brandan Kearney) seemed just short of being an MSU level recruit…he was a guy who played hard, had some skill around the basket, but just wasn’t quite big enough or athletic enough to earn an offer. He didn’t really break through at ISU but he’s been a strong addition for this team, at a spot where they really needed some help. He’s averaging 15.1ppg and 8.2 rpg so far. The thing I always liked about him is that he knows who he is and doesn’t often seem to get outside of that. There’s value in having guys who really understand their role and capabilities. He’ll be joined by 6’8″ former Sexton High big man Jalen Hayes. Hayes is another guy who started off elsewhere, originally going to DePaul, before coming back to Michigan. He’s averaging 12.1ppg and 7.6 rpg. He and Gibson both shoot right around 56% from the floor, so you know they’re taking good shots and showing an ability to finish.
Kampe has two young big men to turn to off his bench. 6’11” freshman Brad Brechting needs to gain strength and bulk at just 210lbs, but the Cedar Springs (former HS of Spartan player and grad assistant Austin Thornton) native gives OU some length and is playing around 9mpg, shooting a good percentage in limited attempts. 6’8″ sophomore Femi Olujobi has a bit more bulk to work with and is playing around the same minutes as Brechting. Both Gibson and Hayes are up over 25mpg, so these two guys are basically going to be called upon to hold the fort for now when they’re on the floor.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Emotion – I put this one somewhere near the top every year when MSU faces Oakland. The reality is that this Oakland team, as with most of them, is filled with Michigan kids. Of the 10 guys in their rotation, 7 are Michigan natives. 5 of them played in HS with at least one guy who ended up playing at Michigan State, and Jalen Hayes played in HS with Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes. You cannot ever discount the role that motivation can play in a game like this one. Historically, MSU teams have tended to do a decent job in dealing with this but it’s always something I think about in this matchup…and with MSU unbeaten and ranked #1 nationally, the motivation would seem to be stronger than ever on the OU side.
2. Arc – Both teams shoot the 3 extremely well. OU isn’t crazy with it in terms of attempts but when they do shoot it, they hit (39% as a team). We know how important it is for MSU as well. If either team has an edge in this area, it’ll go a long way toward earning a victory for that side.
3. Transition – Both teams want to play fast. OU is averaging almost 87ppg and their team is built to run. We saw MSU have probably its best sustained effort in transition yesterday against Northeastern. That will need to continue.
4. Free Throws – In what could be a tight game, MSU needs to be converting the opportunities they get from the stripe. So far this year, the team has been solid but has generally been really good down the stretch in the handful of games in which they’ve been tested. OU is not a great defensive team, so I think they may be forced to foul some and that may mean the Spartans find themselves on the line more than usual.
5. Defensive Rebounding – It’s been good all season but was far from that yesterday. OU averages almost 13 offensive boards per game, so they can provide a challenge for the Spartans in keeping them off the glass and limiting second chances.
OVERALL – This should be a fun game. I don’t want to take things too far…I don’t see OU as a team we’d be talking about as a serious Big Ten title contender if they were in our league, but this is a good team, a group I wouldn’t be surprised to see make the field in March out of their league.
The problem for Oakland is that they’ve got 2/3 of a legit team. Offensively, they are for real. Neither Gibson nor Hayes is a lights out low post player but they get their chances inside, and the team is loaded with deep shooters. Add in as dynamic of a PG as you’ll find in Felder and they are a tough, tough cover. I think they’re also a pretty good rebounding group as well. Defensively, though, they’ve got problems. They don’t guard people at a high level and that probably will be the difference in this game. They are one of the few teams out there that will look at MSU and say “yeah, we’ll play this pace with you” and be fine with that. However, I tend to think over the course of 40 minutes, it will be the Spartans who are able to get more stops and earn a hard fought victory.