The Eastern Michigan Eagles are off to a 2-1 start without Raven Lee's services, but will have a lot to prove against the MIchigan State Spartans (3-0). Editor of The Only Colors Joe Tuohey exchanged some questions to help preview the game.
Alex: Last year, the Michigan State Spartans had an awesome tournament run to find themselves in the Final Four last year. What sort of expectations do you have for this team this season?
Joe: This is a good question. I don't think anybody in the MSU fanbase is necessarily expecting a season to match last year, since that run was insanely improbable. I think coming into the season, we expected this MSU team to be competitive (top-5) in the Big Ten, make the tournament, and get to the Sweet Sixteen. Tom Izzo's got one of his best-ever recruiting classes coming in the 2016 class, and this year feels a little bit like a transitional year.
That said, the win against Kansas last week seems to have turned things up a notch, and the ceiling for this team appears to be a bit higher than expected.
Our two schools met up near the holiday season. Eastern Michigan was coming off of a win over Michigan before losing by 20 to MSU. What were your impressions on the EMU 2-3 zone that night?
I'm not going to lie, I had to go back and look at the box score to remember much from that game. I do remember being a little concerned about the aggressiveness of that zone with a dearth of MSU ballhandlers, and MSU did end up with under a point per possession on the day. Whenever we play against a zone-heavy team I expect a lot of MSU turnovers, but also a good rebounding day; both of those things were true last year. Ultimately, that 2-3 zone didn't stand out to me as much as I expected it to.
Once the new AP Poll is released on Monday, Michigan State should definitely move on up with a win over the Kansas Jayhawks. What did you learn about the Spartans in that game?
The two main takeaways from the Kansas game were that Denzel Valentine is going to be a capable #1 option and that there exist enough pieces on this squad to be competitive with just about anyone. Valentine became just the fourth MSU player to ever record a triple-double in that game, joining an elite club with Draymond Green, Charlie Bell, and Magic Johnson, while only turning the ball over once. All of this against a top-5 team. He's going to be special.
Also, guys who are brand new to the team or didn't play much last year seemed to be up to the task of filling in for the departed Travis Trice and Branden Dawson. Freshmen Matt McQuaid and Deyonta Davis both had big moments and appeared quite capable. Sophomore Javon Bess missed most of last season with an injury but is starting at power forward this year, and did a nice job on the interior against the larger Kansas bigs. It was encouraging.
Something that the Eagles lack is depth in the front court. Is it safe to assume that this could be an easy mismatch for MSU to work against?
Strangely enough, frontcourt depth is a bit of a problem for MSU at this point in the season as well. Junior Center Gavin Schilling is yet to play this season due to injury, and sophomore TOC favorite Marvin Clark has played just four minutes so far. This leaves MSU with senior Matt Costello, walk-on Colby Wollenman, Davis, walk-on frosh Kenny Goins, and Bess in the frontcourt. They'll definitely be dumping the ball down low to Costello to work in the post, and all those guys can rebound and defend, though. My guess is it's still an advantage for MSU, but not quite a game-defining mismatch.
*If* we find ourselves in a 1-possession game at the U5 in the second half, do you think you'd be shocked?
Yes, I'd absolutely be shocked. This edition of MSU has some pretty strong leadership in Valentine, Costello, and sophomore point guard Tum Tum Nairn, plus it has the outside shooting to burn a zone-defending team. And if those shots aren't falling, the rebounding should be an advantage for MSU. The only way this game is competitive is if MSU turns the ball over a third of the time, and Eastern gets hot from deep.
I do think this game ends up being pretty fast (and thus high-scoring). MSU's three-point shooting is way too much; let's say MSU 85-EMU 65.