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MSU women's basketball has 'a long list' to improve on heading into Big Ten play

December 31, 2020
<p>St. Francis players defend against MSU&#x27;s Tory Ozment during both teams&#x27; first game of the women&#x27;s basketball season on Nov. 27, 2020. </p>

St. Francis players defend against MSU's Tory Ozment during both teams' first game of the women's basketball season on Nov. 27, 2020.

With Ohio State women’s basketball postponing three games, including their Dec. 31 matchup against Michigan State, Spartan Head Coach Suzy Merchant’s squad will go 12 days without playing a game before they jump back into Big Ten conference play.

Now that players are beginning to return and get themselves tested, Merchant revealed a long list of things to fix in their extended break from play.

“That’s a long list I have to say,” Merchant said. “That’s a good question, but a long list.”

The beginning of that list starts with ball-screen defense, something that Merchant is emphasizing heading into Big Ten play.

“I think for us ball screen defense; everything ends in a ball screen,” Merchant said. “Everything nowadays in the game is about a ball screen, so making sure that we continue to shore that up and get good reps at that.”

The other crucial thing according to Merchant is the ability to play against and with a zone. In addition to practicing to cut up a zone defense, Merchant wants to continue to play with a zone defense from time to time with lengthy guards and forwards on the team and also when players get in foul trouble.

“We played some zone and have a zone, and we just want to continue to get that better too because we've had some situations where we've been in foul trouble and people have been breaking us down on the dribble,” Merchant said. “I haven't always wanted to go to that, but in the last game before break, I felt good enough to put it out there. We've been practicing it for a while, so zone defense was something that we want to continue to build as well.”

The Spartans are in the midst of one of their best starts since 2012-2013, when they started the season 8-0 and went on to make the NCAA Tournament.

In this hot start, it has been the teamwork that has been key. The Spartans are currently ranked fourth in Division I in assist to turnover ratio as well as third in total assists in only seven games. Those assists turn into easy baskets, and that shows as they rank 22nd in total field goal percentage on the season, shooting on average 48.1% per game this season.

The way the team has been sharing the ball this season is something with which Merchant has been extremely pleased.

“I think a majority of these kids really are committed to the team and sharing the ball, I think they recognize that that's a strength of ours and want to continue to do that,” Merchant said. “I think we're third in the country in assists right now and have been taking care of the ball as well, so that's a big focal point for us this year as well just really playing together and playing smart.”

Those passes are made easier by a shift Merchant made in this year’s offense as her team is moving off the ball and cutting to the basket more than they ever have, creating opportunities for easy passes and easy baskets.

“I think that comes from just really adjusting our offense a little bit to provide one, some freedom, but two just cutting more,” Merchant said. “We're in a different style of offense that I think that has fit our team a little bit more and other players have really invested this offseason. I think COVID provided an opportunity for kids to work on their individual skills. One of those would be shooting and not many people go out in the driveway and work on their defense, so I feel like maybe some of this is COVID related whether they were in the gym or they're in their driveways working on their shot.”

This high level of offense along with the defensive effort that Merchant’s teams always give has truly sparked this hot start, and they’ll need that heading into the gauntlet that is the Big Ten with six ranked teams in the AP top 25, one of which is MSU at No. 25.

While the Big Ten might not have a powerhouse school like a UConn or Stanford in the conference, the Big Ten has a collective of strong teams with unique play styles that make it tough to prepare for any team in a given week.

“On the women's side, I think it's really unique because, for example you have teams that have a power five or someone that's really a problem inside and then you might play somebody that's a completely different style, that's a little more face up than post up,” Merchant said. “That's another unique thing that I think when you look at the six teams in the top 25, they play uniquely different styles. There's more ways to be successful in the country and in our league than just one way. I think it's going to provide a unique challenge for us as we go into every game on what that opponent's strengths are.”

The Spartans will travel to Purdue on Jan. 3, 2021, looking to match the start they had in 2012-2013 at 8-0.

“It's going to be a war,” Merchant said. “We haven't played ... since Dec. 22. Purdue, I think maybe played the 23rd and they're not going to play till we play them as well because we had our game canceled on the 31st, so that's a little disappointing. We've just tried to look at it where it's going to help us prepare for the rigors and the challenges in the league.”

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