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'We gotta cut people's water off': How MSU's defensive mentality has driven the team's success

December 2, 2021
<p>Senior forward Gabe Brown (44) guards Louisville&#x27;s Dre Davis during the second half. The Spartans beat the Cardinals, 73-64, to win the B1G/ACC Challenge on Dec. 1, 2021. </p>

Senior forward Gabe Brown (44) guards Louisville's Dre Davis during the second half. The Spartans beat the Cardinals, 73-64, to win the B1G/ACC Challenge on Dec. 1, 2021.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

The success of Michigan State’s team defense is not driven by one player on the team. It’s a collective effort of locking in and staying true to the team’s defensive motto, junior point guard Tyson Walker said.

“We have a saying that we like to say and that's what we like to do,” Walker said following MSU’s victory against Louisville. “We gotta cut people's water off. We gotta cut it off and that's it right there.”

Michigan State spent the night in the Breslin Center doing just that in its nine-point victory over the Cardinals. Louisville only mustered 64 points on 72 possessions, good for just 0.89 points per possession.

From the opening tip, Michigan State prevented Louisville from getting any sort of momentum going on that end of the floor, leading to a comfortable Spartan victory in which they led by 20 points in the second half. 

The Spartans suffocated the Cardinals in the half-court all night, not allowing the fast-paced squad to capitalize on MSU’s whopping 19 turnovers for easy buckets. Louisville shot 41% from the field and 25% from three-point range, making it almost impossible to generate consistent offense against the Spartans. 

Michigan State also actively turned Louisville over, leading to easy opportunities to score in transition. MSU had a season-high 10 steals, led by Walker with four. Michigan State also used its size advantage inside, turning away five shots at the rim, led by Marcus Bingham Jr. with three blocks.

The ability to turn Louisville over coupled with the elite rim protection ratcheted up MSU’s defense to a different level tonight, propelling them to victory over its fourth straight opponent in the KenPom top 40

The watter-cutting effort started with freshman guard Max Christie. The 18-year-old wing was tasked with the toughest assignment tonight, guarding Louisville’s leading scorer Noah Locke. Christie answered with a defensive masterclass, holding Locke to 0 points in 25 minutes.

“90% of the scorers let their scoring dictate their defense,” Izzo said of Christie following the win. “And he hasn't done that one time all year. For a freshman, that's almost unbelievable. If you watch him, he is in lockdown mode.”

The other defensive standout in Izzo’s eyes was fellow freshman Jaden Akins. Akins played 10 minutes off the bench and was tasked with filling in Christie’s role on both ends of the floor. Akins responded with the task of guarding Louisville’s best player head-on, continuing the shutdown of Locke and Louisville guard Jarrod West, who finished with eight points. 

Akins continued his breakout performance from the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament on the offensive end of the court too. The freshman finished with 10 points on 3-4 shooting (2-2 from distance) to power himself to having a team-high +18 plus-minus l in his limited action. 

“He's really hyper; he's ready to play all the time,” Bingham said about Akins. “He's bringing it everyday on defense and in practice. He's improving a lot with his jump shot and his reads and him just being active on the floor.”

The effort from the freshman was matched by his teammates all night in the attempt to stifle Louisville’s offensive. Bingham said that he believes there is not a drop-off in defensive talent no matter who is on the floor for Michigan State. 

“Everyone's taking that initiative of stopping their man, no matter who's coming in,” Bingham said. “We work really hard. I don't think nobody in the country practices as hard as us, works as hard as us. The work is gonna continue to show.”

As the turnover issues continue deeper into the season (MSU gave the ball away 19 times tonight) the defense continues to be the saving grace for the Spartans. Despite ranking 306th in the country with a 22.7% turnover percentage, MSU continues to win and stay in games thanks to the ability to turn teams away defensively.

Through eight games, Michigan State ranks second in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (88.0) according to KenPom. MSU is standing strong against the extra possessions caused by its turnovers and forcing teams to beat its length in the half-court. MSU has made it a point to get back in transition on defense, only allowing 12 transition points to a run-happy Louisville team to keep its offense in check in the half-court. 

The defense has been enough so far to push Michigan State through tough game after tough game like it did against Louisville. MSU held Louisville under 70 points, moving the Spartans to 6-0 when they keep a team under 70 and 0-2 when they allow 70 or more points. 

“S—, we've got some defenders on his team, baby,” Bingham said with an ear-to-ear grin. “I can't wait to show the world.”

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