After defeating No. 10 seed USC, No. 7 Michigan State is set to take on No. 2 Marquette in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday at 5:15 p.m.
The opponent is a familiar one for graduate student forward Joey Hauser. The fifth-year spent his first two years of college basketball with the Golden Eagles before transferring to Michigan State. But that was quite some time ago - Hauser doesn’t seem too concerned about that particular storyline.
“I don’t know any of the players or coaches there,” Hauser said. “I do not have any ill-will towards them. It’s just Michigan State versus Marquette.”
Just a few weeks ago, questions were raised about the Spartans' ability in the postseason after a quick, ugly exit at the hands of Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. However, those questions were temporarily quelled in Friday night’s victory over the Trojans. Playing stout on defense and (mostly) consistent on offense, Michigan State put up its most balanced performance in weeks.
Excellent guard play on both sides of the court was essential for Michigan State’s first game of the tournament, and it’s certain to be just as important against the Golden Eagles.
The trio of sophomore guard Jaden Akins, junior guard A.J. Hoggard and senior guard Tyson Walker were excellent in Friday afternoon’s victory over USC. In addition to scoring a combined 35 points, the three guards were excellent on defense, constantly putting pressure on the perimeter and contesting nearly every drive to the basket. The Spartans finished with a total of seven steals and forced the Trojans to turn the ball over 11 times.
“I think our guard play can borderline be really good,” Izzo said. “We’ve got to play the defense we play, and we can’t turn the ball over,” Izzo said.
Senior forward Malik Hall is also an essential piece of the defense. The 6-foot-8 senior was stout on the perimeter against USC, often tasked with guarding the talented big fifth-year guard Drew Peterson.
In summation, defense - especially in the backcourt - looks to be the name of the game against such a talented team like Marquette.
“That’s one thing I do like about our matchup - I think we have good guards defensively and offensively, and I think they do,” Izzo said. “For a shot to go in, it’s all about confidence. You don’t need confidence in defense, although every once and a while it’s good to get a win defensively.”
Offensively, the key will again be consistency. Throughout the season, Michigan State has struggled to keep the offense humming for 40 minutes. Offensive lulls and scoreless droughts have been all too common at times. However, those choppy sequences weren’t quite as frequent in the win against USC. Throughout the afternoon, the Spartans kept up the pace on offense, unafraid to drive into the paint or be patient on the perimeter.
Scouting the opponent
With No. 1 Purdue knocked out in Friday night’s stunning upset to No. 16 FDU, Marquette reigns supreme as the top-seeded team in the East Region.
The Golden Eagles dominated their conference en route to earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Marquette finished atop the Big East standings at the end of the regular season, its 17 conference wins were the best in program history. The Golden Eagles followed that act with a win over Xavier in the Big East Tournament finals. Marquette is a well-balanced team, sporting a prolific offense and a pressuring defense.
The Golden Eagles average 79.9 points per game, good for 21st in the NCAA. They’re quick in transition, limit turnovers, shoot with efficiency and get the ball in a bevy of hands.
Averaging 17.5 assists per game, the fifth most in the country, Marquette likes to sling the ball all around the court. Sophomore guard Tyler Kolek has been especially effective in finding and putting his teammates in scoring situations. His 7.6 assists per game are the third most in the nation. Frequently using ball screens and motions, there’s a lot going on and a lot of players involved in the Golden Eagles’ offensive sets.
“This team brings more ball screens than maybe we’ve faced all year,” Izzo said. “It seems like they’re coming from the right, the left, they’re all over the place, and they do it very well.”
It’s great to move around the ball plenty and keep the defense on its toes, but that doesn’t matter much if the players can’t score. Marquette doesn’t have that problem. Four players average double-digit points this season, two guards and two forwards. Sophomore guard Kam Jones leads the way, averaging just over 15 points a game.
“They cause a lot of problems with their offense,” Hoggard said. “They’re a really well-rounded offense.”
Defensively, turnovers are the name of the game for Marquette. Marquette University head men's basketball coach Shaka Smart places emphasis on deflections and steals. The Golden Eagles are ninth in the nation in steals per game, averaging 9.3. Michigan State is a team that has struggled at times with ball control. On the season, the Spartans have a negative turnover margin (-0.97).
“We’ve just got to take care of the ball,” Walker said. “They turn people over pretty well. That’s a big part of the game.”
Tipoff is set for 5:15 p.m. Sunday evening. If Michigan State wins, it’s onto the Sweet Sixteen. If Marquette wins, the season’s a wrap for the Spartans.