Heading into Northwestern men’s basketball’s third Big Ten clash against Michigan State later today, Inside NU got the chance to ask Oren “O” Basse of The Only Colors some questions about the Spartans. Read below to get to know MSU a little better:
Inside NU: MSU’s defense is currently top 10 in KenPom as of Jan. 6 after finishing 42nd last year. What have been some of the driving factors behind that improvement?
Basse: There are a couple factors responsible for the improvement. The first is a case of addition by subtraction. Last year’s team featured Joey Hauser at the PF position who, while he was the team’s best rebounder and arguably its most important offensive piece, was a defensive liability. So his departure has helped. Taking his spot in the starting lineup is Malik Hall who is a more athletic player and is doing a better job defending than Hauser did. Aside from that, it has just been an improvement from other players. Center Mady Sissoko has progressed as a rim protector, as has his backup Carson Cooper.
And on the wings, A.J. Hoggard, Tyson Walker (former CAA Defensive Player of the Year winner), and Jaden Akins have been massive disruptors getting steals and forcing turnovers. Coach Izzo has always preached defense and this year’s lineup is exuding that philosophy right now. During the five-game winning streak they are on, which started with an absolute takedown of then-No. 6 Baylor, it has relied on its defensive effort to generate offense. The best Izzo teams historically have been the same way.
INU: What adjustments has Tom Izzo made over the last couple of weeks that have resulted in the Spartans playing some of their best basketball heading into January after a slow start, and what are some weaknesses/areas of improvement that still linger?
OB: Slow starts are something Spartan Nation are accustomed to, though it never gets easier to watch. But it is just a side effect of Izzo trying to implement systems, offensively and defensively, that take longer to master than what other coaches are rolling out, and he is okay with taking the losses early in the season. That is why he schedules as hard of a non-con slate as he can each year.
So I can’t say it is necessarily that the team is doing anything different. It is just that they have started doing the things Coach wants them doing more effectively.
As far as areas of weakness, this is probably the easiest question you could ask me, so thank you for that. MSU is not getting much offense from the center position. Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper both are suffering from some strange case of butterfingers, where they tend to not catch perfect passes in the low post, which a more effective substitute would easily handle and finish for a dunk. We’ve seen this on alley-oops repeatedly this season, but also on simple feeds on the floor. They are not securing the ball and it either goes through their hands out of bounds or a defender takes advantage of a bobble to slap the ball away and get the steal.
Also, MSU could afford to shoot better from the FT line where they are currently 10th in the Big Ten (though I noticed NW is just above us in ninth).
INU: Like Northwestern, Michigan State is a smaller team that plays at a slower pace (an adjusted tempo south of 67, which is 295th in the nation as of 6 p.m. CT on Jan. 6). It seems like MSU has thrived with this system in the last few weeks, while the Wildcats haven’t. What has made that identity work for the Spartans?
OB: I will be honest with you, this stat surprised me and it goes in contrast to an answer I gave above. I think the two best halves of basketball that I’ve seen from MSU this year were the first halves of the Baylor and Penn State games. In both of those first halves, MSU generated double-digit turnovers from the opposition and that facilitated a plethora of transition points for Sparty. Even when not after a turnover, MSU has been known to push the ball up court when inbounding the ball after an opponent’s FG. Hoggard is one of the best transition ball handlers in the nation and with the athletes on this year’s roster, he has his options where to go with the ball.
All that said, MSU can definitely be guilty of standing around in half-court sets and getting caught in late shot clock situations with nothing happening. In these cases, it is often just left to Tyson Walker to make something out of nothing. And he often does. On the flip side, MSU’s strong defense also forces the opposition into several 29-second possessions. So those two factors definitely combine to reduce the total amount of possessions per game. But again, I don’t think MSU is trying to slow down the game by any means.
INU: We know the starters. Who are some of the unsung bench players who you could see playing a big role on Sunday, and how do you think they’ll capitalize on Northwestern’s weaknesses?
OB: A couple weeks ago, this question would have had a different answer. Freshman PG Jeremy Fears Jr. had been coming along, especially on the defensive side. Unfortunately, he was the victim of some senseless gun violence when he was home at Christmas and suffered a gunshot wound to his leg. His season is most likely done, though it was nice to see him with his teammates on the sideline during the last game. In the two games he has been absent thus far, fellow backcourt reserve Tre Holloman has stepped up in both minutes and production. In what is now essentially a three-man rotation among the two guard spots, his role has become vital, and so far he is answering the call.
And I can’t discuss the bench without mentioning freshman Coen Carr. He isn’t racking up big stats, but he is a human highlight reel and he is going to do a couple things in Sunday’s game that will leave the NW crowd in disbelief.
INU: Score prediction! Who wins and why?
OB: I am the biggest homer in the land so I of course am picking my Spartans. But I do believe they are the more talented team and they are on a roll right now. While Northwestern has done some nice things this year, I don’t think they are good enough to stop MSU’s momentum right now. Let’s say 78-71 MSU.
INU: A bonus. Who scores more: Tyson Walker or Boo Buie?
OB: Great question. Boo Buie has been an absolute thorn in our side during his time in Evanston. I will give him his flowers and say he continues to get his. He will outscore Tyson Walker in front of his home crowd.