Friday, December 10, 2010

Game Preview: Oakland vs. Michigan State

Game 10: Oakland (5-4) vs Michigan State (6-3)
Saturday, December 11, 2010 | 12:30pm at The Palace
TV: Fox Sports Detroit | Radio: WDFM-AM (1130)

It's the second game in a row against a Big Ten opponent for Oakland as the Michigan State Spartans come to Oakland County for a pseudo-home game at The Palace of Auburn Hills. For the Golden Grizzlies, this game is also their first to be aired on local television this season through Fox Sports Detroit. And boy should it be an entertaining viewing experience. We have the state's premier program going up against one of the state's strongest mid-major programs, both coming off of NCAA Tournament appearances. The individuals aren't half bad either, as MSU features a few of the best players in the Big Ten and the country, while Oakland is centered by one of the nation's most productive big men with NBA potential in Keith Benson. OU has also played a tough schedule which has included competitive games against Purdue and Illinois. The Spartans are coming off what Coach Tom Izzo said was one of the most disappointing losses in his tenure to a solid Syracuse squad. Izzo's team will be aiming to reignite themselves, while Oakland will be looking to come out strong as they have against top opponents thus far to prove the close game at Illinois was no fluke.

Home Away From Home
Though metropolitan areas can present problems for mid-major programs, namely the number of sports entities competing for fan attention, they can also offer them additional resources. For a few metro schools in The Summit League, the biggest resource of all is bigger arenas. Oakland enjoys such an advantage since its campus is located just eight minutes from The Palace of Auburn Hills, the home of the NBA's Detroit Pistons. For the last few seasons, Oakland has been able to bring in high-profile opponents for a game or two here, including both Michigan State and Michigan. There are plenty of upsides to hosting games at The Palace: larger crowds, neat opportunities for students, television crews, increased media interest, and a chance to showcase the program on a bigger stage. The attendance numbers also count toward Oakland's season figures, a factor which gives its annual average a hefty boost. Despite this, the only downside is that those additional fans are usually there to root for the opponent when that team is MSU or UofM. Even though you might see more green and white than black and gold in the stands, this is not the Breslin Center, and that is a distinct advantage for the Golden Grizzlies.

A Glimmer Of Hope
Among advanced statistics enthusiasts, there is a concept known as "The Four Factors" which more often than not can tell the story of how a team won a game. The factors included are effective field goal percentage, turnover rate, offensive rebounding percentage, and free throw rate. The thought is that if a team can control all of these factors or at least a majority of them, there is a greater chance that they will win the game. More often than not, when one looks through these measures for games pitting mid-majors against high-majors, the high-major will have the majority advantage (and thus usually win). While all of these measures can tell us something about a team's tendencies in a tempo-free sense, for Oakland's game against Michigan State I wanted to look into two areas in particular: offensive rebounding percentage and turnover rate. The reason for my curiosity stems from the fact that OU has generally rebounded well this season, particularly on the offense end, and because poor interior defense and turnovers have been cited as causes of Michigan State's letdown performances, particularly its last game against Syracuse. Looking at this season so far and the three preceding it, here is what I found (OR%=Offensive Rebound %, TR=Turnover Rate, NR=National Rank):
As we can see, Michigan State is typically one of the top ten rebounding teams in the country, rebounding about 40.0% of its missed shots every season. Oakland hasn't exactly been a slouch in this area, either, seemingly always in the top 25% of the nation in this regard. This season, however, MSU is outside of the top 50 while Oakland is in the top 10. Oakland also has the edge in turnover rate, a category MSU has never been great in but one it is especially struggling with this season. The reason any of this matters is revealed in the last column which is MSU's margin of victory over Oakland in each of the last three seasons. The only time Oakland had the edge in both offensive rebounding percentage and turnover rate was in 2007-08 when the Golden Grizzlies lost by just four points in East Lansing. As the table shows, Oakland currently enjoys an advantage by both of these measures so far this season. Some could cite a difference in scheduling strength as the reason why, which is a valid concern, but at their basic level, the numbers don't lie. If OU fans are looking for a reason to have an objective glimmer of hope heading into this match-up, an offensive rebounding and ball control advantage surely offers one.

Key Personnel Match-Up
Reggie Hamilton vs. Kalin Lucas
Not only is it the second straight game against a Big Ten team, but it's also the second straight game against an All-American caliber point guard. Kalin Lucas has had a few strong games this year, but as Andy Katz pointed out earlier this week, he still hasn't regained his explosiveness after injuring his Achilles last March. Still, Lucas is a senior leader capable of changing the game for the Spartans. Reggie Hamilton may not be a senior, but he sure has been playing like a seasoned Oakland veteran despite having a year off last season due to his transfer. Hamilton was tasked with guarding Illinois senior guard Demetri McCamey on Wednesday, and while Lucas probably won't score quite as much as McCamey did, he'll still be just as tough an opponent. Oakland's big men should do their work in the frontcourt, but for the Golden Grizzlies to stay in this game, they'll need a big performance from Hamilton, as always.

Michigan State Player To Watch: Draymond Green
He might be the easy pick for this feature, but you just can't undervalue what Draymond Green does for the Spartans. The 6'6" junior is a statistical machine. His per game averages: 13 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4 assists, 52% FG shooting, 2.1 steals, and 1.6 blocks. Green is capable of doing whatever it is his team needs of him, whether it's a big scoring night, a balanced double-double, or distributing to his teammates from the high post. He got the best of Oakland last season with a double-double and that was when OU had Derrick Nelson at the forward spot. Green has lost some weight since then and only gotten better.

Oakland Player To Watch: Keith Benson
Keith Benson has had a rather successful career against Michigan State. In his sophomore year, just a week after he showed everyone what he was capable of against Michigan at The Palace, Benson had a 20-point effort against the Spartans in the same venue - and that was after they knew he was coming. Last year in East Lansing, the then junior had a double-double. Despite the promising individual performances, Benson and Oakland came up on the losing end in each. This is the senior's last chance to upend the state's best basketball program. Combine that nugget of motivation with the fact that Oakland is coming off a close loss to Illinois where a thick double-team prevented Benson from getting many looks and you have a team and its best player that will be eager to show the state of Michigan what Oakland is all about.

Oakland opened the O'Rena in the fall of 1998 with a game against Michigan State, a 96-66 loss. Since then, Oakland has fared much better at its home arena but has never been able to upset Tom Izzo's squad. OU's total record: 0-9. Average loss margin: 24 points. The team loss by just 4 points in the 2007-08 season with a team that featured much younger versions of Keith Benson and Will Hudson. This will be the second time the two teams have met at The Palace, the first meeting resulting in an 82-66 Spartan victory in 2008-2009.

Opponent Q&A
Contributer LVS from the Michigan State blog The Only Colors was kind enough to answer a few of our burning questions about this year's Spartans.

In the Syracuse game, it looked like the Spartans frontcourt had trouble dealing with Rick Jackson and guard penetration. Was this an isolated issue, or does this team have a legitimate weakness in its interior defense? Either way, who needs to step up their play to correct it?

LVS: It's tough to say at this point, but I fear that it might be. In the first two losses of the year, MSU was done in by perhaps the two finest guards in the country -- UConn's Kemba Walker and Duke's Kyrie Irving -- and there are very few defenses in the country that could handle those two players. I didn't see guard penetration as the real killer against Syracuse, but as you say, the MSU frontcourt couldn't handle Rick Jackson. Syracuse's interior passing was outstanding and opened up many opportunities, but there were plenty of instances where MSU's bigs were outmuscled, as reflected in the rebounding statistics. It's certainly not ideal, and it's becoming more and more apparent how much this team misses Raymar Morgan.

It's unfair to say that Adreian Payne needs to step up, as he's only eight games into his college career, but clearly he's the player who has the ability to make the biggest difference. He's shown flashes of his ability and potential but has looked lost (particularly on the defensive end) even more frequently. Delvon Roe is a strong defender but lacks the size to handle the biggest centers. Derrick Nix has that size, but is highly inconsistent, as you know. I expect for this situation to become far less dire over the next couple months, but there clearly are issues at this point.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Spartan bench? Who has the ability to have a big game, especially in a match-up with a squad like Oakland? What should we expect of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne?

LVS: Well, Draymond Green has been coming off the bench this season (it's sort of farcical -- he checked into the Syracuse game 45 seconds after the opening tip) and I'm sure Grizzlies fans know about him. He's outstanding at nearly every facet of the game, aside from free throw shooting, sadly. Otherwise: Korie Lucious still turns the ball over far too often for anyone's taste, but his shot looks much better this season and has quite frequently been the best player on the floor for MSU. Keith Appling, essentially -- he's been a turnover machine but showed several flashes of his potential in Maui. Austin Thornton has given the team some good minutes off the bench, and he's being a bit more assertive with his shot, which is good.

Adreian Payne's defense was discussed previously. On offense, he's enormously raw, so much so that he's not contributing much at the moment, but he has talent to burn. If MSU takes a sizeable lead in this game, you might see him get a bunch of minutes -- he really needs game experience. Major improvement by Derrick Nix is perhaps the singlemost thing that could improve this team, but I'm skeptical that will happen anytime soon, honestly. As you probably know, he flirted with quitting the team and did not travel to the Maui Invitational. Against Syracuse he looked more assertive on offense, which is good -- but he still plays out of control and is a very, very poor ball handler. Additionally, his free throw shooting is really, really bad, and that limits his offensive utility. So, there are issues, but the depth is clearly there.

There was a stretch in the first half of the Duke game where sophomore Garrick Sherman was essentially the MSU offense. It seems like he's capable of having great runs like that to help the team even though he's not a featured scorer. Tell us a little bit about his game and why MSU fans like him on the court?

LVS: Sherman has improved quite a bit this season, and given MSU's interior struggles on offense and defense, the opportunity certainly exists for him to grab lots of playing time. His effectiveness was really limited by Syracuse's big men, but Sherman has displayed impressive low-post moves and a knack for finishing. He's certainly been a nice surprise overall.

A lot of columns have been written about MSU's start, but anyone who follows the team knows they always tend to come around especially late in the season (and it's not like any of their loses have come to bad teams). As a Spartan fan, what do you hope to see out of the team against Oakland on Saturday that might give you an indication that everything will indeed be okay?

LVS: This may sound obvious, but the best possible thing for MSU would be to win this game going away. Oakland is a good team and Izzo and the other coaches clearly have respect for the Grizzlies -- but there's no comparison between the two rosters. Even several of MSU's wins this season have been of the too-close-for comfort variety; another one of those efforts, even in a win, would be somewhat distressing. As for individual things on the wishlist: Kalin Lucas being more aggressive in driving to the basket, winning the rebounding battle convincingly, improvement from Appling and Payne, and, above all else, not turning the ball over.

We thank LVS for taking the time to respond, particularly given his very detailed answers! Much respect. Be sure to check out The Only Colors for their perspective on this game as well.

The Extra Pass
Michigan State suffered a 72-58 loss to Syracuse on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Tom Izzo gave his team - and himself to a certain extent - a scathing review following the game. A few quotes from the recap:

"It's gut check time for us," he said. "I'm as disappointed in that performance as I've been in any since I've been at Michigan State. Credit Syracuse or the one man who kicked our butt. We didn't come early inside and let them dominate on the boards. We turned into a pretty-boy jump-shooting team instead of the blue-collar, fist-fighting team we should be.

"Our guys inside weren't covering anybody and that's solely on me. If the team doesn't play hard enough and is tough enough that's the coach's fault and we'll fix that. I feel like the New York Jets."

"The aggressive team usually gets the advantage," Izzo said, "but we were taking it like a sissy and they took it up like men."

"Nine for 16 just isn't good," Izzo said. "It's been a long time since we were manhandled like this. To be honest with you, it's been a long time."

If there is anything to be worried about as Oakland fans, it has to be how Izzo and his team will respond after that Syracuse performance. They've had three days to learn from their mistakes in preparing for Oakland, which isn't exactly the ten days Brian Belichick had to prepare his team for a dismantling of the aforementioned Jets, but in college basketball it might be the equivalent. For what it's worth, the last time Michigan State suffered a BCS letdown before Oakland was in 2007-08. The team lost to a Kevin Love-powered UCLA team prior to hosting Oakland, and the Spartans only beat OU by four points.

As always, if you'd like to give your thoughts on the Oakland-MSU game, you can head over to the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum to post with other fans before, during, and after the game: Game Thread.

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