Biggest Challenges Michigan State Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. UConn
The Michigan State Spartans faced a tremendous challenge in their Sweet 16 victory against top-seeded Virginia because the Cavaliers were a tough, physical team that played sensational defense.
The Spartans face a different kind of a challenge when they line up against UConn Huskies in the Elite Eight. The Huskies are an athletic team that boasts tremendous quickness and skill. If Kevin Ollie's Huskies have their way, they will push the pace and turn this game into a high-scoring affair.
Michigan State is not averse to playing a fast-paced game, but head coach Tom Izzo wants it to be on the Spartans' terms. Here are the biggest challenges the Spartans face against UConn.
Establish Strength Down Low
The UConn Huskies have talent up and down their lineup, but they are much stronger in the backcourt with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright than they are in the frontcourt, even though DeAndre Daniels is a powerful force who can block shots and score.
However, the Spartans have a dynamic duo in Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson who have the ability to dominate down low. Both can be explosive scorers and control play on the defensive end.
Forwards Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski, along with big guard Denzel Valentine, also give the Spartans strength down low. Michigan State should be able to have its way in the frontcourt. If they don't dominate in this area, that will play into UConn's hands.
Shabazz Napier's Quickness
The Spartans are used to contending with excellent point guard play from their opponents, but Shabazz Napier may take it to a new level in this Elite Eight showdown.
Napier is a superb ball-handler who has the kind of quickness that may lead to a decent NBA career. Napier excels at running the UConn offense and either setting up his teammates or scoring the ball himself. He is averaging 17.9 points and 4.9 assists per game.
Napier dictated the pace against Iowa State in the Sweet 16, and if the Spartans don't prevent him from doing so against them, it could be a long game. Napier also has excellent chemistry with fellow guard Ryan Boatright (12.1 PPG), and when those two are working well together, they can take over a game.
Gary Harris Needs to Take over
While Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson have had huge games for the Spartans during the NCAA tournament, the Spartans are still waiting for leading scorer Gary Harris to have his breakout game.
Harris is averaging 16.6 points per game this season, but he has been rather indifferent in his three NCAA tournament games. He scored 10 points against Delaware and 18 against Harvard, but he ended up with just six against Virginia. That's simply not good enough.
Since the UConn backcourt is likely to fill it up, the Spartans are going to need more from their best all-around scorer.
Dominate on the Boards
Tom Izzo demands that every player on his team sells out on defense. In Izzo's world, that means every player must go hard any time he has a chance to get the ball off the glass.
Strong defensive rebounding is an essential part of the Michigan State game plan. The Spartans average 37.0 rebounds per game and outrebound their opponents by 5.2 rebounds per contest. On the other hand, rebounding does not come as easily for the Huskies. UConn averages 35.2 rebounds per game, and that's just 0.4 rebounds per game better than their opponents.
Michigan State appears to be stronger physically, and they must ride this advantage in the game. The Huskies have a lot of quickness, and if Michigan State does not play to its strength on the boards, the Spartans could be in big trouble.
UConn was a key member of the old Big East Conference before they moved on to the American Athletic Conference. The Big East, of course, played its annual tournament at Madison Square Garden, and the Huskies are very familiar with playing there.
They still have a huge following in New York City, and they got excellent support in their Sweet 16 game against Iowa State.
UConn will likely have their "home crowd" working for them at Madison Square Garden again in this Elite Eight game. Michigan State is a well-coached veteran team that knows how to play on the road, but when the venue is an advantage for the opponent, it could cause problems as the game moves along.
Michigan State should know that the crowd will be strongly pro-Connecticut, and the Spartans must be prepared to deal with it.