1. WHAT IMPACT WILL MSG STAGE HAVE ON NOWELL?
At 5-8, 160, the native of Harlem, NY will be playing in Madison Square Garden for the first time in his life.
He’s been an underdog most of his career, and now that he is playing on his home turf for the No. 3 seed Wildcats against No. 7 seeded Michigan State.
Despite Michigan State being a lower seed, the Spartans are favored by five points in Las Vegas – and I can see why.
Michigan State is trending positively in terms of collective team defense. And the Spartans are led by one of the all-time March masters (Tom Izzo). The Michigan State coaching staff is going to have a stable full of able-bodied Spartans – smart, energized and believing that their effort and plan will strangle the opponent.
Kansas State plays with a loose, somewhat casual but fast style of play. Nowell is a showman, a crowd pleaser.
Michigan State historically, at this time of year, makes it difficult for a team with one or two standouts to get much out of those stars. They force other players to beat them. USC and Marquette didn’t get enough out of their supporting cast. After those games, the star players of USC and Marquette complimented Michigan State for making things difficult on them.
Michigan State is going to be picking up Nowell far from the rim and hounding him with help.
But Nowell is so good, quick and strong off the dribble that he can still penetrate vs help defenders. He did so, with flair, against Kentucky last week – although Kentucky’s help defense was leaky and the UK’s entire outfit lacked team connectivity.
Here’s the problem: Michigan State can play good team defense, and Spartan point guard Tyson Walker can get in Nowell’s grill and force difficult, low-percentage shots. But even if Michigan State is successful in achieving that, Nowell is still gifted and combustible enough to rain triples from NBA range in an instant, against good defense.
If KSU is reduced to needing too many circus shots to try to win this game, the percentages of course favor Michigan State. But there is something about a player with Nowell’s heart, story, determination and showmanship that takes his dangerousness to another level when playing at a place like “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and a crowd that is surely going to be appreciative of him.
Nowell has no conscience about rising and firing from the logo. He’ll draw defenders out there, and then go by them and deliver dazzling passes to teammates cutting to the rim or spotting up from 3-point range.
The good news for opponents is that KSU’s spot shooters are merely pretty good, not great. But in a one-game situation, with only 40 minutes to prove you’re the better team, KSU has shooters who are skilled enough to play over their heads on a given night and help lift the Wildcats past the Sweet 16.
* No. 11 Keyonta Johnson (6-6, Sr., Florida transfer) averages 17.5 points per game and shoots 40 percent from 3-point range.
He accumulates a lot of points, considering he doesn’t actually have the ball in his hands very long on most possessions. When he gets it, he is looking to launch it, sometimes via difficult fall-away jumpers, sometimes by barreling toward the rim. But he’s shooting 51 percent on the year, so it’s hard to argue with his efficiency, although at times it looks like he is trying to portray Pierre Brooks in a movie. Basically, Johnson is the player Brooks probably wants to be.
(As a side note, it’s great to have Johnson on the basketball court, period. He was voted Preseason SEC Player of the Year two years ago when he was at Florida. But collapsed during a game on Dec. 12, 2020 and nearly died due to a sudden heart condition. His life was saved by on-court health responders. Florida would not sign off on his return. He transferred to KSU in August and played in his first game since he collapsed on Nov. 7.)
As for weaknesses, Johnson gets a little sleepy in transition defense. Aside from a poke at the ball here and there, he is not combative on defense around the rim.
I would expect AJ Hoggard to guard Johnson. Hoggard was the choice against 6-foot-9 Drew Peterson of USC. Michigan State needs Hoggard to tap into the level of play he showed last year when he contained Purdue’s Jaden Ivey. That Hoggard still exists, and if the moon is right, he could claw back.
* No. 5 Cam Carter (6-3, 190, Soph., Mississippi State transfer) ranks third on the team in 3-pointers attempted (100), but he is shooting just .320 from beyond the arc.
If Nowell is driving, you’ll roll the dice on sagging off of Carter and welcoming a kickout to him. You don’t want to leave him wide open, but you’ll take your chances on pack-lining against others and then closing out on him later.
Carter averages 6.4 points per game. Overall, he is a good athlete but, like a lot of aspects of this team, he tends to get a bit ragged.
* No. 25 Ismael Massoud (6-9, 225, Jr.) is the second man off the bench and ranks fourth in 3-pointers attempted. He has a quick, high release and is a legit stretch four, shooting .398 from deep. But he averages only 14.9 minutes per game.
So when he’s on the court, he’s rising and firing. Malik Hall will likely have him quite a bit.
* No. 13 Desi Sills (6-2, 200, Sr., Arkansas State transfer) ranks fifth in 3-point attempts. But he is shooting just 21 percent from beyond the arc. Welcome him to shoot it.
Sills is a good vertical athlete, but – like Carter – he’s a bit of a mess when he tries to create something off the dribble, which is a little too often.
For a guy who can leap like Sills, he seems to struggle with lateral movement on defense. That could be a problem when he checks any of MSU’s backcourt players.
* No. 35 Nae’Qwan Tomlin (6-10, 210, Jr., Juco Transfer)
He’s built like Bingham, with a similar gait and posture. Like Bingham, he blocks shots and can shoot a little bit. But he’s much more nimble with the ball than Bingham. He can face up and take it to the rim. Mady Sissoko will be aware of that.
Like Rodman, Tomlin grew two or three inches while in junior college. He didn’t play high school basketball. He honed his craft on the playgrounds around Harlem, took up organized basketball at the juco level, spent three years at the junior college level, and here he is. And he belongs.
His face-up skill is good. He is shooting 27 percent from 3-point range, but shot 37 percent from beyond the arc last year in junior college. He is in the process of becoming a true stretch five.
Tomlin averages 10.3 points per game.
He’s the type of guy who isn’t that great of an offensive weapon, but when he wants to let it fly, and he’s being guarded by Sissoko or Carson Cooper, it’s not natural for Sissoko or Cooper to be checking a guy like this out at the 3-point line.
So this guy can get his shot almost whenever he wants. It’s a question of how much Kansas State coach Jerome Tang and floor general Markquis Nowell want him to shoot.
And if he’s hitting on a given night, then K-State’s supporting cast is one step closer to ending your season. Tomlin averages one or two 3-point attempts per game. But if Michigan State is successful at locking up other aspects of the K-State offense, a guy like Tomlin could end up hunting shots from long range.
* The Takeaway: Nowell’s collection of supporting cast shooters is decent, but not great. If Nowell had a bunch of John Beilein-type shooters around him, then K-State style of play would make perfect sense, and be a complete headache for anyone. As it is, K-State is combustible. They have a shooters chance. They can get hot.
I don’t mean to make KSU sound like a sad sack underdog. On Jan. 31, Kansas State was 18-3 and ranked No. 6 in the nation, and one of the surprise stories of the college basketball season, despite funky shot selection and ragged aspects to their game.
Kansas State is 7-6 since then, including victories over Montana State and No. 6 seed Kentucky in the first two rounds of the East Regional.
Nowell is terrific. He is a good shooter, a streak shooter, not a great shooter. He is shooting 35 percent from 3-point range. That’s good. Not lethal.
When he misses, sometimes he misses ugly – from very long range, missing shots that would seem like bad selection for most mortals.
His teammates will launch questionable shots, too.
But sometimes they go in.
Basically, they have a shooters chance of hanging with most teams. And Michigan State hasn’t been a picture of consistency this year. It’s been hard to trust the Spartans to come forward and beat a team like this casual, loose, somewhat ragged KSU team. But if the element Michigan State demonstrated against Marquette is here to stay, and the Spartans get back to shooting 3-pointers at a high level, then this would appear to be MSU’s game to win.
I realize that Michigan State senior guard Tyson Walker will be playing in his home city as well. But Nowell has his hands on the controls of this game more so than Walker. And if Nowell starts going off, it’s going to be difficult to cool him down.
2. WHAT ARE K-STATE’S WEAKNESSES?
* Shot selection: Kansas State people may disagree with me on this. The Wildcats attempt shots that just don’t agree with my general understanding of the basketball universe. But maybe it’s time for me question my place in that universe and consider a vow of silence.
Statistically, Kansas State is a pretty good 3-point shooting team. At .353, KSU ranked No. 2 in the Big 12 in conference games.
That figure would have ranked No. 5 in the Big Ten, behind Indiana and just ahead of Michigan. (Of course those figures aren’t apples to apples because KSU doesn’t play a Big Ten schedule, but they’re worth noting).
The Wildcats are a good enough 3-point shooting team that I wonder if their percentage and efficiency would be better if they turned down some of the 3s that they jack and try to find something better while there is still time on the shot clock.
But that gets to an analytical question. A hurried, deep, semi-open 3-pointer is apparently preferred over running the risk of not getting a better shot in the ensuing seconds of a possession.
Alabama plays that way well, with dazzling success. Kansas State has a similar mindset, but it gets a little messy.
I also realize that one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. I have trouble processing K-State’s shot selection at times, but that free-wheeling style of play is treasured by Coach Jerome Tang and the first-year coaching staff of the Wildcats. That’s what they want. And if they’re on, you’re in trouble.
What do the analytics say? According to this, K-State ranks No. 102 in the nation in effective field goal percentage (which gives more credit to a 3-pointer than a 2-pointer, for obvious reasons). Michigan State is No. 125, by the way.
I’m not sure what to make of that.
* Rebounding: K-State ranks dead last in the Big 12 in rebounding margin in conference games at -6.5.
Like most Spartan opponents, K-State will be aware of Michigan State’s program reputation as a rebounding juggernaut. Of course, Michigan State has not been a rebounding power this season, or in recent seasons. But K-State will be prodded by its coaches to match and exceed Michigan State in this area.
USC out-rebounded Michigan State by two in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State out-rebounded Marquette 36-31 on Sunday, and owned important boards at critical moments.
With the way K-State switches five on defense, that can create problems with the Wildcats’ defensive rebounding. For instance, if Nowell switches onto Sissoko during a ball screen, Nowell could run into problems when Sissoko crashes the offensive glass. (That’s in addition to running into problems if Sissoko posts up the 5-foot-8 Nowell).
This scenario won’t be a problem on every single possession, but it could show itself on a handful occasions, enough to have an impact on the scoreboard.
Switching five on defense can make ball screens less effective for Michigan State, or any offense. However, remember what I said about No. 13 (Sills) and the questionable lateral movement on defense. If and when No. 13 switches onto Walker or Hoggard, Michigan State could have success with the dribble drive against No. 13, breaking down the defense for a shot at the rim, or a kickout to an open shooter (with rebounding leverage due to K-State helpers leaving their man due to penetration).
The same thing applies to K-State power forward David N’Guessan (No. 3, 6-9, 215, Jr., Virginia Tech transfer). He averages 6.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 20 minutes per game. He’s a decent player, pretty active.
However, when K-State switches five, N’Guessan becomes a liability on defense. His lateral movement on defense is mediocre. If he is doing a straight switch onto Walker or Hoggard after a ball screen, drive him.
K-State seems to prefer to switch five players on defense. Tomlin, the center, can handle it against most guards, for a little while. But it’s always an interesting moment when a center switches onto a player like Tyson Walker. We’ve seen Walker have big moments in those instances.
If K-State is getting hurt by switching five, they will change and try to play more conventional hedge-help-recover ball screen defense. But No. 3, N’Guessan, has trouble changing direction and doesn’t carry it out well – which can lead to penetration or open 3-pointers for the point guard. Basically, he struggles in ball screen defense no matter what. Put No. 3 in ball screen situations.
Meanwhile, Tomlin is a quick leaper and pretty good rim protector when. So if Michigan State gets something positive headed toward the rim, Tomlin can erase it once in awhile.
3. WHAT PACE WILL MICHIGAN STATE PLAY?
Kansas State likes to engage in fast-paced, up-and-down style of games. Michigan State doesn’t play many opponents who agree to play this way. Iowa is one of the few.
Michigan State has had excellent fastbreaking teams through the years, after makes or misses. This year, Michigan State has gotten its transition going in short spurts, here and there.
But this is not a vintage, deep, fast, rebound-and-go Michigan State transition team. Not yet, anyway – based on what we’ve seen through 33 games.
K-State, like some of Izzo’s vintage teams, will look to push the ball on the counterbreak after made shots.
Judging by a comment that Izzo made on Wednesday, and comments by Cooper and Jaden Akins, it sounds like Michigan State intends to get its transition game going and welcome an up-and-down game.
There have been other seasons – most notably 2003 – when Michigan State didn’t look like a fast transition team during the regular season, but then tapped into a warp level of speed while destroying Colorado and Florida in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament – en route to a trip to the Elite Eight and, alas, a loss to Rick Barnes and Texas. (If Michigan State wins on Thursday, Mr. Barnes, now with Tennessee, could be waiting again).
Anyway, Izzo has been known to step on the transition game accelerator in the NCAA Tournament, when getting free from Big Ten opponents. Is this one such time? And if so, will it be effective?
I’m a little skeptical about this. I could see Michigan State having some spot success with occasional blitz counterbreaks, and opportunistic fast breaks. Kansas State’s transition defense gets a little sloppy at times.
But if Michigan State wants to trade transition opportunities with K-State, it could help the Wildcats find openings for Nowell to wheel and deal, and for spot shooters to get warm. I have a feeling Michigan State could find more efficient success with a mix, rather than shooting the dice in an up-and-down game. I could be wrong.
OTHER THINGS TO WATCH
* K-State is very good with its baseline in-bound plays. Better match up.
* On defense, K-State flops and tries to draw charges more than any team I’ve seen this year. It’s not a good look.
* Marquette had some success with its three-quarter court press. If you’re wondering, K-State isn’t a press-heavy team. They can do it a little bit, usually in man-to-man. I haven’t seen any trapping in the games I’ve watched (vs Montana State, Kentucky, West Virginia, TCU, and parts of Kansas).
* In playing fast, and with Nowell attempting daring passes, K-State will turn it over a lot (481 on the year). But they have forced 507 turnovers.
K-State ranks No. 1 in the Big 12 in turnover ratio. I was surprised to discover that stat when I looked it up.
That being said, MSU’s last two opponents – USC and Marquette – had feasted on productive turnover ratios all season. However, Michigan State enjoyed a +3 over Marquette and a +4 over USC.
As for K-State, the Wildcats deny the passing lanes and try to get deflections and steals. And they get some. However, in theory, this can lead to open gaps elsewhere in the defense when gambles fail. K-State ranks No. 8 in the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense in conference games (.460).
But in overall games, K-State’s 3-point field goal defense is good (.297, No. 15 in the nation).
It all adds up to Kansas State being ranked No. 17 in KenPom adjusted defense (Michigan State is No. 24, and climbing again).
The analytics seem to like K-State, although to my old-trained eye, the Wildcats look just a little too erratic and sloppy on both ends of the court. Maybe I need to start doubting my eye. I’ll keep an open mind about that, with the outcome of this game – depending on how it plays out – carrying the potential to make me question much of what I once believed to be true about basketball.
Or maybe Tom Izzo will harness a level of efficiency, physicality, speed and scouting report defense in this game to please the old school basketball gods that he believes in.
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