Blogger Spotlight: The Only Colors on Michigan State’s stiff defense, Draymond Green’s superior play and more

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It seems like forever ago, but Michigan State’s inauspicious start to the season – losing to North Carolina on an aircraft carrier and as the unlucky team on the other end of Mike Krzyzewski’s 903rd win – didn’t properly indicate just how good the Spartans would be this season.

But there were hints.

Draymond Green was going to be reliable. The chemistry would be improved. And the talent was there, it was just a question of how long it would take before it fully meshed.

Fast forward nearly four months and the Spartans are not only headed for their second Big Ten title in the last four years, but could snag a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. How’d it happen? How good are they really? Is it a basketball school? And where will Green land in the pantheon of all-time Spartans?

For those answers, I turned to Pete Rossman at The Only Colors in the latest Blogger Spotlight.

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Q: When this story was pitched to me back in October, I figured it was half-optimism, half-hope. I’d never question Tom Izzo’s coaching, but if you told me he was overly optimistic about such an unknown group, I would’ve thought you were smoking something.

So. Did you expect anything close to this?

A: Well, I predicted MSU would place second in the Big Ten this year.  I thought Draymond Green would be improved, that Keith Appling would make a productivity jump from his freshman to sophomore year, and I thought that Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix would provide much needed offense in the post.

But to expect MSU to have gone 12-3, with wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin at home? No, I didn’t expect that, and much of that is a testament to how well the offense has gelled and how quickly the freshmen, especially Branden Dawson, have bought in to playing defense.

Q: Past Draymond Green – who’s clearly headed for an All-America spot and is still undervalued – who’s the Spartans’ most essential player? Appling? Wood? Payne? Could they survive an injury to anyone (except Green) and still make the Final Four? 

A: The key word here is essential, because there’s depth at many positions: Payne and Derrick Nix combine  to make one heck of a center we like to call Derrick Payne, Brandon Wood’s done a great job filling in at the wing; ditto for Austin Thornton who’s made a quantum leap in his ability, going from role player to starter in seemingly days.

However, the one position where there’s currently a distinct drop off in ability is at point guard, and that makes Keith Appling the most essential.  The other two players who could possibly run the point, Travis Trice and Brandan Kearney, are both inexperienced and lack the weight needed to play effectively in the Big 10 currently, though it should be said Kearney has earned his keep as a defensive presence.  If Appling goes out this team either has to use one of the freshmen, Wood, or even Draymond as a point guard, and then the offense gets a bit dodgy.

Q: It’s Michigan State, so great rebounding is a given. But is that their biggest strength? Or just the easiest to focus on?

A: Tom Izzo and rebounding have become synonymous to the point that if we were playing a word-association game, if I said “rebounding” you’d most likely say “Izzo” or “Michigan State” as one of your first responses.  And yes, the rebounding has been that of a vintage Tom Izzo Michigan State team, as they rank in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage, and also are currently tied with North Carolina in total rebounding percentage at 56.9%.

However, there’s another strength the Spartans possess, and that is defensive field goal percentage.  MSU ranks in the top 20 in Division One in both two and three-point precentage.  If you prefer field goal percentage as a whole, Michigan State is tied for third, with only Kentucky and Florida State (who Michigan State beat by double digits earlier this year) better.  Excellent rebounding combined with tenacious defense have been essential in the Spartans’ comeback from last year’s troubles.

Q: Is the Big Ten the toughest conference? And does the team that wins the “toughest” conference have an edge heading into March? Has this type of thing helped MSU in the past?

A: To answer the first question, yes.   The Big Ten has five teams in MSU, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana that can conceivably beat any team in the nation on any given day; I’d say only the Big East or possibly the Big 12 comes close to that sort of depth.

For the second question, I’d say no.  I remember during the 2009 NCAA tournament when some were wondering if the Big East was the best conference in history.  Michigan State responded by beating Big East champions Louisville and the #3 team in the conference, Connecticut, on the way to the national title game.  I don’t think playing in the “toughest” conference grants an edge, as any team who plays in a top-tier conference (not necessarily BCS — you could easily substitute the Mountain West for the PAC-12 this year) will have its trials.

And for the last question, I don’t playing in a tough conference has given MSU an advantage in that by the time they get to the tournament, they’ve played enough top teams where they have a feel of what’s going to work on offense and defense. When you look at a conference like the Big East, yes you have your top teams in Syracuse and Marquette, but there’s so much chaff at the conference’s bottom (lookin’ at you DePaul) where teams can afford to take a night off.  I don’t think one can in the Big Ten this year, otherwise a team might lose by double digits to the conference’s cellar dwellers.  The strength of teams throughout the Big Ten and the diversity of styles (slow, fast, perimeter-oriented, etc.) is one of the ingredients that helps make the Spartans a tough out during the tourney time.

Oh, and Izzo.  He helps a bit too.

Q: Yeah, I’d say Izzo is a nice advantage to have. But given how his team has already thrived, is it fair to say that this might be one of the few times the Spartans don’t overachieve in the NCAA tournament? It’s going to be difficult for MSU to surprise anyone in this year’s tourney, let alone avoid the “They didn’t make the Final Four, they choked” backlash (which is always BS). (And, of course, all of this is just blather if they do make the Final Four or win the whole thing.)

A: It will be hard for MSU to overachieve when they’ll most likely be going be a 1 or 2 seed.  However, the last time they went into the tournament as a 2 seed was 2009, and that season ended in the national title game.

While I think there might be some backlash by the national media if MSU gets ousted in the Sweet Sixteen or earlier, I think many of us MSU fans won’t be too hard on them.  Sure, it’ll be frustrating to think what could’ve been, but compared to last year’s disastrous season everything just seems like gravy.

Q: Is Green gonna go down as one of Izzo’s all-time Spartans? If they win it all, could he displace Mateen Cleaves of the top spot?

A: He’s definitely going to go as one of the all-timers, no doubt about it. He was a pudgy three-star recruit at the time of his commitment, and I recall many Michigan State fans wondering if he was going to pan out.  His body, shot, and smarts improved every season though into the All-American candidate he is today.  However, I don’t think he’s going to replace Mateen at the top spot.  It’s not like Mateen replaced Magic when MSU won it all in 2000, and I think the same sentiment will apply for Draymond if (knock on wood) MSU wins it all in 2012.  I do think Green will be on the same plane as Cleaves, which would put him among the top 5 Spartan basketball players of all time in my opinion.

Q: Is Michigan State a basketball school? Or is football the preferred sport, just not as successful?

 

A: If this was 2005, I would’ve absolutely said basketball school.  Football was in a rut and MSU was coming off a Final Four season as a 5 seed.  With Mark Dantonio’s arrival however, I think interest in both programs is about equal.

If I had to choose, I’d choose football, and here’s why — After Michigan State’s entrance in the Big 10 in 1953, its first big successes were in Football in the mid-60’s.  I think a good part of the fanbase still identifies with those victories and their accompanying history.  Combine that with America’s preference for college football as a whole over college basketball and the allure of fall Saturday mornings without snow on the ground, and I think most (but definitely not all) fans would say MSU’s a football school.

Q: What’s your future like at The Only Colors? I know the grind got to KJ after a while. Is emeritus status something you might consider after a few more years?

A: I’m definitely still enjoying The Only Colors.  SB Nation’s a great company to work for, and I have great writers with intrpdtrvlr, T-Con, Spartan Dan, Patrick Hayes, Heck Dorland, and even KJ from time to time. The grind definitely becomes a lot easier when you have people to cover you; I even took a week off and went to Peru last summer!

Right now though, I’m 28, single, and I definitely still have the time to contribute, so I don’t see myself going anywhere in the near future.  When you have commenters as entertaining and intelligent as we do along with gifted writers, it makes it a real joy to run the site.  I see myself sticking around as long as SB Nation will have me.

Read more from Pete at The Only Colors. Follow him on Twitter @PeteatTOC.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.