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.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.