Michigan State gears up to slow down Jahlil Okafor (and his teammates) the second time around

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State knows they need to slow down freshman center Jahlil Okafor in order to beat Duke on Saturday.

Putting a roadblock down in front of the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft isn’t some kind of Earth-shattering game plan, but Okafor’s opening flurry against Michigan State in the Champions Classic in November left the Spartans staggering and they never recovered. Okafor scored eight of Duke’s first 14 points in the game’s opening 4:30 in the November contest — also in Indianapolis — and found Amile Jefferson for an assist on another bucket.

Only first-half foul trouble slowed down Okafor and the Spartans never held a lead during the Champions Classic after taking the first punch and dropping to one knee. Okafor finished with 17 points and five rebounds, but he was 8-for-10 from the field and Michigan State did little to slow him down.

With two of Duke’s premier perimeter threats, senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones, struggling to shoot in football stadiums during the 2015 NCAA tournament — as Saturday’s Final Four will be played in the domed Lucas Oil Stadium — the Spartans expect Okafor to get active and involved early just like he did in November.

“That’s where he made his money last time, so I wouldn’t see why they wouldn’t try that again,” Michigan State junior big man Matt Costello said of Okafor setting the tone early.

It might seem easy for Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo to throw on the tape from November and see what the Spartans did wrong against Okafor, but both teams have evolved and adapted from the beginning of the season. The Spartans are more at full strength after early-season injuries to guards Bryn Forbes and Alvin Ellis and Duke has also shortened its rotation after booting Rasheed Sulaimon from the program.

Michigan State has watched some film from the Champions Classic loss but they’ve mostly focused on tape of Okafor from the end of the season to get a clearer picture of how Duke is using him differently within its offense.

“They’re a very different team now. Maybe you can watch some of [Okafor’s] individual moves because they haven’t changed that substantially, but as far as the team? They’ve changed a ton since we’ve played them,” Michigan State junior Colby Wollenman said. “They’re almost a completely different team.”

With Duke opting to go small and starting Matt Jones as another perimeter threat, instead of Amile Jefferson, it changes how often teams can collapse on Okafor with the smaller lineup. The Spartans have also noticed that Okafor has looked even better with the additional spacing than he did earlier in the season.

“We watch a lot of film [on Okafor]. Just the different things we’ve picked up: he’s much more aggressive, much more confident in what he’s doing. We have to take that away,” Costello said.

Costello and sophomore big man Gavin Schilling will be a key in Michigan State’s game plan on Okafor. The Spartans opted not to double team him that much in November and they hope that they can get away with a similar defensive style at times on Saturday. With so many shooters on the floor for Duke, Michigan State is keenly aware that Okafor can score in single digits and Duke could still win.

“We have to be careful of that,” Costello said of the shooters. “But coach has a game plan and if we stick to that plan we have a chance to win.”

With Duke inserting Matt Jones into the starting lineup instead of Jefferson, it’s also made freshman wing Justise Winslow another unique matchup problem for Michigan State. Cook and Tyus Jones are a combined 12-for-37 from the field and 2-for-11 from the 3-point line in the two games Duke played in football stadiums in the NCAA tournament, so it makes Winslow’s recent stretch of strong play that much more important for the Blue Devil offense. Winslow’s power drive game helped close out the Spartans in November as the Houston native had 15 points and six rebounds — going 6-for-9 from the free-throw line.

“A lot of [Duke’s offense] starts with [Okafor] but Justise Winslow has been playing much better throughout the tournament,” Wollenman said. “He was very young at the time [of our first game]. There’s a chance they try to put us in foul trouble with [Okafor], but they do have so many weapons.”

Duke’s offensive firepower lies in the balance of its offense, but Izzo can say the same for his defense, which has greatly improved, from an overall team perspective, since November. Individually, Michigan State offers little resistance to stop future pros like Okafor and Winslow, but as a team, they believe their defense gives them a chance.

“We weren’t real physical. We weren’t as strong as most of my teams have been. We just kind of rallied around,” Izzo said of his team’s defense. “My assistants did a great job of getting guys to buy into the team — team defense. You always play some team defense, but we’re almost strictly team defense. Individually we’re average.”

A group of “average” individuals for Michigan State are going to have to collectively form an elite defense to slow down a couple of future lottery picks. Given Tom Izzo’s track record of teams peaking in March, would it shock anyone if it happened?

Gardner, Beekman lift No. 8 Virginia past No. 22 N.C. State

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia coach Tony Bennett had a simple message for his team after a poor defensive performance in a loss at Virginia Tech.

“Talk is cheap. Do it. Show us, to our players, to us as a staff, show up, work in practice, step to between the lines and don’t lose yourself in anything but what your job is,” Bennett said he told his players and assistants in the two days of practice since the 74-68 loss.

The team clearly got the message.

Jayden Gardner scored 18 points, Reece Beekman added 15 and No. 8 Virginia cooled off red-hot No. 22 North Carolina State 63-50 on Tuesday night.

“We had a great two days before State, you know, preparation and just diving in,” Gardner said. “It’s just this is the time of the season we need to lock in and you know, we’re playing for something. … We’re trying to win a championship.”

The Cavaliers (18-4, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) handed the Wolfpack (19-6, 9-5) their second loss in 10 games and moved into a share of first place in the conference with Clemson and Pittsburgh.

The Wolfpack arrived leading the ACC with an average of 79.6 points and were 19-2 when scoring at least 70, but became the 38th consecutive league opponent held below 70 points at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Obviously, as I watched the Virginia Tech game and knew that those guys dropped the game and, you know, any time you’re going to play a very good defensive team on their home floor, you know you’re going to get that energy,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Terquavion Smith led N.C. State with 19 points and Casey Morsell, who spent his first two seasons at Virginia and was jeered nearly every time he touched the ball in his first game back, had 18 points before fouling out in the final minute.

Jarkel Joiner, the Wolfpack’s No. 2 scorer at 16.2 points per game, missed 12 of his 14 shots and scored five points. D.J. Burns Jr. (eight points) was the only other Wolfpack player to score.

Reserve forward Kadin Shedrick, who did not play in Virginia’s loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday, had 10 points and six rebounds for the Cavaliers.

Virginia scored the first six points of the second half to open its largest lead at 40-20, but the Wolfpack began whittling away, fueled by a 12-6 burst in which Smith and Morsell each hit a pair of 3-pointers.

“In the past, we’ve been able to control the tempo and to get those guys to play a little bit faster and even turn them over,” said Keatts, whose team had won three of the last four meetings. “But we couldn’t.”

N.C. State twice closed within nine points but got no closer. Morsell’s 3 made it 55-46 with 3:46 to play, but Beekman made a free throw and then took a no-look pass from Kihei Clark for an easy backdoor layup.

Virginia closed the first half on an 8-2 run to lead 34-20 at the break. The Wolfpack missed 10 straight shots before Burns scored just before the half.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack got scoring from just three players – Smith with nine points, Morsell with seven and Burns with four – in the opening half. They shot 25.8% with Smith going 4 for 13 and Joiner 0 for 6. … Burns picked up his third personal foul less than a minute into the second half after getting the ball stolen by Beekman. He stayed in the game and drew his fourth foul on a drive by Clark with 16:03 left.

Virginia: Beekman started the game ranking first in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.0) and third in assists (5.1). He had four assists and one turnover. Clark started first in assists (6.0) and second in assist/turnover ratio (2.8). He had six assists and three turnovers.

UP NEXT

N.C. State: At Boston College on Saturday.

Virginia: Hosts Duke on Saturday.

Michigan St. rallies to win after giving up lead to Maryland

Maryland v Michigan State
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Joey Hauser scored 20 points and Tyson Walker had 17 and Michigan State rallied after scoring the game’s first 15 points to beat Maryland 63-58 on Tuesday.

A.J. Hoggard had 10 rebounds and eight assists for Michigan State.

Jahmir Young scored 17 points for Maryland, Hakim Hart 12, Julian Reese 11 and Donta Scott 10 for the Terrapins.

The Spartans (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) used an 8-0 run in which Walker made a layup and 3-pointer wrapped around a 3 from Jaden Akins for a 52-48 lead with 7:44 remaining and Michigan State led for the remainder.

The Terrapins erupted for a 12-0 run in less than three minutes in the second half turning a 38-26 deficit into a 38-all tie. Young and Hart posted back-to-back three-point plays, and Hart’s 3-pointer with 13:01 knotted it at 38. Prior to that 3, Hart was 3-for-last-27 shooting from beyond the arc. Maryland finished shooting 3 of 22 from distance.

Michigan State started the game with a 15-0 run and led 31-22 at halftime. Coming off an 81-46 win over Maryland (16-8, 7-6 Big Ten) on Saturday, the Terrapins have yet to win back-to-back contests in almost three years.

The Terrapins host Penn State on Saturday. Michigan State travels to play Ohio State on Sunday.

Arkansas pulls away from Kentucky in 2nd half, wins 88-73

Arkansas v Kentucky
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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Ricky Council IV scored 20 points, Anthony Black had 19 and Arkansas used a blazing second half to pull away and beat Kentucky 88-73 on Tuesday night, giving coach Eric Musselman his 200th collegiate victory.

Black added five assists and five steals. Makhel Mitchell and Davonte Davis scored 15 points each and Jordan Walsh 13 for the Razorbacks (17-7, 6-5 SEC) who have won five straight conference games, including three in a row. It was Arkansas’ third straight win over the Wildcats (16-8, 7-4). The teams meet again in Fayetteville in a regular-season finale on March 4.

Cason Wallace scored 24 points to lead Kentucky, which had won six straight conference games. Chris Livingston added 13 points and Jacob Toppin and Antonio Reeves 11 each.

After a first half with 11 lead changes, there were none in the second when Arkansas shot 72% and Council and Black combined for 25 points.

Three steals, including two by Black who turned them into consecutive dunks, fueled an 11-3 run to begin the second half for a 52-43 lead. A basket by Black made it a double-digit lead with eight minutes left as the Razorbacks sank 7 of 9 over that span to finish the game. They made 8 of 10 free throws over the final two minutes.

Kentucky coach John Calipari was given a technical foul with 33 seconds left in the first half. Black sank the resulting free throws for a three-point lead before Daimion Collins’ midrange jumper made it 41-40 at halftime.

Both teams shot over 50% in the first half with Wallace leading all scorers with 11 points. Kentucky dipped under 50% for the game while Arkansas finished at 63% and outscored the Wildcats 46-28 in the paint.

Arkansas is home against Mississippi State and Kentucky is at Georgia, both games on Saturday.

Tulane secures 101-94 OT win over Cincinnati

Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – Kevin Cross and Jalen Cook scored 27 points each as Tulane took down Cincinnati 101-94 in overtime on Tuesday night.

Cross added 15 rebounds and six assists for the Green Wave (16-7, 9-3 American Athletic Conference). Cook added 14 assists. Jaylen Forbes scored 24 points and shot 6 for 15 (3 for 6 from 3-point range) and 9 of 9 from the free throw line.

Landers Nolley II finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists for the Bearcats (16-9, 7-5). Ody Oguama added 16 points and 13 rebounds for Cincinnati. In addition, David Dejulius finished with 12 points, eight assists and three steals.

Tulane entered halftime down 37-28. Cross paced the team in scoring in the first half with 10 points. Forbes scored 18 second-half points and hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.

Tulane scored seven unanswered points to break a tie and lead with 42 seconds left in overtime.

No. 16 Oklahoma women take 1st lead in OT, rally past Baylor

Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman
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WACO, Texas – Ana Llanusa and Skylar Vann each scored 20 points and No. 16 Oklahoma took its first lead of the game in overtime before rallying past Baylor 98-92 on Tuesday night.

The Sooners trailed for 39 minutes in regulation and were down 75-63 with 5:19 left in regulation.

Baylor turned it over twice on inbounds plays in the closing seconds of regulation and Taylor Robertson tied at 83-all on a wide-open 3-pointer with 14 seconds left.

Llanusa started overtime with a 3-pointer, and she finished with eight points during the extra session. Baylor never led in overtime, shooting 2 of 6.

Robertson, who tied Danielle Robinson’s program record of 140 starts, finished with 14 points and three 3s for Oklahoma (19-4, 9-3 Big 12), which trails Texas (18-6, 9-2) in the hunt for its first conference title since 2009. Nevaeh Tot added 13 points, Liz Scott added 11 points and eight rebounds and Madi Williams had nine points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

The Sooners, the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense at 86.5 points per game, have scored at least 88 points 14 times this season, seven in conference.

Caitlin Bickle scored a career-high 30 points with four 3s and Sarah Andrews added 20 points for Baylor (16-7, 7-4). Freshman Darianna Littlepage-Buggs had 14 points and 17 rebounds and Ja’Mee Asberry scored 11. Jaden Owens had 14 of Baylor’s 25 assists on 32 field goals.

Bickle was 8 of 11 from the field, including 4 of 7 from distance, and Littlepage-Buggs recorded her sixth double-double in the last seven games.

It was the first time in 20 years the Sooners were ranked in game against an unranked Bears squad. Oklahoma continues its road trip at Kansas State on Sunday. Baylor plays at Oklahoma State on Saturday.