NBC Sports spoke with a dozen coaches in the last two days to put together a scouting report for each of the teams in the Final Four.
The coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for honesty.
‘CASSIUS IS PEYTON MANNING’
What Michigan State does starts and, more often than not, ends with their all-american point guard Cassius Winston, who has thrown this team on his back and carried them to the Final Four after leading them to Big Ten regular season and tournament titles.
“Cassius Winston is a true point guard. He’s a QB. He is Peyton Manning. They play off of him. They put him in a ton of ball-screens, but they also move him around. They run him off wide pindowns, they put him in flares, they even used him as a screener for the game-winner against Duke. But it all comes back to him.”
“They don’t just screen you once. They’ll run Cassius off a ball-screen and you’ll switch. Then he’ll run off it again, and you switch again. Then they’ll run it a third time, and suddenly you’re 17 feet from the rim and he makes a floater over your big.”
“He’s not big and he’s not all that fast, but he finds a way to get where he wants. He knows how to play.”
“We talked a lot about how much they run in the halfcourt. A lot of wide pindowns, and they’re good at running off those. You can’t let them catch it where they want to. No curls, no catching it where they want to get the ball.”
“They have counters to their counters, and they run their stuff really well.”
THE TRANSITION GAME
He doesn’t really have the reputation for it nationally, but outside of Roy Williams and North Carolina, there may not be a better coach at teaching the fast break than Tom Izzo. And there is not a better point guard at leading the fast break than Cassius Winston.
“I don’t know if you can run as fast forwards as they can run backwards. They go so fast on about 30 possessions a game. You can’t catch them. They’ll get whatever they want because they’re running wide and Cassius is as good as anyone int he world at getting the ball to their guys where they need it.”
“Their bigs are big, but they will sprint their asses off to get to the rim because they know Cash will find them.”
“The very first thing we talked about was the transition game. Defense to offense. Those hit-ahead passes where they’re trying to score early in the clock, Cash is so good at those. He’s not a jet, but he just keeps coming and coming and coming.”
“They run off of misses. They run off of makes. They got a couple of buckets running off of made free throws against Duke. You’re just playing catchup the entire time. You can’t get back fast enough. You have to make them take it out of the bucket.”
“You cannot let them pass it across halfcourt. You have to make them dribble it across halfcourt. I think you have to press them. Just pick up in the backcourt, pick the ball up as quick as you can, I don’t care who it is. Maybe use the shooter to shadow Winston. Whatever. We even have pressed them sometimes.”
“This will be a key for them against Texas Tech. Their defense does not let you reverse the ball. They take away ball-screens, they push your offense out. Tom is going to have to play higher and wider. Michigan State wants to play in the middle of the floor and Texas Tech makes you play on a side, so the more Michigan State can beat them down the floor – reverse the ball quick, hit a couple drag screens, early actions – then you can beat them.”
“You have to be as physical as possible with their bigs. You cannot get pushed around inside. [Nick] Ward and [Xavier] Tillman are huge.”
“They are going to go hard after the offensive glass. They kicked LSU’s ass on the boards. [Aaron] Henry gets there. [Kenny] Goins, too. And you have to be careful sending too many to the offensive glass. They’ll run it on you.”
THEY’LL LET YOU RUN YOUR STUFF, BUT THEY CAN REALLY GUARD
What Michigan State does defensively is similar to what Virginia tries to do. Where Texas Tech and Auburn are going to get out and pressure, try to take you out of what you want to run, the Spartans will let you run your offense. But they’re not giving up space in the paint, they’re contesting everything and they’re off to the races once they get the rebound.
“They’re a really good defense, but they’re not going to pressure or deny. You are going to get the ball where you want to. You won’t get it into the paint, but we never felt like we couldn’t run our stuff against them.”
“Their positioning off the ball is so good. They let you reverse it, they don’t disrupt you that way. You’ll feel like you can swing it. But they challenge everything in the paint. Watch when they play when guys drive in the lane or get an offensive rebound just how many Michgian State players are making a play on the ball. It’s more than anyone.”
“Their defensive spacing is really, really good. Well-coached. It’s difficult to get a clean look. They’re a great pack defense and a great screen and roll defense. That actually plays into Texas Tech’s hands a little bit, they don’t run a lot of ball-screens.”
“They’re better with Tillman than Ward. Their guys – [Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Winston] – aren’t elite athletes by they can guard.”