Schabath: Michigan State should be scared of USC, but it’s not


Sarah Smith

The Michigan State Spartans during their open practice in Columbus on March 16, 2023. Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Brendan Schabath, Sports Director

COLUMBUS, OH – Cheers rang through an exclusive, upstairs lobby in the Breslin Center around 7:00 p.m. Sunday night. They were celebratory from the MSU basketball team after seeing the Spartans’ name pop up as the 7-seed in the East region. 

The team, accompanied by parents, cousins, grandparents, friends and the media, was happy with its draw. As the initial cheer began to die down, it rose to a louder level when USC’s name appeared as the 10-seed Michigan State would face. And again when Marquette showed as the 2-seed MSU would (probably) face with a win and advancement to the second round. 

MSU has every right to be happy with its draw. The Spartans get an extra day of rest not having to play until Friday, they don’t have the burden that their opponent does of traveling across the country and switching time zones by three hours and the crowd at Nationwide Arena on Friday (just a four hour drive South of East Lansing) is expected to be largely colored in green and white. 

Sure, this is the best case scenario the Spartans could have asked for but the MSU program, and fans alike, seem to be overlooking their opponent. 

So far it’s been the standard toeing of the line from Tom Izzo and his players. “They’re a good team this, they’re a good team that, we just need to play our brand of basketball,” that kind of stuff. 

The Spartans certainly do need to play their own brand of basketball, but USC poses a ton of threats that should scare MSU. The Trojans are a vastly underseeded team, winning 22 games this year including 14 in the Pac-12, a conference that currently holds two teams (Arizona and UCLA) that are favorites to win it all this year. 

The numbers shed some light as to why this is a favorable matchup for USC. The Trojans do not rank outside the top eight in the Pac-12 in any major stat this season.

USC is one of the best defensive teams in the country, holding opponents to just 39% shooting from the floor, including 42.4% on two-point attempts. That’s thanks in large part to junior Joshua Morgan who’s blocking 9.9% of shots he sees (13th among all DI players). Those numbers are good for best in the Pac-12 and top 10 in the entire country. There’s only one team better than USC at limiting two-point attempts in the country: overall No. 1 seed Alabama.

Malik Hall shoots the ball during Michigan State’s open practice in Columbus on March 16, 2023. Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM (Sarah Smith)

Even when you look at USC’s deficiencies this season, they don’t particularly pose issues for the Trojans in this matchup against MSU. USC is 328th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, giving up offensive rebounds on 32.6% of possessions. However, MSU doesn’t crash the offensive glass that much anyways, ranking just 221st in offensive rebounding percentage. 

Another example: Michigan State is great at defending three’s. Opponents shoot just 39.5% from deep against MSU which is fourth best in the entire country. But, USC doesn’t even shoot many three’s. 3-pointers account for just 26.7% of USC’s total points this season, 303rd lowest in the country. 

USC’s advantage goes beyond statistical, it’s physical too. The Trojans are the fifth tallest team in the nation per (weighted by percentage of minutes from rotational players), littered with tall and long players around the floor. The Trojans have just one player under 6-foot-5 on their entire roster and it’s their leading scorer, Boogie Ellis, who averages 18.0 points per game and leads USC in 3-point shooting at 39.2%.

MSU’s record this season against taller teams? 7-10. The Spartans have proven they are capable of beating bigger teams, but a size disadvantage is not in Izzo’s recipe for success. 

To make matters worse, USC knows it’s being overlooked and it’s hungry to prove people wrong. “[We’re] very dangerous, we got a lot of great guys on this team, got a lot of talent and definitely overlooked,” said Ellis. “A lot of people are saying this and that about us, but you know we’re ready to go, ready to prove people wrong and we’ve been doing that all year.” 

MSU has a fighting chance to get out of the first weekend for the first time since its run to the Final Four in 2019. But first things come first, MSU must get past USC. That task will prove itself to be more difficult than most people think.

The Spartans take on the Trojans at 12:15 p.m. EST from Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH. The game can be watched on CBS and heard on Impact 89FM.