Following No. 3 Michigan State’s PK80 tournament win over No. 13 North Carolina in the Motion Bracket final, the Spartans are 5-1 in the first half of their non-conference schedule. Their next high-profile matchup comes at the Breslin Center on Thursday night, as they face Notre Dame in the final game of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Irish rocketed from No. 13 to No. 5 in the AP poll following their tournament win in Maui last weekend, and look to have the chops to make a deep run in March once again this year.
Notre Dame’s best win so far came in Maui against Wichita State, a 67-66 win in the final after facing a 14-point deficit at halftime. Their experience is what sticks out, as they start two seniors who are among the best players in the ACC in forward Bonzie Colson and point guard Matt Farrell. Colson is off to a hot start in 2017, averaging 20 points a game through Notre Dame’s 6-0 start.
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Notre Dame, 7 p.m. Thursday
This is the third game in Breslin Center history between two AP top-five teams, with the last game coming in 2014. In that game, the then-No. 5 Spartans defeated then-No. 3 Ohio State 72-68 in overtime. Before that, then-No. 4 MSU hosted then-No.1 Indiana in February of 2013, losing 72-68.
Michigan State is playing their third AP top-10 team this season, having faced Duke in the Champions Classic and North Carolina last Sunday. MSU is the only Power Six team that will play three top-10 teams in the first month of the season.
MSU leaders (per game):
Points: Bridges, 15.8
Rebounds: Jackson Jr., 8.2
Assists: Winston, 7.5
ND leaders (per game):
Points: Colson, 20
Rebounds: Colson, 10.5
Assists: Farrell, 4.3
Here’s a look at Notre Dame’s rotation:
Head coach: Mike Brey (487-239), 23rd year
Colson is a high-volume rebounder, and loves to get to the rim. Whoever Michigan State matches up with him, whether it’s Jaren Jackson or Nick Ward, they have to play smart defense. The senior forward will also pull up and hit jump shots if left open, and he scored 25 points in ND’s win over Wichita State. Jackson has the length advantage over Colson, but that doesn’t mean Colson’s impact on the offensive end will be completely nullified. Jackson simply hasn’t had to guard anyone like Colson this season, and their matchup could make or break this game.
The backcourt will also ask questions of the Michigan State defense. They aren’t necessarily athletic attackers of the rim the same way Duke’s guards were in the Champions Classic, instead producing offensively via the outside shot. Notre Dame handles the ball well as a team, averaging just under nine turnovers a game. Farrell is the game-changer for the Irish, an underrated shooter at the point guard spot who has solid vision and uses his veteran savvy to make plays. He’s one of a couple players on this team who can frustrate an entire defense with his shot-making ability. T.J. Gibbs is a knock-down shooter as well who is averaging five three-point attempts a game, and making them at a clip above fifty percent so far. This offense runs through these three, as Pflueger doesn’t attempt many shots and Geben doesn’t get the ball much inside.
*Burns made his only attempt of the year.
Mooney and Burns provide some size in the frontcourt, and both see about 10 minutes a game to Geben’s 19 MPG. About half of Mooney’s attempts are threes, and he hits them at a solid rate, so it may be hard to be upset if he connects with an outside shot or two.
Harvey is the only freshman on the Irish that sees playing time, and his athleticism allows him to get in the lane and score at a solid clip. As a freshman, he’ll be inconsistent, as his two-point effort against the Shockers showed, but he might show flashes in this game.
When MSU has the ball…
Notre Dame is a very solid defensive team, and that starts with Farrell and Colson. Both average almost two steals a game, and the team as a whole has forced almost 12 turnovers a game from opposing offenses. This is not the night for players like Ward to be careless with the ball, as open shots handed to the Irish will end up as makes at a much higher clip than North Carolina managed on Sunday. MSU does have a size mismatch with Jackson on the court, as his 6-foot-11 frame is a couple of inches taller than anyone in Notre Dame’s starting five. Both Ward and Jackson have a slight opportunity on the offensive glass, but the Irish do a decent job cleaning up misses on the defensive end.
The impetus will be on players like Cassius Winston to make smart decisions with the ball, and if Miles Bridges edges closer to 100 percent following his ankle injury last week, Pflueger will have quite the matchup on his hands. Notre Dame also runs a slightly smaller rotation than the Spartans, so if MSU can attack someone like Colson or Gibbs early in the first half and put the Irish starting five in foul trouble, Michigan State’s depth could be an X-factor.
When Notre Dame has the ball…
MSU must close out and defend the three-point line against the Irish. Against Stony Brook, the Spartans’ perimeter defense was shaky early on, and MSU simply can’t afford that against a team as talented as Notre Dame. The matchup between Colson and Jackson will likely be the most notable on the night, and although Jackson has not guarded anyone quite like Colson so far this year, it’s hard to overlook the size difference between the two. If Colson is not firing on all cylinders, that may not be game over for the Irish thanks to Farrell’s shooting ability.
MSU’s ability to protect the rim may not even end up as a factor, as the Irish prefer to work outside against teams that are as long up front as the Spartans. Notre Dame won’t shoot the ball as poorly as North Carolina did, but preventing runs for the Spartans by answering with points of their own might be the best form of defense against a team as balanced as the Irish are.
Key to the game
Michigan State needs to cut out the turnovers. It was a minor miracle that they were able to beat UNC so convincingly with 24 turnovers, and it took a historically bad shooting night from the Tar Heels to make that happen. Notre Dame will not miss open shots at the same rate, and if MSU gives the Irish too much space on the defensive end while also committing turnovers, Mike Brey’s team will make the Spartans pay.