EAST LANSING, Mi. — For the third time this season, the Michigan State Spartans will take on a top-10 team when they host the fifth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Thursday night inside the Breslin Center.
When the 2017-18 schedules were announced, Thursday’s match-up between the Spartans and Fighting Irish was one that most had circled on their calendars. Both teams were expected to be ranked comfortably in the top 25, but little did we know that this would turn into a top-five game when it tips off.
Michigan State and Notre Dame will be meeting for the 97th time, but Thursday marks just their second meeting since 1979 campaign. The last time the two teams met was back in 2014, with the Fighting Irish picking up a 79-78 win in overtime over the 14th-ranked Spartans in South Bend as a part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Fighting Irish hold a 60-36 edge all-time against the Spartans, and are 25-22 in East Lansing. Thursday will be the first time that Notre Dame has played inside the Breslin Center, as the last time they were in East Lansing (1979), the Spartans played out of the Jenison Fieldhouse.Both teams will be looking for another signature win to add to their resume, as both already have tournament titles to their names from last week.
Notre Dame is coming off a win at the 2017 Maui Invitational Tournament, knocking off the Wichita State Shockers in an exciting championship showdown, 67-66. Martinas Geben hit a pair of free throws in the closing seconds, and Rex Pflueger came up with a steal at the buzzer to seal the deal for the Fighting Irish.
Senior guard Matt Farrell took home his second tournament MVP award in as many years. He was also named the MVP of the 2016 Barclays Classic, in which the Fighting Irish won.
As for Michigan State, they took home the trophy in the Victory Bracket of the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Oregon. The Spartans dominated on both ends of the floor in the finale, cruising past the then-9th ranked North Carolina Tar Heels, 63-45. They held the Tar Heels to 24.8% shooting from the field, which was the lowest mark in North Carolina history.
Sophomore guard Cassius Winston took home MVP honours of the event, as he averaged 15 points, 6.7 assists, and five rebounds over the three games.
With Michigan State sitting at 5-1 on the year, their only loss coming against the Duke Blue Devils at the Champions Classic, and Notre Dame entering with a perfect 6-0 record, there will be a lot on the line. The Spartans will look to bolster their resume with another top-10 win within a week, while the Fighting Irish are looking to prove that they are truly a top-five team.
Both teams are immensely talented, and each boasts a top candidate for National Player of the Year. Notre Dame brings Bonzie Colson, who is averaging a double-double through six games. On the flip side, the Spartans boast a now-healthy Miles Bridges, who surprised many with his decision to return to school for a sophomore season, passing on what was expected to be a lottery selection in the 2017 NBA Draft.
While both of those players immediately grab the headlines, both teams have strong supporting casts that have been playing some strong basketball over the first two-plus weeks of the 2017-18 season.
Let’s take a look at three key areas of the game, and highlight which team has the edge come Thursday night in East Lansing.
You can’t put a price on experience in the NCAA, especially in the back court. Senior guard Matt Farrell is one of the nation’s top point guards, and he has the Notre Dame offense rolling early in 2017-18.
The fourth-year guard is averaging a career-high 17.5 points per game this season, which ranks second on the team behind Colson. He is also dishing out 4.3 assists per game to lead the team, and is pulling down 2.3 rebounds per contest. Farrell is the veteran leader of the Fighting Irish, and while he may not get the attention he deserves, the case could be made that he is the team’s most important player in 2017-18.
Farrell brings veteran leadership and a sense of reliability to the back court rotation for Mike Brey’s crew. He has a knack for finding his teammates for high quality looks at the basket, and he forms one of the nation’s top inside-out tandems with Colson.
Add in the emergence of sophomore TJ Gibbs, who has three 20+ point performances this season, and the Fighting Irish have a pair who can lead the offense from the back end. Gibbs has scored 20 or more points in every other game this season. If that trajectory should continue on Thursday, Gibbs will go for 20+ against the Spartans.
The third key member of the back court for Notre Dame is 6’6” junior Rex Pflueger. Now, he won’t fill up the stat sheet and blow you away with his numbers, but Pflueger is the type of player who will leave it all on the court. He makes the hustle plays that won’t show up in the box score, and makes his mark on the defensive end. He will likely draw the task of covering Bridges on Thursday, which certainly won’t be an easy task.
For Michigan State, the back court is headlined a trio of sophomores, in Bridges, Winston, and Joshua Langford. Bridges, a 6’7” wing, is expected to be a lottery selection in the 2018 NBA Draft, if he decides to leave school after his sophomore season. He missed the Spartans’ game against the DePaul Blue Demons with an ankle injury, but is now healthy and ready to lead the Spartans past the Fighting Irish.
Bridges is averaging 15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game this season, while shooting 48.3% from the floor and 36.0% from three point range. He can shoot from long distance with a high level of consistency, or he can drive and finish at the rim. Bridges’ flexibility forces opponents to be aware of his whereabouts at all times, or he can hurt you in several different ways.
Over the past four games, Langford has recorded games with 23, 19, and 10 points, and is averaging 13.3 points per contest this season. He is coming off a strong PK80 Invitational, and will look to keep his strong play going in front of the home crowd. Langford can be a bit streaky in terms of shooting, but with his recent stretch of strong play, those worries can go by the wayside, for now.
Then, off the bench, you’ve got the likes of Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn and Matt McQuaid who can give the lineup different looks and keep opposing defenses on their toes. McQuaid can shoot it from three point range, and when he gets hot, everything he puts up seems to fall. Nairn is the Spartans’ veteran leader, and while he’s now in a reserve role, he still brings a ton of energy to the floor when he gets the call from Izzo to sub in.
In terms of sheer talent, the edge in terms of guard play has to go to Michigan State. In terms of experience, however, with Farrell and Pflueger leading the way, the edge goes to Notre Dame.
Forwards: Michigan State
Up front, there’s not a deeper front court rotation in the nation than that of Michigan State’s. Whether it’s Nick Ward or Jaren Jackson, Jr. in the starting lineup, or Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter, and Xavier Tillman coming off the bench, the Spartans have big men after big men who are more than ready to impose their will in the paint.
Ward is enjoying quite the season so far, through six games. In under 19 minutes per game, Ward is averaging 13.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, both of which are on par with his numbers from last season. He found himself in foul trouble early against the Blue Demons in the PK80 Invitational, but he is a player who flirts with a double-double each night out. For a big man, he gets up and down the floor rather quick, and is tough body to move away from the basket inside.
Add in the athleticism and length of freshman Jaren Jackson, Jr. to the mix, and it becomes a ‘pick your poison’ scenario for opponents. Jackson has the ability to stretch the floor and hit shots from beyond the arc, and he’s hit on 33.3% of his attempts this season. He is averaging 10.0 points and a team-high 8.2 rebounds per contest. Scouts and General Managers at the next level are high on Jackson, and for good reason. He’s got incredible length and athleticism, and is only going to improve as he continues to develop.
If Ward or Jackson go to the bench in foul trouble or for a break, Izzo has the luxury of rolling out Carter, Schilling, or Tillman with confidence. Add in the versatility of Bridges, who can move into the four-spot in a smaller lineup, and the Spartans have a plethora of looks they can throw at you.
As for Notre Dame, it all starts with senior Bonzie Colson, who is widely considered as a top contender for the Wooden Award at the nation’s top player in 2017-18. The native of New Bedford, MA is averaging 20.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest, and he has recorded a double-double on four occasions this season.
While he may be undersized in comparison to Michigan State’s forwards, Colson has the ability to score in different ways, and he can hit his mid-range jumper at a high clip. The 6’6”, 224-pound forward won’t be outworked in the paint, and will force Michigan State’s forwards to stretch the floor as he looks to make his own offense. Colson will likely draw Jackson, Jr. from the Spartans, which is an intriguing match-up, considering Jackson, Jr. has a five-inch height advantage and they both have the ability to stretch the floor.
In the middle, the Fighting Irish will roll with Martinas Geben, who has been playing some of his best basketball of his career as a member of Notre Dame this season. He hit two free throws on a double-screen, set inbound play against the Shockers to give Notre Dame the win at the Maui Invitational.
Geben is averaging 8.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest, while shooting 80.0% from the floor. All three figures are career-high marks for the 6’10” big man from Lithuania. Geben will look to neutralize Ward early on during Thursday night’s tilt. If he is able to get Ward into foul trouble early, it will open things up for the Fighting Irish inside, albeit slightly.
After Colson and Geben, the Fighting Irish are out-matched, and out-numbered, in terms of their front court rotation. The Spartans simply have too many big bodies that they can roll out, and their combination of experience and talent outweigh Notre Dame’s unproven bench players.
Depth: Michigan State
As stated above, on several occasions, the Spartans have too many options across the board.
Notre Dame has gone with a heavy dose of a six-man rotation, with freshman D.J. Harvey being the first man off the bench on most nights. Look for the Fighting Irish to rely heavily on their starting five, like they have done all season long. Notre Dame will need to see some contribution from the likes of Harvey, John Mooney, and Elijah Burns in their limited minutes on Thursday if they want to stand a chance against Michigan State.
If the Spartans find themselves in foul trouble early, they will turn to their bench, in which Izzo has confidence in. They have guards who can shoot, forwards who are tough bodies to move and have a wealth of experience to draw. With the only injury being to Kenny Goins, the Spartans come into Thursday night with essentially a full rotation. That could lead to another big win for Michigan State.
Our own Ryan Scarfone covers the Fighting Irish for College Court Report, and is a big Notre Dame fan. Ryan and I broke down the match-up in a special edition of the College Court Report podcast, and we both made our score predictions for Thursday night’s festivities:
Tyler: Michigan State 77, Notre Dame 71
Ryan: Michigan State 75, Notre Dame 68
Regardless of how the game plays out, basketball fans across the nation couldn’t ask for a better game on a Thursday night. Michigan State will look to end the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on a high note for the conference, who didn’t fare so well against their counterparts this season, while Notre Dame will look to pick up a huge win for their resume and assert themselves among the top contenders for the National Championship.
The game tips off at 7:00pm EST inside the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
– T. Bennett