As someone with Italian heritage, I've always enjoyed listening to Tom Izzo or Rick Pitino talk. So often, they sound so much like my grandfather, especially the way Izzo uses his hands.
Leading up to the Elite Eight game between MSU and Louisville in 2009, I vividly remember Dick Vitale referring to the coaches as "paisanos." Even though that's not an actual word (it's slang), it got the point across that both coaches were Italian. I am surprised that I haven't heard Vitale use it this time around.
These are two of the best coaches in college basketball history, but someone's streak is going to come to an end tonight (7:47 p.m., TBS). Izzo is 5-0 against the Big East in the NCAA Tournament, while Pitino is 9-0 all-time in the Sweet 16.
Just like the Saint Louis game, this is going to be a low-scoring game, but for different reasons.
MSU is No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, Louisville is No. 2. Playing a top defense is nothing new for MSU. Including the final regular season game against Ohio State, MSU has played four of its last six games against top-10 defensive teams (OSU twice, Wisconsin, Saint Louis) and had few problems on offense. The Spartans have shot better than 45 percent in all six games, and better than 50 percent in four of them.
The No. 1 reason the Spartans are shooting 54 percent since the regular season ended is because of their paint play. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have combined to average 24 points per game, and Draymond Green has averaged 20 points and 12.5 rebounds in the first two NCAA Tournament games. But Louisville is No. 4 in the nation in opposing two-point percentage, and the biggest reason is because of 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng. Dieng averages 9.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, but he has a knack for getting in foul trouble.
In the halfcourt offense, MSU will need to hit some outside shots to keep the defense spread out, because Louisville is going to play a lot of zone. Keith Appling could have some confidence after the Saint Louis win, but Austin Thornton needs to return to Big Ten Tournament form. He has three field goals in the first two NCAA Tournament games. Brandon Wood has been playing well and I think he could have another solid game.
Of course, MSU will have to work hard to get to its halfcourt offense. Louisville is going to press a lot, just like it did in 2009. Back then, Kalin Lucas burned the press pretty easily, and the Cardinals eventually backed off. MSU hasn't faced much press this season, but has a good amount of ball handlers to get around it (this is another spot where a point forward comes in handy). As long as MSU limits the turnovers against the press, I think the Spartans should be OK in this game. The biggest key in beating a press is attacking it and scoring on it, rather than waiting for it to get set.
The Spartans will also need to grab some offensive rebounds in this one. MSU has only rebounded at least 30 percent of its misses three times in its last nine games, but Louisville is 255th in the country in defensive rebounding. Like always, having Branden Dawson would have been nice for MSU.
On the other side of the ball, Louisville has a lot of trouble putting the ball in the basket, especially in the halfcourt. The Cardinals' effective field-goal percentage of 47.6 is 227th in the country. They're going to try to run on offense. Louisville is on a six-game winning streak despite breaking 70 points just once in that span. The turnaround has been fueled by guard Peyton Siva. Before a six-point, five-assist game against New Mexico in the Round of 32, Siva averaged 14.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.6 steals in the five previous games.
Rob Dauster of NBC Sports did a fantastic look at how Louisville's offense is built around the high ball screen. Louisville uses it on 12.1 percent of their possessions as a team, and Siva uses it on 41.7 of his possessions. This is going to be similar to defending Michigan guard Trey Burke, who uses the pick-and-roll a lot. MSU was burned in the first meeting against U-M, but the big men hedged to perfection in the second game. Check out that Dauster story for some film breakdown of the pick-and-roll.
The key here is going to be Payne and Nix being able to hedge and force Siva to the outside. Siva is much better driving to the hoop than as a jump-shooter. Louisville is shooting just 31.3 percent from three-point range, which is 287th in the country, although they take a lot of them. Three-point defense is random, so I don't expect MSU to sag at all, but priority No. 1 should be keeping Louisville out of the paint.
If the big men can play the pick-and-roll like they have in the past and the Spartans keep the turnovers low, I see an MSU win in this one. I just don't think Louisville has enough offensive firepower.
Prediction: MSU 63, Louisville 55