Sunday, March 18, 2012

Meet me in St. Louis (or Columbus, whatever)

Well, this isn't what we were expecting.

When the brackets were released a week ago, MSU's third-round matchup with Memphis was seen as a real upset possibility. Many national analysts picked the Tigers to reach the Sweet 16. But something happened: Memphis didn't win its first game.

Nope. Rick Majerus, as he often does, devised a great coaching plan and had Saint Louis ready to play. They trailed for much of the game, but went on a 14-5 run midway through the second half and would not trail the rest of the way in a 61-54 victory. Now Saint Louis will look to advance to its first Sweet 16 with a win Sunday (2:45 p.m., CBS).

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Instead of the high-flying, athletic Memphis team that likes to run, Saint Louis is more like a slow Big Ten team, playing with an adjusted tempo of 62.8. Think Wisconsin. As was mentioned in the LIU-Brooklyn preview, the Spartans' ability to change the pace has always been a staple of Tom Izzo's MSU teams. The Spartans can run, and they can slow it down. Against LIU, MSU did a bit of both, but dominated the smaller LIU team with 62 points in the paint.

Saint Louis does a good job on the defense glass (28.6 opp OReb margin), but isn't that great on the offensive end. Against Memphis, Saint Louis didn't go for many offensive rebounds, choosing to get back and prevent Memphis' fast-break offense. I expect them to do the same against MSU. The Billikens only have one significant contributor taller than 6-foot-8, and that's 6-foot-11 forward Rob Loe, who averages 5.2 points and 2.9 rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game.

The leading scorer for Saint Louis is 6-foot-6 forward Brian Conklin, who averages 14 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. However, Conklin plays just 29.4 minutes per game. The Billikens have depth. Lots of it. Eight guys play at least 16 minutes per game and another plays 9.3. In comparison, MSU has seven above 17 minutes plus Brandan Kearney at 9.3, and that's without Dawson, so some more minutes are there to be had.

Defensively, Saint Louis does just about everything well, with a 23.1 turnover percentage and holding opponents to 43.9 percent shooting on two-pointers. The Billikens are eighth in the nation in scoring defense at 57.9 points per game. However, 56 percent of opponents' points come on two-pointers. So they are vulnerable inside. The Billikens do tend to foul a bit too, but that's where the depth comes into play.

Offensively, Saint Louis doesn't score a ton, but is quite efficient. Again, like Wisconsin. The Billikens shoot 36.9 percent on 3s, 50.2 percent on 2s and 71.7 percent at the free-throw line. Saint Louis does tend to get blocked quite a bit, so don't be surprised if Adreian Payne and Draymond Green get a few swats.

( highlights)

The Spartans have won all three games against Wisconsin this season because of a combination of stingy defense and the ability to change the pace of games. Against a small Saint Louis team, I once again expect the Spartans to pound the ball inside to Payne, Green and Derrick Nix. However, this isn't like LIU, MSU will also need to hit its share of outside shots.

I said before the tournament started that I thought Memphis was the most difficult matchup for MSU among everyone in the West Region. The Tigers were top-10 in the KenPom rankings, but now they're done. Saint Louis is no slouch, ranked No. 13 by KenPom, but I think this style of game, a "dirty" style suits MSU well. This reminds me a lot of the Northern Iowa game from 2010.

Tom Izzo has lost the second game of a weekend three times in 14 NCAA Tournaments (before this season). All three of those losses were to No. 1 seeds. The Spartans aren't going to get pushed around, but you know Majerus will have his team ready. I see MSU getting past one Louis to meet another in the Sweet 16.

Prediction: MSU 65, Saint Louis 55

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