As far as weeknight matchups in November are concerned, it doesn’t get much bigger than tonight’s opening round battle in the Phil Knight Invitational between the undefeated 18th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0; Kenpom: 11; T-Rank: 19) and the 12th-ranked Michigan State Spartans (3-1; Kenpom: 23; T-Rank: 23). I certainly can’t think of a more meaningful Thanksgiving night Tide Hoops game in recent memory. Part of the reason this game is so highly anticipated is that the Spartans have been tested this season. Michigan State has already gone toe-to-toe with #6 Gonzaga (L 63-64), #15 Kentucky (W 86-77 2OT), and Villanova (W 73-71) - some of the best programs in college basketball - yet have come out showing that they are every bit a contender both in the Big Ten and nationally this year. This will be a phenomenal litmus test for this Alabama team.
Additionally, we’ve got a bit of a master-meets-apprentice type vibe in this one, as Nate Oats goes up against basketball legend, Tom Izzo, who Oats used to run summer camps with as a high school coach in Michigan. The eight-time Final Four participant and coach of the 2000 national championship-winning Spartans, Izzo is easily one of the top-five coaches in the history of collegiate basketball. So, the opportunity to match wits with the legend himself on such a large stage is extremely exciting.
This is, without a doubt, a massive opportunity for the Tide tonight. Can Alabama do what Kentucky and Villanova failed to and beat the Spartans?
POINT 6’3 A.J. Hoggard (9.5 PPG, 8.3 APG, 4.5 RPG, 93.1 DRtg)
GUARD 6’0 Tyson Walker (13.5 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.0 RPG, 97.4 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Malik Hall (12.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 96.7 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Joey Hauser (14.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 97.4 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Mady Sissoko (8.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 93.7 DRtg)
If you simply look at the raw stats, there isn’t a whole lot that jumps off of the page, with the exception of A.J. Hoggard’s insane 52.7% AST%. To put that in perspective, Hoggard is assisting over half of his team’s made field goals when he is on the floor, to go along with his nearly 10 points per game. Silly stuff. He runs Izzo’s offense to perfection - you won’t find a team who runs more set plays than the Spartans. They are just so efficient and sound on the offensive end. Which is no surprise considering who the coach is, especially when that coaching is combined with the overall experience and maturity of this team - the starting five is all upperclassmen.
That’s part of what has made Izzo so consistently successful over the years. He truly runs a college basketball program. You won’t find one-and-dones in East Lansing. Guys graduate and then the next three-year member of the program rotates in. Malik Hall is a perfect example of this. A three-year contributor off of the bench, Hall has been a stout, all-around presence for the Spartans this year (56.3%/36.4%/88.9%; 96.7 DRtg; 9.5% REB%). The big man, Mady Sissoko, spent his first two years towards the end of the bench. Now, he’s rebounding at a 14.5% clip, shooting 57.9% from the field, and giving Michigan State a real presence in the post. He’s a tough, bruising big.
Then, there are the two former transfers, Tyson Walker and Joey Hauser - both in their second years in the program. Walker has been a strong distributor and secondary ballhandler (26.2% AST%; 2.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), but he also leads the team in minutes and shots, which he makes at a 46.7%/35.3%/75.0% rate. Hauser is a prototypical stretch-four - he can both bang in the paint (10.7% REB%) and step out on the wing to knock down shots (47.5%/50.0%/77.8%). These two really do most of the scoring on the team.
Off of the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Tre Holloman (1.5 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 85.7 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Jaden Akins (6.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 95.6 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Pierre Brooks (6.0 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 101.1 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Jaxon Kohler (1.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 89.9 DRtg)
With a trio of major games already on tape for the Spartans, we’ve seen the exact rotation that Izzo is looking to utilize when it matters most. And he’s kept it pretty tight. Only eight players average double-digit minutes per game, and that’s heavily in favor of the starters. Jaden Akins is probably the most notable off of the bench. He’s struggled to find his shot in the early goings (34.4%/20.0%/75.0%), but he’s a former top-50 recruit with a lot of talent, and he’s operated at the Spartan’s sixth man. Pierre Brooks has been a sharpshooter this year, knocking down 40% of his three-pointers on nearly four attempts per game. Jaxon Kohler provides relief for the Spartans’ bigs.
Three Keys to Victory
- Patience on Defense, Tempo on Offense. Although Izzo is a bit of a mentor to Oats, their preferred styles of play could not be more different. While Oats wants to speed things up, get out in transition, and get shots up as early in the shot clock as possible, Izzo’s teams are methodical on both ends of the court. They want to frustrate your offense and lull you to sleep on the other end. Every offensive possession has been perfected in practice - they know what sets to run against your defense and what action works for each individual player. Alabama’s defense has been elite thus far this year (2nd in eFG% allowed), but how much of that has been a product of simply being superior in size and athleticism? We’ll find out tonight.
- Flex that Rebounding Prowess. That last question will be explored a bit in this regard as well. Alabama has been dominant on the glass this season, leading the country with an incredible 48.1% OREB rate, over two points higher than second-place Duke. Michigan State is going to find success defending the Tide in the halfcourt, and each second further into the shot-clock on a Tide possession significantly lowers Alabama’s success rate. So, the Tide need to make up for missed shots by hitting the glass and preventing empty possessions from happening. The Spartans are solid on the boards and have decent size, but this should be an area that Alabama can exploit and find an advantage.
- Sharing is Caring. It’s no coincidence that in Alabama’s best performance this season in assist-to-turnover ratio against Jacksonville State (23 to 13), the Tide also had its best shooting night of the year (21/46 from three). Oats’ offense is designed to get quick, open looks with sharp passing and flowing movement - whether that be in transition or in the halfcourt. Alabama really struggles offensively when they don’t get good ball movement going. They also struggle when they turn the ball over constantly - the one weakness from last season that hasn’t been addressed (23.1% TO% - 318th in the country). If the Tide is careless with the ball in this one, it’s going to be a long night.
This is a major test for Alabama tonight. A win would go a long way in proving that this year’s Tide team is legit. And it would put Nate Oats’ squad on the winning side of the Phil Knight Invitational bracket, providing an opportunity for even more ranked matchups this weekend.
The game isn’t scheduled to tip-off until 9:30 PM CST, since it’s the last game of the day in Portland, Oregon. So, knock out that Thanksgiving meal early, get a nice afternoon or evening nap in - let the tryptophan from that delicious turkey run its course, grab a cup of joe, and tune in to ESPN tonight. Prove to yourself and your god that you are not a FOG. Big time Tide Hoops game tonight. Let’s pull the fellas through.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!