It’s pretty simple — protect the ball and you’ll win the game.
There’s obviously more to winning in basketball — like also putting that same ball in the basket — then simply protecting the rock, but for Michigan State, this will be the most important facet of Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Miami.
It’s been well documented all season how poorly Michigan State takes care of the ball. Notably, the Spartans have the Big Ten’s second worst turnover margin of -3.2 per game. That terrible ratio also ranks 334th out of 345 teams in the country. So, as any spectator of Michigan State knows, it’s highly important to be smart with the ball and not commit so many careless turnovers.
On the flip side, the Miami Hurricanes know how to play defense. And play defense at an extremely high level. The Hurricanes aren’t explosive offensively — averaging only 69.4 points per game, which ranks 13th out of 15 schools in the ACC. However, they make up for it defensively, holding opponents to 63.7 points per game (2nd in ACC and 24th nationally) and 41.4% shooting from the field (5th in ACC and 53rd nationally). That defense was notably impressive in some big wins for the Hurricanes.
Miami stumped North Carolina’s high-flying offense on Jan. 28, holding the Tar Heels to only 35% from the field and forcing 14 turnovers in a 77-62 victory. Later in the year Miami held Virginia and Duke to 50 or less points in back-to-back games in late February, also forcing 20 combined turnovers between the two games.
And more recently, the Hurricanes ended Syracuse’s NCAA Tournament hopes with a 62-57 victory in the opening round of the ACC Tournament. So, it’s been proven that Miami can knock off some good teams through strong defensive play.
Playing against teams that are tough defensively hasn’t gone well for the Spartans this year — look at their last game against Minnesota last week — so, this is going to be a tricky matchup. In order to win this game, Michigan State is going to need to not be so careless with the ball and limit itself to no more than 10 turnovers. That’s still a lot of turnovers, to be honest, but, for a team that averaged 14.2 turnovers a game, it’s improvement. They simply can’t afford to give away possessions against a team that already is going to make it tough on you to score.
It’ll take a team-wide effort to prevent a high number of turnovers, but it’ll especially be important to guards Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn and Cassius Winston. Nairn averaged only 1.1 turnovers per game, but Winston, on the other hand, gave away 2.2 possessions per game, which is the second most on the team.
Miami will throw a solid group of guards at these two, including Davon Reed. The 6-foot-6 senior guard is the Hurricanes’ leading scorer but also is a defensive threat earning a spot on the ACC’s All-Defensive Team. Reed also has had issues with turning the ball over himself — averaging 2.1 turnovers per game — so while he may force some he also will give some back.
As I said in the opening sentence, it’s pretty simple for this Michigan State team to win.
If the Spartans wins the turnover margin then they’ll have a strong chance to win this game. It didn’t happen often this year but when Michigan State wins or breaks even in the turnover margin they are 9-2. I like those odds. In other words, the Spartans will need solid performances out of both Nairn and Winston. I’m not suggesting they need to both be scoring machines because that won’t happen, at least not for Nairn. But if they can play smart ball and collectively out play Miami’s guards then I like the Spartans to win this one.
There is certainly more to this matchup that’ll play a role in the final result, for instance I like the matchup in the post for Michigan State in this one. However, I’ll take a deeper look into that later in the week in the complete game preview. So for now let’s keep it simple — protect the ball and you’ll probably win the game. That’ll be key for Michigan State in order to move on to the next round.