Bright Lights Of New York City Shine On Hokies And #1 Michigan State Friday Night

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This young Virginia Tech team gets stiffest test of their non-conference schedule Friday night in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn's new Barclay's Center. For more on the match up, read below.

Before we get to the basketball, let's begin our Friday with something inspirational. It's a track from my all-time favorite band, Widespread Panic. It's entitled Pleas and its from their album "Everyday". I find it extremely applicable to the gigantic test before the Virginia Tech Hokies Basketball team tonight, as they face the #1 ranked Michigan State Spartans at Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, NY. The game is scheduled to tip at 9:30pm on TruTV, which is part of the Turner Broadcasting family.

Pleas/Widespread Panic

They say turn the bright lights on
And there you'll find the truth
Here, open up this book
And now you'll find the proof

It feels like a can of worms
Keep the lid on tight, and they say

Don't let it get too bright
Don't let it get too bright
Don't let it get too bright
No, not this time

They tell me it takes sorrow, boy
To help you feel the joy
They say it takes poverty
To let you love a toy
Now you can't have the good
Until you've shared the bad

Don't let it get too sad
Don't let it get too sad
Don't let it get too sad
No, not this time, time

They say it takes hardship, boy
To let you love the rest

Sometimes underneath the load
Is where I show my best

Go, put your work clothes on
Go and leave your mark

And they say

Don't let it get too dark
Don't let it get too dark
Don't let it get too dark
No, not this time

So much in that tune is applicable to the current path our Virginia Tech Hokies are navigating. The bright lights are on tonight for sure, as they are always apt to be when #1 is involved. The Hokies haven't played an out of conference #1 opponent since 1979, when they lost to Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA Tournament. And true to the song, this game will indeed be a load, and it will require a great deal of smarts and hard work to ensure a good showing; let alone put themselves in position to win the game. The goal here for this young team is to continue to play hard through to the end, outcome be damned. And to not take the bad result to heart if it doesn't go our way. To me this is a game we can't lose no matter the final score, unless we buckle and get down on ourselves. Therein lies the challenge, as playing Michigan State is never a pleasant experience, even when they aren't the top-ranked team. They demoralize teams with their hard-nosed play and take opponents out of their comfort zone.

Michigan State is #1 for a reason. They are always highly-ranked early in the season based on reputation, their high talent level, and because they are extremely well-coached. Even though I usually abhor sitting through Big 10 games because they often feature way too many fouls, and pseudo-wrestling in the paint, which I believe runs counter to the spirit of the game, the Spartans have great athletes and a fundamental belief that they can win every game. This will be our first meeting with them, so familiarity won't be a luxury we can lean on.

Coached by Tom Izzo since 1995, the Spartans have made it to 16 straight NCAA tournaments. This streak is 3rd longest in the country, behind only Kansas (24), and Duke (18). In that time they've been to six Final Fours, winning the title in 2000, and finishing as runner up in 2009. Amazingly, and as a true testament to the effort Izzo gets from his groups, of the 16 tournament teams, 11 of them have advanced as far as the Sweet Sixteen. A few more of these and Izzo will approach Dean Smith in his tournament proficiency. Michigan State is the #1 school in NCAA history in outperforming their tournament seed. Izzo has winning percentages of .712/.695 (Big 10); and these would be higher if he didn't adopt the John Chaney (Temple) mentality of scheduling as tough a non-conference slate as possible each year to prepare his team. Unlike the Hokies, who typically ease into their season, Michigan State shocks the system early and become battle-tested by Big 10 season, which has paid its dividends by way of seven Big 10 regular season titles. In addition to having beaten #1 Kentucky in the season opener (the earliest matchup in history of #1 vs #2 ever by over a calendar month), MSU will face Texas in Austin, and play a neutral site game vs Georgetown in February, which is in the middle of their tough Big 10 docket.

The Michigan State attack is led by three players, who are all on the Naismith Award watch list: senior big man Adreian Payne, who goes 6'10"/245 but has a deft stroke from 3-point land (4-10); sophomore guard Gary Harris, who at 6'4"/210 is extremely strong, and senior PG Keith Appling who is typical PG size (6'1/185). These three players combine for 62% of Michigan State's scoring offense (197/320 points). Here is the Michigan State rotation and the pertinent statistics:

  • C Adreian Payne: 17.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4-10 3-point, 14-17FT (.824, excellent for a big man)
  • SG Gary Harris: 16.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 10/10 Assist/TO, 8-27 3-point (29%) , 12-13 FT (.923)
  • PG Keith Appling: 15.3 ppg, 6.3 apg, 13-16 FTs

Those three are the only players who have started all four games. The rest of the rotation all average 12+ minutes and have started at least once:

  • Jr PF Brenden Dawson (6'6, 225): 9 ppg, 9.5 reb per game...he's a bruiser
  • Soph Swingman Denzel Valentine (6'5, 225): 7.3 ppg, but just 11-28 from the field
  • Jr Backup PG Travis Trice (6'0, 175): 3 ppg, 3 apg and 5 of 14 from 3-point
  • SO PF/C Matt Costello (6'9, 240): 3 ppg, 3.5 rpg

Michigan State is third in the nation, averaging 21.5 assists. They have five guys with double digit assist totals through four games, which means that they all average close to 3 assists per game. This is a tremendously unselfish team. They have 86 assists to their opponents 41. Another interesting offensive stat is the MSU proficiency from the FT line, particularly from their Big 3. Payne, Harris and Appling are 39-of-46 from the FT line (84.8%), the rest of the team is just 11-of-19. So if it's late in the game and we are needing to foul, those three will convert. We need to be fouling anybody but those guys.

On defense it appears that they are similar to VT, in that they don't play for steals. They prefer to glue themselves to the opponent, and contest every shot. They only average 7 steals and only force 14 turnovers a game. But their opposing FG percentage is dismal (just .380 to their own .475 accuracy, which is a substantial margin). They have forced opponents into 25-of-85 shooting from 3-point range which means they're going to run out on every attempt. The Hokies shoot 44.8% from 3, so something will have to give.

Though Michigan State is #1 on the strength of having beat Kentucky, in reality they were lucky to escape with the win. After having jumped out 44-32 at halftime, they played a shaky second half and were hampered by Payne picking up his fourth foul with 9 minutes remaining. Kentucky freshman and future lottery pick, Julius Randle, had an absolutely monster game against Payne, putting up 27 points and 17 rebounds and holding Payne to 15/6. However, it was the Wildcats' failure to take advantage at the FT stripe that lost them the game. Kentucky shot just 20-of-36 (to MSU's (13-17) and wound up losing by four; Michigan State was fortunate.

Since that game Michigan State stumbled towards their #1 ranking by narrowly beating Columbia at home (62-53) and Portland (82-67). I'd like to think that if those two teams could compete, that Virginia Tech can stay in this game for a long while as well.

This concludes the first half of the program. Now we proceed to the halftime show, where we familiarize ourselves with the opponent and their origins.

A school with 47,000 students (36k undergraduate); Michigan State is the first officially recognized Agricultural College in the United States, having been founded in 1855. It is located in East Lansing, Michigan, which is in the South Central part of the state. I have dubbed it "The School of Equidistance". This is because it is centrally located between three major cities in three different states. Although Detroit is closest (78 miles), and Indianapolis is farthest (223 miles), Cleveland is 166 miles away, Chicago 172 miles away and Milwaukee 174 miles away. All five cities are within four hours of commute, which provides a broad recruiting base where players can have family come watch them play.

Aside from the agricultural emphasis, Michigan State is also widely respected for its Graduate level Elementary and Secondary Education programs, in which they have been ranked #1 by U.S. News and World Report for 14 years running. They also have the #2 Doctoral Program in Mass Media, which is based in the United States first recognized College of Communications Arts and Sciences. And in perhaps the most important discipline, considering our country's war-mongering nature, Michigan State fields the #1 Nuclear Physics program in the country.

In the department of dubious accomplishments, Michigan State is responsible for hybrid corn which contributes to the massive influx of High Fructose Corn Syrup in so many food products, which is the chief cause of diabetes in our obese nation. Great job guys! Hopefully somebody going to the game can prepare a sign with which we can shame them for poisoning the world!

And in perhaps the most interesting bit of East Lansing news, (it's pretty dull in general) East Lansing is the only town in America where i've ever heard of an elephant rampaging through the streets. Apparently in 1963 a dancing elephant got fed up with the act, took off, and was panicked by all 4,000 spectators chasing it through the streets. It totaled a department store and caused thousands of dollars in property damage to the town. Note to self: Don't hire dancing elephant for my daughter's 7th birthday party.

ALUMNI  I PERSONALLY CONSIDER TO BE THE OPPOSING SCHOOLS' MOST INTERESTING!!!

  • Chris Hansen: Of NBC's Dateline 'To Catch a Predator': "Have a seat, would you like a cookie?"
  • Jimmy Hoffa: Perhaps the 3rd biggest mystery of the 20th Century behind Who Killed JFK, and Amelia Earhart. The Lindbergh baby rates up there, but that was eventually solved. Hoffa's buried underneath every major building structure that was constructed from the time of his disappearance in 1975 through 1990. Pretty wide-range of possibilities.
  • Robert Urich: Actor, Spenser: For Hire, Vegas. 1970s slick, 1980s smooth. Watching Spenser for Hire was one of my favorite treats, staying up late with my Grandmother while my parents had a night out. RIP, Grandma. Spenser and his main man Hawk always got their man.
  • Dan Gilbert/Tom Gores: Finance,  One a predatory lender, the other a corporate strip-miner. Rich, rich men. Too bad they step all over people to get it. Shameful.
  • Robert Mugabe: President of Zimbabwe, who never matriculated but received an honorary degree. This degree was subsequently rescinded 18 years later in 2008, due to MSU's disapproval of his dirty politics and genocides. It was the only honorary degree ever rescinded in MSU history. Question for MSU brass: How do you think he got to power in the first place? I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it was on the strength of genocides.
  • Bubba Smith: Football Player/Actor. What would my childhood have been without forcing my parents to take me to Police Academy films? Not any kind of childhood at all, I say. Also famous for the Miller Lite ads, and being a dominant DE that served as the prototype for future Hokie Bruce Smith (unrelated). He was tall and speedy off the edge. Incredibly gentle in public life despite his persona. RIP Lt. Hightower.

Michigan State has a rich athletic history, and indisputably the face of it's athletic alumni is Earvin "Magic" Johnson. They have had a great many successful NBA players, including Scott Skiles, Zach Randolph, Steve Smith, Morris Peterson, Jason Richardson and Kevin Willis. They were also coached by Pete Newell, in his first job in the mid 1950s. He used the job as a stepping stone to a job at Cal where he won the national championship in 1959, defeating Oscar Robertson's Cincinnati Bearcats. He used that as a springboard to earn the U.S. Olympic team coaching job in 1960, where he led the team to Gold in Rome. Newell was famous in retirement for running his famous Big Man camp in Hawaii where every notable big man worked on their game at least once with him up until his death in 2008.

MSU won a national title in 1979, coached by Jud Heathcoate, and led by Magic Johnson.They defeated Larry Bird in the final. Michigan State also played in the most highly attended college basketball game ever in 2003, playing Kentucky at Ford Field, Detroit in front of 78,000+ fans. They have quite a following, considering their school's size, and they will have a nice sized group of boosters tonight. I am hoping that the Hokie contingent brings a nice number of their own.

As we know, the Hokies have won 3-straight games after losing their opener in embarrassing fashion. They do not resemble the team that lost vs USC Upstate, having made great strides and carving out roles over the last three games. Here are some numbers to mull over:

  • The Hokies are an incredibly balanced scoring team with seven players averaging 8.7 ppg. or more. They are led by Jarrell Eddie (16.5 ppg, 50% from 3-point range); and Ben Emelogu (15.8ppg, 51.4% from 3-point range in just 22.8 mpg.). That's 32.3 ppg. in just over 50 mpg combined. Extremely efficient.
  • The Hokies are an incredibly balanced rebounding team, with seven players averaging 4.8 rpg. or more. They are led by freshman Trevor Thompson with 7.3 rpg. in just 17.7 mpg. On a starters' diet of 32 mpg., he would average enough to lead the nation.
  • Cadarian Raines averages just 5 rpg., but  he boxes out the opposing big, which clears the lane for others to get the loose balls.
  • We are dominating the glass overall (180-145), but are still -4 in offensive rebounds. With our opposing FG % this is forgivable, but as we allow more made baskets, that will have to tighten up.
  • The backcourt of Devin Wilson and Adam Smith contribute heavily on the glass with 8.1 rpg. Primarily because they beat their men to the long caroms generated by our stellar opposing 3-point FG %
  • The Hokies allow just 28.7% shooting from distance on 29 for 101. Conversely, they have shot 30 for 67 (44.8). I expect regression in both areas, but it's nice while it lasts.
  • The Hokies are 84-123 from the FT line, for 68+%, but if you remove the abysmal showing vs Western Carolina, they are 61 for 82 (75%). Hopefully the latter is more in line with what we'll do going forward.
  • The Hokies are #8 in the nation in blocked shots. Per the minutes, Trevor Thompson and Joey Van Zegeren average 4.5 blocks per 33 minutes. Enough to lead the nation if you created a hybrid shot blocking monster named Joevor Van Thompgeren.
  • Defensively we have only taken 9 steals, preferring not to gamble. But we are behind on turnover margin 55 to 34. Since we have given up 24 steals, that means 31 of our turnovers have been traveling violations or from throwing the ball away. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop tonight.

There has been a lot to be encouraged by over the last three games. We have flexed our roster depth, and gotten two of the wins without Junior C.J. Barksdale, who proved against VMI that he can be a force for us this year. The youthful backcourt will be put to the test tonight, and I believe that will be the key to victory. The frontcourt on Michigan State is the first that can play ours to a draw. We need to be sure that we aren't committing the type of errors that will lead to us beating ourselves. Beating Michigan State will be hard enough.

Michigan State runs a 1-4 high low stack offense which is ideal for back cuts from the wing position, freeing up Harris. You can also run the pick and roll out of it, which serves Payne up some easy looks. We need to be determined to fight through some very physical screens on defense.

On defense, Izzo favors the matchup zone (hybrid man), and emphasizes getting out on the three point shooter and playing as physical as the refs will allow. A typical Michigan State game involves them playing so physically that the refs eventually put the whistles away. We should be bracing for contact on every possession.

Well, that wraps this up, if you have further questions, please feel free to put them in the comments section and I will answer as the day goes on. I will be back here tonight about 9 p.m., as this will be the live in-game thread where we can enjoy the game together. Please join us! I will also be tweeting intermittently on @gobblercountry. Whatever your preferred medium, Gobbler Country has you covered (we gotchu).

I will return after the game with post-game analysis, statistical breakdown, and player grades. If you haven't had the opportunity, please also check out the detailed history I posted yesterday on VT Basketball vs #1 teams. It's a project I am proud of!

Have a wonderful TGIF! As always mi Cassell es su Cassell.

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