We continue our Q&A series with the championship matchup against Michigan State in the Orlando Classic. For today's installment, I was able to chat with Pete Rossman over at The Only Colors. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the upcoming game on really short notice.
RCT: At the end of last season, the big story was the end of Tom Izzo's streak, the one where every single senior he recruited since he started coaching at Michigan State had reached the Final Four. Was it shocking to see that streak end?
TOC: Yes and no. Yes because the Spartans were in the Elite 8 last season against a UConn team that had had its struggles in the tournament, and MSU picked the worst possible time to play one of its worst games of the season. Win that game, and the streak continues. On the other hand, all streaks have to end sometime. As I'm sure your readers will recall, MSU caught a huge break in the 2010 Final Four when they avoided Kansas and faced Northern Iowa instead. A little luck was needed to keep that streak going, and I'm just happy it lasted as long as it did.
RCT: Coming into the year, everyone talked about this being the year to rebuild for Tom Izzo, having lost Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Gary Harris from last year's Elite Eight squad. But looking at them up to this point in the season, they seem to have reloaded, pushing Duke in the Champion's Classic and pretty much destroying everyone else they have faced this year. Who has stepped up to fill the void that those three left?
TOC: I wouldn't say they've destroyed everyone else they've faced this year -- the Navy and Marquette games were a bit iffy at times. However, Denzel Valentine (I'll get to him later) and Travis Trice have both stepped up in big ways. Trice has shown a bit more penetration than he has in previous seasons to go along with his already great three-point shooting. Another player who's been a pleasant surprised is freshman Marvin Clark. He was expected to be a bit of a project going in, but injuries have forced him into significant playing time, and he's performed well; he's made 11 of his 18 threes this season.
RCT: I watched the game last night against Marquette, and the one player that really stood out was Denzel Valentine. Was he just completely overshadowed by the trio that departed, or has he made huge strides in the offseason?
TOC: It's a little bit of both I think. The knock on Denzel last season was that he wasn't a good outside shooter, but that's come along this season -- he's hit 43% of his threes so far. He's always had a knack for finding the open man and making fantastic passes, but that can also be a hinderance at times too. Sometimes he tries to get too fancy, and that can lead to turnovers. If he can learn to rein in that part of his game a bit, he's going to be fantastic come Big Ten time.
RCT: The backcourt seems to be set, and could easily contend with the best units in the country. But it seems like the frontcourt could be a huge liability this year. Who is going to draw the assignments down low against the Jayhawks, and is anyone up to the task of defending Perry Ellis?
TOC: Ellis has the ability to hit the outside shot, so my best guess is that MSU is going to need someone athletic, strong, and quick to guard him, and that's Branden Dawson. Dawson's the most athletic guy the Spartans have at their disposal, and the height advantage isn't a big advantage in Ellis's favor (6'8" compared to Dawson's 6'6"), so that'd be my best guess. As for Cliff Alexander, he'll be covered inside by a combination of Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling. Costello and Schilling won't be on the floor at the same time, so one of them will draw Alexander to conserve fouls between the two.
RCT: Which KU player provides the worst matchup for Michigan State? Is there a player you are concerned about the MSU defense handling? Or maybe a defender that you think might be able to disrupt the MSU offense?
TOC: To be honest, I haven't watched a lick of Kansas basketball this season, so I have no idea who would be able to score on MSU. What I can tell you though is that MSU has had trouble defending the rim on defense, either from forwards with post-up moves or guards that can penetrate and make a run at the hoop. I assume Kansas has a couple of these players, so I think there will be some points scored on the interior.
RCT: Bonus - What is your prediction for the game on Sunday?
TOC: Kenpom predicts a 69-67 Kansas win, and that's what I'll go with.
A special thanks to Pete for taking time to chat. Don't forget to check out my answers to his questions as well.