Three reasons we’ll be thankful tomorrow #BasketballNeverStops

The hours are ticking down now, and the Milwaukee Panthers will be taking the court against the Michigan State Spartans. It’s going to be a huge barometer for the Panthers to see where they are at this point in the season.  Lose big and all the work to get to 4-0 will be for naught.  Lose close and people may be only slightly disappointed.

Win?

The talent is there to win, this is the truth.  But do I believe it’s going to happen?  Absolutely.  I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN.  And here are three reasons why:

1. No Izzone. In college basketball more than any other sport, the home court advantage matters.  All time, 72% of the victors in college basketball are the home teams, and while that comes from a number of things – familiarity, no travel lag, routine – no reason is more prominent than the student section.

The Izzone is daunting. And tonight, it will be empty.

And very few student sections in the country can call themselves as dedicated and raucous as those that occupy Michigan State’s Izzone.  Think of 2,000 Jimmy Lemke’s just bearing down on you.  As a collective, they’d drown me out without even trying.  Occupying almost a quarter of the lower bowl in the Breslin Center, the Izzone is loud, proud and not the least bit tactful about bringing up your drunk driving arrest.

Why should this be a reason that the Panthers will win?  They won’t be there.  MSU students, like every other student body in the country, practically vacate campus the day before Thanksgiving (this practice is immortalized in this film that should have run away with the Academy Award for Best Picture).  Tomorrow is no different.  On several MSU message boards, some fans are pleased they get to move down into the lower bowl.  Here’s to hoping they wish they went home for Thanksgiving early.

2. Get a little bit better every game.  I was worried, listening to the coaches and players talk early in the season, that this was all a dress rehearsal, that we were playing to peak going into March.  It worried me because I want to challenge for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament in case the Panthers have a tough game and lose in the conference tournament.  But I was listening wrong.  Yeah, our coaches want the team to peak at the end of the season.  And yes, the players haven’t been playing at that level all season.

Kelm is making astronomical strides every game. What does he have planned tonight?

But you know what?  They’re getting better.  Every game is a little bit better, a little bit stronger, a little bit quicker.  The team plays a little bit smarter, makes passes a little bit crisper, takes shots that are a little more open.  And the effect is astounding – the Panthers went from barely escaping against SMSU and NIU to shutting down future NBA player Alex Young and absolutely destroying NIT participant Texas Southern this past weekend.

I can’t wait to see what little bit gets better tonight.

3. Big players come up in big games. Whether it’s Ja’Rob McCallum against YSU to clinch the regular-season title or Kaylon Williams’ triple-double against Butler, the Panthers always seem to have someone come up big when they need it the most.  My personal favorite: Tony Meier’s performance against Cleveland State last year at the Wolstein Center was one for the ages, as he got so hot he drew Norris Cole as a defender and still scored at will.

While Meier won’t be the big time scorer, someone else is going to have to step up.  My money is on Paris Gulley, and this is why.  In the weeks leading up to the season, knowing that Kaylon Williams would be spending the first game on the bench, the coaching staff had to give Gulley a crash course in point guard play to make sure we had someone to lead the team on the court.  While we won the game despite his marginal play in the point guard position, the good news is that Williams is back – and so is Gulley.

Tonight would be a nice coming out party, Paris.

Williams at the 1 bumps Gulley to the 2, and he has now been back in his normal position for a week now.  The indication on Sunday against Texas Southern was that Gulley has found his shot; now let’s see what kind of step forward he takes on Wednesday.

The truth remains that the real three keys to victory are getting back on transition D, shutting down second-chance opportunities, and shooting effectively from both the field and the charity stripe.  But that doesn’t mean these aren’t important.

I just threw out Paris Gulley as a player who hasn’t gone gangbusters yet who should do so at some point.  His shot is there, it just needs to fall.  The possibility is that it’s James Haarsma, who could go underneath tall boys for a bunch of buckets. It could be Evan Richard, who can score with the best of them and should never put a lid on his shot.  It doesn’t matter who it is, how many of them do it, or what kind of numbers they put up.  What matters is one thing, and this is a tip of the cap to an old man who left us recently, but whose legacy will never be forgotten:

Just win, baby.

Quizzes passed; exam is next

Michigan State poses a much greater challenge than the Panthers have faced this season.

One team is 4-0. The other team is 2-2.  Cakewalk, right?

Of course not.  Because that 2-2 team is Michigan State, and their two losses are to fellow national elite programs North Carolina and Duke.  They’re the rulers of the Big Ten, the team whose last year outside the NCAA Tournament was 1997.

So how do the Michigan State Spartans stack up this season?  The team has obviously faced better competition than Milwaukee has, with decent results.

Familiar face, new jersey - take advantage of Wood's weak perimeter defense to get open shots.

Michigan State is ranked 25th in the nation in rebounding with 42.6 boards per contest.  The team has been held to just 40.4% shooting on the season, 250th in the nation.

But what is it that makes this Michigan State team a tough draw for Milwaukee?

Speed, speed and speed.  The Spartans have a familiar face to Panther fans, Brandon Wood, in the starting lineup, ready to run the court with anyone in the country.  Tomorrow, Wood gets to see a team that ended his conference tournament last year.

If the Panthers are to win, they need to do two things – they need to get back in transition and they need to stop MSU from getting second-chance points.  These two pieces, in addition to the obvious effective shooting, will put the Panthers in position to win the game.

Michigan State is not the best shooting team in the country.  They lost games against North Carolina and Duke because they missed many open looks and forced several bad shots.  They won the other two games by playing the offensive boards hard, creating those second-chance opportunities.  If the Panthers can play the defensive glass hard and force their will on the Spartans down low, they can limit those second-chance opportunities and maybe, just maybe, control the flow of the game.

Tomorrow would be a good day for McCallum to keep up his great shooting.

The other part of beating the Spartans is to get back in transition.  Because they’re a marginal shooting team, the Spartans try to create better shot opportunities by getting defensive rebounds and making quick outlet passes to score fast.  Being able to put the defense on their heels right away is what gets Michigan State better looks.  If the Panthers can’t play the offensive glass strong and/or shoot the ball well enough to win, the day could be a long one.

Defensively, Michigan State is as big and physical as they are on offense.  They give up shots, but take defensive rebounding very seriously as it’s a big part of their transition offense.  Milwaukee can get open looks by taking advantage of their perimeter defense (see: Brandon Wood guarding Kaylon Williams, 2011 Horizon Semifinals) and making open looks when they get them.

If Milwaukee can do those three things – get back on transition D, limit second-chance points and shoot effectively – they will have a great shot to win the game.

Go Panthers!