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!

Scheduling takes flight

Flenard Whitfield and the Western Michigan Broncos come to the Klotsche Center for the 2010 Throwback game

Over the past few years, schools in the Horizon League have bolstered the conference’s reputation nationally, mainly based on performance in the NCAA Tournament.  However, the conference’s RPI seems stuck outside the top 10, which is the barometer the big boys in BCS auto-bid conferences use to determine if other conferences are worthy of their attention.

How do we do it?  Getting better is just part of it.  There are two things that have needed to change: teams need to schedule tougher, and they need to win those tougher games.  The fact is, when you lose to tougher teams, your RPI and reputation don’t get hurt as badly as if you lost to St. Francis (it doesn’t matter which one, Youngstown).  If you win those games, that’s when you start boosting your RPI big time, which in turn leads to multiple bids for the conference, which leads to more Cleveland State over Wake Forests and Milwaukee over Oklahomas.

Most Horizon League schools, sadly, don’t get this.  Until this year, thankfully, I had to count Milwaukee among those who schedule D-II regular season games, low-majors in home-and-homes, and the ridiculous 4-for-1, of which we essentially have two.  This season, however, we’ve turned it around.  You know who has had their act together the whole time?  Wright State.

Billy Donlon's Raiders put together a great schedule for 2010-11.

There’s no coincidence that Wright State, despite being a bad rebounding team, has finished as high as they have for many years.  It’s because they test themselves in the non-conference season.  Today in the Pro-Am, Ricky Franklin looked as though his last game against Butler was five years ago.  Why?  Because he’s been playing with NBA talent all summer, and that in turn picked his game up tremendously.  Wright State understands this, and they do not shy away from scheduling difficult games with both high-majors and mid-majors.

Kyle Nagel of the Dayton Daily News (where’s Marc Katz?) wrote an article in today’s paper discussing the Raiders’ non-conference schedule.  Plainly put, it’s excellent.  There’s a hefty amount of tests, a couple easy wins and one potential blowout.  Of the seven games, they have eight potential opponents.  I’ll be breaking them down Cold Stone style:

Like it: Southern, Air Force, Southern Illinois.  With SU, the Raiders get an easy home win to kick off the season.  Air Force is a name school, but one Wright State will easily beat.  Southern Illinois will prove to be a more difficult game, but like Air Force is a name everybody knows; my favorite College Gameday was at SIU.

Love it: Purdue, Oakland, Charlotte.  It’s not just about getting a test, but a test you can win.  Wright State can absolutely beat Purdue, and I hope they get the opportunity, but the possibility of our reigning #2 walking out of Chicago with a 20+ point drubbing is definitely there.  Oakland is just a great game.  With their center back in the fold after testing NBA waters, the Raiders will get a great test game for their run-ins with big front lines at Milwaukee, Loyola and Detroit.  Charlotte is an awesome program with a recognizable name (hint, those of you who prefer UW-Milwaukee, Charlotte is a big name, UNC-Charlotte is not) that fans at the Nutter will enjoy.

Gotta Have It: Richmond, Cincinnati.  What’s not to love about Richmond?  They’re an A-10 program oozing with history, a program that people across the country recognize, and they flat-out win.  After Purdue, this is most likely their toughest game (although Oakland will be damn good), but Richmond is beatable, especially if the Raiders get off to one of their signature bucket-is-an-ocean shooting binges.  Cincinnati is even more so an AWESOME game for the Raiders.  Not only is this a winnable game, but it’s a BCS school in their home state, a 2-for-1 series with a power conference school that doesn’t fill their arena just an hour down the road.  Pack the house in Cincinnati, Raiders.  Pack the house.  A Nut away from Nut, perhaps.

When it all comes down to it, Wright State’s schedule as it stands is the perfect mix of easy games, road tests and difficult-but-winnable contests.

Brandon Wood and the Crusaders got smothered at the Breslin.

We have schools that are scheduling too difficult for their own good.  What does Valpo get out of games with Purdue, Michigan State, and North Carolina?  Sure, the UNC game was ONLY an 11-point loss, but getting drubbed in the other games did not help them prepare for Horizon League competition.  Those games were just lessons in how to lose confidence.

Loyola, on the other hand, is a school that schedules too easy to get anything good out of it.  The school needs real tests, and there are always too few of them on the schedule to get real experience for their players.  Look, Loyola isn’t going to get better by scheduling an easy non-conference docket.  The Ramblers started the season 9-1 in non-conference play.  This was the best record of all Horizon League teams in the non-conference season.  The Ramblers went on to win 5 conference games and finish 8th.  How’d they do it?  Weak scheduling.  Sure, Kansas State is a great team.  But like Valpo, they got their teeth kicked in and got nothing out of the experience.  Bradley and Western Michigan were the only other two teams sniffing the top 150 in RPI, with the Braves at 100 and WMU at 151.

The Rambler plays UT-Pan American twice this year. Yup.

Both were excellent games, and guess what: both were followed by blowout victories.  Loyola has got to realize that in the future, games like their current one season home-and-home with UT-Pan American do the team exactly zero favors.  Fans don’t want to see the game at the Genital, the RPI doesn’t get help even with a blowout victory, and no respect can be gained by beating them.  The fact is that teams that get tested get better; schoolchildren aren’t just given tests to see how their teachers are doing, the tests are designed to help them get better.  And the non-conference schedule is the same for college basketball programs.  Test your team, and they get better.  Let them skip class, their grades will suffer.

So there are opposite ends of the spectrum that don’t truly work for the Horizon League; Valpo’s drubbings don’t help, and Loyola’s low-major and D-II wins don’t do them any favors.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: take a leaf out of Wright State’s book and learn how to schedule, people!

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