Editor's Early Preview (12/15):
Two of the nation's current basketball powers square off in a game whose only main implications are seeding in March. Texas has been solid, but not unbelievable. Their point guard issues still persist, and Damion James has made little improvement in the past year. The Spartans have been more disappointing, coming up short in all their major tests. Its hard to not to expect a Longhorns victory at home (The game is in Houston, so it's really a semi-home game).
Preview & Prediction: By Shawn Siegel
I'll be stepping in as a backup preview writer today, to nail down a battle between #22 Michigan State (7-2) and #5 Texas (9-1). Before the season, this looked like one of the season's premier games, but Spartan struggles have allowed today's Duke/Xavier or UCONN/Gonzaga matchups to get more national attention. But these two teams can still play, and I have no doubt MSU is ultimately better than a 22nd ranked team.
Michigan State has fallen from their initial Top 10 ranking due to horrible efforts against ACC foes UNC (expected) and Maryland (unexpected.) The big issue for MSU is that their big-name players haven't really improved in the last 12 months. Raymar Morgan, despite a solid 16.9 ppg, is virtually the same player he was as a freshman: streaky, sometimes invisible, lacking a go-to outside shot, etc. Kalin Lucas, who some magazines hyped up (foolishy) as a National 1st Team All-American is shooting an abysmal 33% from the floor. Lucas is good enough in other areas (passing, defense, etc) where his shooting woes should be able to be hidden, but that's only if Chris Allen and Durrell Summers truly emerge as the consistent double-digit scorers they should be. Allen, in particular, is the big key.. as he has the stroke to truly be a 20 ppg guy for this team.
Oddly enough, despite my focus on offensive issues, the stats say MSU is a better offensive team than defensive. While MSU's defensive stats have been lacking, the return of Goran Suton last game from an injury should help sure up those troubles. Also, MSU's defensive numbers (102nd in the country according to KenPom) look worse simply because they've played up-tempo teams like UNC, Oklahoma State, and Maryland.
Texas enters this game with just a lone loss to Notre Dame, a hard-fought game against a top-tier opponent. UT's only major gap is point guard (put Kalin Lucas on this squad with AJ Abrams and Damion James and you'd have a National Title contender..), but Justin Mason is more than capable of getting the ball up the court. His issue, compounded by UT's other personnel, is that there's no one on the squad who can consistently get into the lane to create easier outside shots for Abrams. Abrams has been on a tear though in recent weeks, hovering around 30 ppg over his last 4 games. The speedy Lucas will be called on to shut Abrams down.
Texas comes at you with an NHL-style forward rotation, lots of big guys (Atchley, Pittman, Johnson, Chapman, and the oversize James) who look like football players. Luckily for MSU, Suton returns in the nick of time to help guard these guys. No surprise that Texas is the favorite in Houstin, but I think this will be the game where MSU finally proves that they truly are a legitimate Sweet Sixteen contender.
Winner: Texas Margin: 2-5