Virginia Tech vs Michigan State, Maui Invitational Preview

Virginia Tech Men’s Basketball got off to their 2nd consecutive 5-0 start to the season last night, taking care of a winless Delaware State team in Cassell Coliseum. While there are certainly plenty of positives to take away from this young team up to this point, the competition is about to get a whole lot tougher come Monday in Maui when the Hokies take on the number 3 ranked team in the country, the Michigan State Spartans. This will be Mike Young’s first chance to see how his team can hold up against an elite opponent with a clear talent/experience advantage. Without further ado, here is your Michigan State preview.

Michigan State Spartans
Record: 3-1, loss by 7 to Kentucky on opening night
-How did Kentucky beat MSU? They attacked the paint, earning trips to the free throw line. Kentucky shot 14 more free throws (32-18) and made 12 more free throws than MSU.
-Two blowout wins against Binghamton and Charleston Southern, and a nice road victory at Seton Hall by 3 points sandwiched in between.

Last game: vs Charleston Southern on 11/18 (W 94-46)

Injuries: Joshua Langford: The former 5 star and career 40% 3 point shooter has been sidelined with a foot injury for an extended period of time, and is out indefinitely until January.
Aaron Henry: held out against Charleston Southern due to an ankle issue, and is questionable for Monday.

Projected Starters: (recruit rankings per 247sports)

SR:Cassius Winston– 6’1, ranked 31- he’s not the most athletic, but has a high IQ, and is the leader of this team. You’ll typically see him in pick and rolls with Tillman. When he gets in the paint, he uses his body well to create space to finish.
FR:Rocket Watts– 6’2, ranked 39- it has been a slow start for the highly touted freshman on the offensive end. Shooting under 26% from the field, and under 18% from 3, Izzo is hoping Watts can breakthrough sooner rather than later.
SO:Aaron Henry– 6’6, ranked 140- well built, athletic kid. Probably their 2nd best playmaker after Winston.
SO:Thomas Kithier– 6’8, ranked 161- hustle guy, not going to provide much offensively outside of put backs from offensive rebounds.
JR:Xavier Tillman– 6’8, ranked 112- Izzo describes his defense as “Draymond-ish” (In reference to his former player Draymond Green). Can guard multiple positions but is still developing his low post game. He’s not afraid to shoot from 3 point range, but you’d be wise to let him settle for that shot, as it’s certainly not his strength. He shot under 30% last season on just 27 attempts, and has only made 1 of 9 so far this season.


SO: Marcus Bingham Jr– 6’11 weighs 225, ranked 66. Not afraid to shoot the 3 but still working on his consistency. Can run the floor at a decent pace for his size.
SR: Kyle Ahrens– 6’6, ranked 166- This is where losing a guy like Langford hurts you. He was a career 40% 3 point shooter while Ahrens hovered around 30% last season in 18 minutes per game. Through 4 games, that percentage is at 37.5%, so it’ll be interesting to see if that improvement is real going forward as the sample size increases.
FR:Julius Marble– 6’8, ranked 222- Plays sparingly
FR:Malik Hall– 6’7, ranked 61- Held scoreless the first two games, Hall provided a much needed spark off the bench in the narrow road win at Seton Hall, providing 17 points in just 19 minutes.
SO:Foster Loyer– 6’0, ranked 96-For the brief time Winston rests, Loyer comes in and does not provide much of an impact in my opinion.
SO:Gabe Brown– 6’7, ranked 101- he’s probably their best 3 point shooter, if you leave him open he will not hesitate.

The Spartans play two big men to start, so spreading the court and forcing them out on the perimeter could cause them some problems. If the Spartans kill VT on the offensive glass, it will be a long night, so getting bodies on Tillman and Kithier is going to be imperative. This is a team that is not afraid to dump it down in the post, so I’m interested in seeing how the Hokies handle that. I could actually see some 2-3 zone in this one. Pack it in and make them live with the 3. Here are the 3 point percentages for MSU through each of their first four games: Kentucky, 19.2%, Binghamton, 28%, Seton Hall, 44.4%, Charleston Southern, 23.5%. The 3 point shot is the great equalizer, and if MSU is cold from 3 while Tech manages to hit a few early? Things could get quite interesting in Maui. What makes Michigan State tough is their size and defensive versatility. Izzo has loaded up on athletic wings and players that can guard multiple positions. On the other side, I don’t think MSU has many players who are great at creating for themselves and others, outside of Winston. If we bottle him up, it will make life harder on their entire team to get going in my opinion.

Matchups to watch:

Cassius Winston vs Wabissa Bede
-As previously mentioned, MSU’s success starts and ends with Winston. He’s just a good basketball player with not a lot of flash to his game. He shot 46% from the field last season, but in their 7 losses, he shot about 40.8%. Clearly Bede is going to have to make Winston earn every single point, and make life difficult for him. I still lean towards a 2-3 zone look because I am worried about Bede having to switch on to Xavier Tillman while Horne has to try to prevent Winston from getting in the paint.

Landers Nolley vs Aaron Henry
-Henry will most likely be tasked with matching up with Tech’s leading scorer, Landers Nolley, to start the game, assuming his ankle injury is no longer an issue. Gabe Brown would be Henry’s replacement in the starting lineup if Henry can’t go. Nolley is going to have to be sure not to force the issue, and will probably need to look to get his teammates involved early to take some of the defensive focus off of him. MSU has a few guys they can throw at Nolley, so this will be an intriguing matchup, to see how the star redshirt freshman will react on the big stage.

PJ Horne vs Xavier Tillman
-Horne has been the biggest surprise of the early part of the season for the Hokies in my opinion. The junior was 3-14 from 3 point range through his first two seasons in Blacksburg, but has made 8 of his 17 attempts already through just 5 games this year. His newfound shooting ability creates a ton of space for others to get into the paint and forces the big men to defend all over the floor. Horne is undersized, but he has managed to hold his own thus far. I think Tillman should be able to stay with him, but Horne may have some success if he can utilize the pump fake to draw a couple cheap fouls on Tillman, and(or) to get to the rim.

Bottom Line
Virginia Tech is going to have to prevent Tillman, Kithier, and even Bingham, from crashing the offensive glass every possession. Tech will need to make MSU volume shooters from long range, keep them out of the paint, and put pressure on their star point guard, Cassius Winston, to get MSU out of rhythm offensively. Mike Young has arguably already exceeded expectations with a solid 5-0 start to his head coaching campaign at Virginia Tech, but this is the first true test for his young squad going up against a team with much more experience and talent (on paper). I think this Tech team is not afraid of the moment, but I do wonder how they’ll be able to handle the size advantage of MSU. I see this game remaining competitive for about 75% of the way through, until MSU uses its size and experience to wear Tech out on the offensive glass. Nolley will have a tough time getting good looks and there just wont be enough scoring elsewhere to keep pace when all said and done.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 60 Michigan State 75

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