Michigan State vs Penn State Preview: Lions Open Big Ten Play Against #5 Spartans

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Izzo brings his highly rated Spartans to town in what almost assuredly will be the Big Ten's least attended game this year.

Who: #5 Michigan State Spartans (11-1)
When: Today, 5:00pm
Where: Bryce Jordan Center
TV: Big Ten Network
KenPom Rank: #13
Vegas Line: Spartans, -5.5
Enemy Blog: The Only Colors

And so it begins. There are currently three Big Ten teams residing in the AP's Top-5 and the Lions get to jump off the conference slate with one of them. Tom Izzo's Spartans are in town to kick off what hopes to be a more promising Big Ten campaign for PSU this year. However, it's really unfortunate they weren't able to get this game at the Staples Center like they were trying to work out a few weeks ago.

Scouting The Opposition

Michigan State is once again one of the front-runners to win the Big Ten conference and for good reason. They returned nearly everyone of importance from last year's 27-win team and were picked to win the Big Ten in the preseason. While Penn State still loves to market their 'best backcourt in the nation', the Spartans actually have a legitimate claim to that title as well with future first round pick Gary Harris and senior point guard Keith Appling.

With Adreian Payne blossoming down low, the Spartans have three all-conference performers and two first round picks in their starting lineup. Payne leads the way with 18.0 PPG and 7.9 RPG, whiile Harris (17.9 PPG) and Appling (15.9 PPG and 5.0 APG) are just behind him.

Penn State should remember Payne quite well after last year's second half bombardment at the BJC. Payne had been suspended for the first half after getting into a scuffle with teammate Branden Dawson at the Nittany Lion Inn. He came into the game in the second half and lit up Penn State for 20 points and 7 rebounds in 17 minutes, looking downright unstoppable in the process. He has only gotten better since then.

The Spartans have had a pretty solid non-conference slate, only losing at home to North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, while defeating Kentucky, Texas and Oklahoma. They've had to battle through some injuries as well, but everyone is expected to return to the lineup for today's game, including the 6'7" Dawson who sat out Saturday's game with a shin injury.

High expectations abound for these Spartans, as they've been tasked to keep Tom Izzo's one-final-four-every-four-years streak alive. While they have scored 1.16 PPP while limiting opponents to just 0.90 PPP efficiency in their non-conference season (better than PSU in both categories), some have not been impressed with MSU's play with fair reason.

While they've been efficient so far, this isn't your typical Tom Izzo team. They haven't been an elite offensive rebounding team and their free throw rate (just 34.2) is well below the country's average mark. Those are signs of a team that hasn't been as aggressive as some of the great Spartans teams of old, but that doesn't mean they can't shoot either. Appling, Payne, and sixth man Travis Trice are all hitting greater than 43% of their 3-point attempts. That doesn't even include Gary Harris, who has struggled mightily so far from beyond the arc (just 29.2%) despite being one of the conference's best shooters as a freshmen a year ago. Of course, that means we should all expect Harris to drill five 3-pointers tonight.

Defensively the Spartans are tough across the board. They are rated 11th in the country in KenPom's defensive efficiency rankings, while excelling in all four factors. I don't expect Michigan State to be too successful at turning PSU over, but they won't let Newbill and Frazier waltz into the lane like some of PSU's past opponents.

Key Matchup

Watching two of the conference's best backcourts should be fun, but does Penn State have anything to throw at Adreian Payne? Donovon Jack will have his hands full with the athletic big man who won't be afraid to step outside and shoot it either. It will take a team effort to slow down Payne, which PSU will have to do somehow if they want to win this game. If anything, it would be helpful if Jack and the rest of his frontcourt mates could refrain from compounding mistakes with needless fouls.

This could be a chance for Jordan Dickerson to show up with his athleticism on defense, but that's a mighty big task for just the sophomore's second game of the year.

Prediction

I don't think this is the ideal time for Penn State to host Michigan State, but that's what the schedule drew. The Nits have plenty of kinks to work out, but the Spartans won't be forgiving. That said, there's no reason this won't be a fun, high-scoring affair. Both KenPom and Vegas have MSU as just a two-possession favorite, so a Penn State upset wouldn't be that shocking.

I don't feel confident enough to pick it, however. I'm taking Michigan State in the same score as last year's game at the BJC - 81-72.

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