It's probably fair to say that both the Michigan State Spartans and Washington Huskies enter today's Maui Invitational third place game (2 p.m. on ESPN2) after rather disappointing losses yesterday.
Aside from the disappointment of losing to Kentucky and former recruit Terrence Jones, Washington failed to adjust their game to the level of competition on either side of the ball.
UW Huskies Insider - " Huskies react to 74-67 loss to Kentucky The News Tribune Blogs, Tacoma, WA
More Romar: "My biggest fear was that through three ball games where we were averaging 105 points, rarely did we go deep into the shot clock – to guard or offensively keep the basketball. My biggest fear was when that finally happened we wouldn’t be able to adjust quickly enough. … I think got us with that tonight. I think we’ll do a better job as a result of it, though. A team like Kentucky, a team like we’re going to play (today), they’ll expose all your weaknesses."
Meanwhile, as much as we can say things like rankings don't matter, #2 Michigan State's 70-67 loss to unranked Connecticut is probably even more of a disappointment on top of the uneven performance in their first round meeting with Division II host Chaminade. It's no understatement to say Michigan State has played poorly in this tournament so far. This is a team that returned nine of its top 11 players after a 2010 Final Four run and might have been considered the favorite to win the Maui Invitational coming in or at least do enough to beat UConn.
However, similar to Washington - but to a lesser extent - Michigan State is coming off a game in which they allowed an opposing player to grab 17 rebounds and lose the battle on the boards in the game.
Key statistical battleground: offensive rebounding
Perhaps what separates these two teams in terms of their rebounding lapses yesterday is that UW had actually been a strong rebounding team prior to the tournament whereas Michigan State had struggled a bit - even in their games prior to coming to Maui they had been outrebounded. So one could look at the fact that they were only slightly outrebounded (they each had 40 total rebounds, but UConn had four more offensive rebounds) by a UConn team for whom rebounding is a strength as no big deal. But the fact that they were also outrebounded by Chaminade makes it something of a troubling trend.
Looking ahead to today, the fact that MSU did stay with UConn on the glass whereas UW got beat pretty soundly by Kentucky makes this an interesting area to monitor - if this is just a weakness that MSU might have to live with this season, losing this battle might not be so surprising. But for UW, a failure to establish themselves on the glass against the nation's stronger competition could speak to a bigger problem that we first assumed. Or rather, a problem present in their exhibition play that we might have assumed was just a matter of early season growing pains.
MSU player to watch: Draymond Green
There's little question that Green has been the Spartans' most consistent performer throughout this season and continuing the rebounding theme, he might emerge as a key figure in this game: in yesterday's loss to UConn he came off the bench to secure 12 total rebounds, including getting nearly 20 percent of the offensive rebounds available to him. He also just does a little bit of everything: using a lot of possessions, but scoring efficiently, continuing to show the ability to handle the ball with reasonable efficiency for a 6-foot-6 forward, and finding his way to the free throw line at a high rate.
Whether he comes off the bench or starts (as had been this season prior to yesterday), Green is the type of impact player who can help MSU on the boards significantly while also contributing in many other ways.
How Washington might win this game: turnovers
Yet as much as the Spartans have struggled with rebounding, they haven't done themselves any favors on the turnover front this season either and that might loom particularly large against a UW team that loves to force turnovers and has shown that they can handle the ball well for long stretches, even while racing up and down the court.
Against UConn yesterday, MSU turned the ball over on 22 percent of their possessions, which is only slightly above the rate they were turning the ball over prior to Maui against Eastern Michigan and South Carolina. And the biggest culprit was guard Kalin Lucas, who consumed among the most possessions on the team and turned the ball over on 27.11 percent of his possessions as well as making a few other costly mistakes, as described by KJ of SBN's Michigan State blog The Only Colors.
Slipping Away: Connecticut 70, Michigan State 67 - The Only Colors
Kalin Lucas contributed another costly free throw miss, on the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. He also took a hurried, contested 3-pointer on the team's second-to-last possession and threw the ball away on the final possession (not counting Green's final-second halfcourt heave). It was not Lucas' night: 10 points on 4-12 shooting, just 1 assist, and a whopping 5 turnovers. The demands of playing 30 minutes on back-to-back days may have been more than his body was ready for; I worry about him tomorrow night.
After seeing witnessing Kentucky's Brandon Knight carve up the Huskies defense for 24 points, Lucas is certainly a threat. But the Huskies also applied enough defensive pressure for Knight to commit eight turnovers. Both Lucas' performance and the ability for the Huskies defense to cause turnovers overall that lead to transition points might end up making the difference in this game.
Not a must-win game, but a big game for both teams
Coming into the tournament, one might have thought that this meeting would only occur in a championship game situation: MSU was the highest ranked team in the tournament and figured to get by UConn while UW was simply dominant prior to yesterday and seemed to have a well-rounded and experienced enough roster to get by Kentucky.
So as an early season matchup, the loser of this game between quality opponents will have nothing to be ashamed of necessarily - everyone in this tournament will improve by the end of the season barring something truly catastrophic and it's as much a good teaching tool as anything else. But today's fourth place team will have to deal with some measure of doubt about their previous standing on the national landscape and what they might have to do to compete with the elite given another opportunity.