March 22, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The numerical data is enough to formulate a forecast so bleak it would send even the most casual Michigan State fan into a deep depression.
Valparaiso was ranked 260th nationally in turnover margin, and yet the Spartans coughed the ball up 17 times against the Crusaders in their NCAA Tournament opener. Michigan State still won handily, 65-54, but it would seem a similar lack of ball security could spell disaster Saturday against Memphis, which has a reputation for feasting on turnovers.
The Tigers are 20-2 when they force 15 or more, and haunting images of interceptions for touchdowns, such as those that fueled Arizona's 80-61 victory over MSU in the 2001 Final Four, aren't difficult to conjure up.
However, the Spartans made assurances Friday they'll be able to handle Memphis' pressure and up-tempo style. If they do, they'll head to their fifth Sweet 16 in six seasons.
Yes, MSU was afflicted with turnover-itis during the early part of the season, but it has done a better job of managing the condition in the second half. Junior forward Adreian Payne isn't unduly worried about turnovers because he said what happened against Valparaiso isn't what it seemed.
"I can take the blame for the turnovers we had yesterday," Payne said. "I had six of them. I've got to be smarter and make sure that doesn't happen again. I watched a lot of film yesterday, saw what made me turn the ball over and I learned from it, so that shouldn't be a problem."
An initial flurry of turnovers helped Valparaiso stay close in the early stage of the game, but MSU ended up with just six while opening up a 35-18 halftime lead. The remaining 11 came in the second half when human nature dulled the competitive edge the Spartans took into the game.
"The way we have to look at is, we would like to think we prepared our guys in NCAA Tournament time to put two great halves together," said assistant coach Dane Fife. "Reality is, it's hard to not settle in and get a little too comfortable. It happens to the best of teams and I think that's probably the major issue with that game.
"On the flip side, we have to be very conscious of the pressure and the fast-paced game Memphis plays, and how they do have the ability to turn teams over."
Rather than draw any conclusions from the Valparaiso game, Fife provided an analysis of why the Spartans should be able to weather whatever Memphis throws at them based on performances against comparable teams.
"They'll play the passing lanes, they'll run a press, they'll have some random gimmick defenses they'll throw at you," Fife said. "Their style is very similar to Minnesota, we think. We were poor at Minnesota and we did very well against them at home."
The Spartans committed 14 turnovers in a 76-63 loss to the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 31 but had only five in a 61-50 victory in East Lansing on Feb. 6.
"The size and athleticism of Memphis is also similar to Minnesota's," Fife said. "We do have a tendency to get a little wild at times, but we were very good down the stretch of the Big Ten season. Yesterday, I thought we just got a little loose in the second half."
Giveaways were a major source of head coach Tom Izzo's consternation early on. The Spartans had 15 in a season-opening loss to Connecticut and 20 in an uncomfortable three-point win over Louisiana. By the same token, they had 17 in a 67-64 victory over Kansas, which is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and 22 in the 92-56 win against Tuskegee.
Eighteen turnovers were more than MSU could overcome in the 58-57 loss at Michigan on March 3.
Although the Spartans are 10th in the Big Ten in turnover margin, they have been doing a much better job at valuing the ball.
"Valpo's not known for turning you over and I think we just got lackadaisical," said backup point guard Travis Trice. "But this is what Memphis really likes to do, so we'll really be focused on it and I don't expect as many.
"Early in the season, it was our first time playing together with a lot of guys. I was out (with injury) a lot and even when I came back turnovers were still a problem because we weren't used to me being in there. But once we really concentrated on it, we fixed it."
Michigan State and Memphis match up favorably against each other in terms of athleticism and team quickness, and the Spartans won't shy away from running with the Tigers.
"Any time you play a team that likes to run with you, sometimes the game can get out of control and turn into a rat race," Trice said. "I think the team that wins the game is going to depend on who can stay focused more and take care of the ball against each team's pressure."
In its NCAA opener against Saint Mary's, Memphis forced just 13 turnovers and had to hold on for a 54-52 win.
One of the key individual matchups will be between the two primary ball-handlers - MSU point guard Keith Appling, who's eighth in the Big Ten with a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Memphis' Joe Jackson, who's fifth in Conference USA at 1.8. Appling and Jackson know each other well from their time together on the U.S. national U19 team that played in the 2011 FIBA World Championships.
"Whenever you've got two good quarterbacks, it's pivotal, and ours is playing better and theirs has been playing well," Izzo said. "They're both kind of alike. They're both jitterbug guards, both the same size. They can really push the ball and use ball screens.
"That's worth the price of admission right there and it's going to be an interesting matchup. We just have to make sure we use that in the right way."
It will be Appling's job to tailor MSU's attack in a way that takes advantage of the Spartans' versatility.
"We want to play fast-paced and we like to push the ball," Fife said. "But I think when you're playing against a team like Memphis, like Minnesota or like Indiana, their transition is what gets them going.
"I don't think we define ourselves as a transition team this year. Our strength, first and foremost, is to pound it into the post and set up the outside game by getting the inside game going. Memphis' strength is in turning people over and forcing bad shots to lead into their transition. That may not be the way Memphis sees it, but that's the way we see it."
So, there's a chance of turnovers, but the Spartans don't expect them to ruin their weekend.