Spartans 'got to be smart' against LSU's turnover-hungry defense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Washington – Turnovers for touchdowns.

It’s a football phrase, but Tom Izzo might like football more than he does basketball, so it’s one he and the Spartans use often. Unfortunately for Michigan State, it’s also something that’s been hard to avoid at times this season.

Michigan State's forward Nick Ward, left, guard Matt McQuaid, and guard Cassius Winston smile during a news conference Thursday.

To understand the phrase, it basically means anytime the Spartans turn the ball over and the opponent turns it into an easy bucket, like a layup or dunk in transition. It just so happens that Friday’s Sweet 16 opponent – LSU – thrives off taking the ball away.

The third-seeded Tigers are forcing 14.7 turnovers a game this season and have failed to force 10 or more turnovers in a game just three times. They also average 8.9 steals a game, which ranks second in the SEC and ninth in the nation.

Those sorts of numbers have No. 2 Michigan State’s attention.

“That’s always an important thing,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Taking care of the ball is really important. This team is one that can flourish off our turnovers, and being a team that can score off them, we have to make sure we don’t give up turnovers for touchdowns.

“If we have a turnover, it’s got to go out of bounds or be a dead ball, so they can’t get the break going.”

Saying it is one thing. Making it happen is another.

Michigan State enters Friday’s game averaging 13 turnovers a game, but it’s also coming off one of its worst outings of the season, giving the ball up 22 times in last weekend’s second-round win over Minnesota. It was the third time this season the Spartans have turned the ball over 20 or more times in a game, though they won two of the three.

“That could really win or lose the game for us,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins said. “We talked about that especially after last weekend, the Minnesota game. It’s been a problem kind of all year, so we put a big emphasis on that and the fact that is part of us winning the game, us keeping our turnovers down.”

It’s not all on the Spartans, though. The way an opponent plays defense matters and the Tigers will get after you.

Sophomore guard Tremont Waters has 95 steals this season for an average of 2.97 a game. He ranks third in the nation in average and fifth in total steals. Junior guard Skylar Mays isn’t far behind and 1.88 steals a game.

Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston said teams guarding him closer has increased as the season has progressed.

“I think some dudes have been trying pressure me lately, trying to speed me up,” Winston said. “I been going against it all year. Just got to be smart, got to be careful.”

Whichever team does that better will come out on top, Winston says.

“It’s probably one of our biggest keys, taking care of ball,” Winston said. “Whoever takes care of the ball in this situation is probably gonna win the game. They capitalize on turnovers so well. You turn the ball over on them and they’re gonna dunk it at the other end and if we take care of ball we’re a tough team to beat.”

Michigan State's forward Nick Ward shoots during practice Thursday.

Lighter pad for Ward

Michigan State junior Nick Ward has struggled to get used to the protective padding used on his left hand since returning to the lineup to begin the Big Ten tournament.

Ward broke his shooting hand Feb. 17 against Ohio State and missed the next five games. And after a solid nine points and seven rebounds in the win over Minnesota in the second round, Ward was able to move to a different pad to protect his hand.

“They made it a little lighter,” Ward said. “Easier for me to catch (the ball).”

That’s been only one aspect of Ward moving back into the rotation. His minutes have been sporadic as he gets back into playing shape, but his 20 minutes in the win over Minnesota could be an indication he’s close to 100 percent.

“It was tough, and I didn’t feel like myself when I first back and probably didn’t look like it, either,” Ward said. “This past (Saturday) was the first time I felt like myself and hopefully I feel like myself (against LSU).”

Triple threat

LSU has plenty of size in the frontcourt with 6-foot-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams and 6-10 Naz Reid. The duo has helped the Tigers score 40 or more points in the paint 17 times this season, including five of the last six games.

However, they might not have faced a defense like Michigan State’s, which ranks third in the nation in two-point field-goal percentage defense at 41.4 percent, led by 6-8 Xavier Tillman and 6-7 Kenny Goins with 6-9 Ward coming off the bench.

“Physical, defensive linemen,” LSU interim coach Tony Benford said of the MSU big men. “They're pretty physical. They're good players. You start with Tillman, he's playing really well. He does a great job getting great position down there. Then they bring in Nick. Nick has had an injury, but he's really physical and strong. And those two guys there, they get position on you it's over. … And Goins is tough. Goins is a tough matchup.”

East Region


Tip-off: 7:09 Friday, Capital One Arena, Washington

TV/radio: CBS/760

Records: Michigan State 30-6; LSU 28-6

Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Duke or No. 4 Virginia Tech in the Elite Eight.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau