Michigan State Spartans NCAA Final Four pep rally Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
Minneapolis — If Michigan State is able to get back to the national championship game for the first time since 2009, it will first have to solve arguably the best defense in the country.
That’s what the Spartans will be facing on Saturday night when they take on Texas Tech in the second Final Four game at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Red Raiders, the co-champions of the Big 12, are No. 1 in the country in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com. They’re No. 2 in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36.9), No. 3 in scoring defense (59 points per game) and No. 10 in 3-point percentage defense (29.3).
“(They’re) said to be the best defensive team in America,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And after watching film I would say they live up to that.”
The way Texas Tech plays defense is enough that it has had Izzo staying awake at nights. Of course, that happens fairly often for the Michigan State coach.
But just when it might seem hard to find ways to attack the Red Raiders, Izzo remembers he has Cassius Winston, arguably the best point guard in the nation. No matter what other teams have done, Winston has almost always found a way.
“He's impressed me in a lot of ways, but I know he's going to get challenged on Saturday night,” Izzo said. “Once in a while, when I go to bed, I think, ‘Well, yeah, they're going to do this and this and this to him.’ And I said, ‘I've said that a lot of times about a lot of teams, and they did, and yet he still found a way.’ So he's going to have to find a way again to make five or six other guys better and still find a way to score some and do some things himself if we plan on moving on.”
The only time Winston didn’t figure it out this season was when Michigan State lost at Illinois on Feb. 4. The Spartans turned the ball over 24 times in that game and Winston lost it nine times, the most in his career.
Winston said he sees similar traits in the Texas Tech defense combined with the intensity of Wisconsin.
“It’s probably a mixture of the two, where Wisconsin was really solid, it was hard to make them mess up, but they also have that pressure aspect like Illinois,” Winston said. “They have a really good defense, they know how to work it really well.”
Being patient and making the right decisions will be the key, the junior point guard said.
“It takes an adjustment,” Winston said. “Games are going to be played different ways. The defense you don’t know until you go out there. You’ve got to feel it out, but it doesn’t take that long to figure out what you can and can’t do at this point.
“They try to speed you up and force a lot of turnovers. They make you rush a lot, so you’ve got to keep your composure. You can’t turn the ball over.”
Michigan State’s defense isn’t too shabby, either, ranking in the top 10 in efficiency and third in field-goal percentage defense (37.8).
It’s that style Texas Tech coach Chris Beard has tried to emulate in creating the Red Raiders’ approach.
“Just to be mentioned in the same question or a statement with our defense and Michigan State is a huge compliment for our program,” Beard said. “Yes, we try to guard at a high level. It's been the identity of our teams at all different levels and now currently at Texas Tech. But it's something that we try to recruit to. We certainly coach and emphasize it. It's just always kind of our belief of basketball.”
And his players buy in to what Beard is preaching, including graduate transfer Tariq Owens, who is blocking 2.5 shots a game.
“I feel like our entire team has adopted his mindset and his attitude toward the game,” Owens said. “His competitiveness and how he feels about the game of basketball and how he coaches us and just how he is as a person when it comes to basketball.
“That's a big reason why we can go so hard, we're doing it for him.”
At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Virginia 63, Auburn 62
Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)