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Joe Boozell | | November 29, 2017

Mission to March: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State preview

  Miles Bridges is settling into his new role playing next to Jaren Jackson.

A top-five Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup – and a possible Elite Eight or Final Four preview in late November. Doesn’t get much better than this.

Michigan State is a top-15 team on both sides of the floor. Notre Dame has one of the top offenses in the country, but is a work-in-progress on defense. Get a little stingier on that end, and both of these squads could go to San Antonio. This might not be the last time we see this matchup in 2017-18.

Here are five key factors that will determine the outcome of Thursday’s game.  

*How well will Bonzie Colson be able to finish against length?

Players who are 6-5 shouldn’t be able to dominate the way Colson does. The reason he’s so good is because defenders have to guard every inch of the floor against him. He can shoot from the outside and has a killer face-up game; Colson is as creative of a finisher around the hoop as there is.

But the knock on him is that he struggles against opposing length and athleticism. Again, he’s 6-5. For what it’s worth, he also has a 7-foot wingspan, which is more important measurement. But against athletes like Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges, will he able to get his shot off?

Those two absolutely smothered Luke Maye in the North Carolina game. Maye had scored 20 points or more four times coming into the matchup; he scored eight points against Michigan State on 3-for-13 shooting. Colson is a better athlete than Maye. But he’s no Jackson or Bridges in that department.

Most teams don’t have one player who can credibly guard Colson. The Spartans have two, and they can take turns so both can stay fresh. 

Colson is a great player, but this will be his biggest test of the season.

*Notre Dame’s role players will need to step up

From yesterday's full Big Ten-ACC Challenge preview:

We know Matt Farrell and Colson are great. But as weird as it sounds, big performances from those guys won’t be enough to knock off Michigan State in East Lansing.

T.J. Gibbs, averaging 15.5 points, has been a pleasant surprise thus far for the Fighting Irish. They need more of the same. D.J. Harvey and Rex Pflueger will be key here – Michigan State’s defense is huge, athletic, smart and cruel; teams are shooting an icy 33.9 percent from 2 against the Spartans (that would be bad from 3)! The Bridges-Jackson-Nick Ward trio is good on offense, but it’s elite on defense. Just ask North Carolina, which set a program record for lowest shooting percentage against these guys.

MORE: Full hoops coverage

Gibbs, Harvey and Pflueger are pivotal because they can hurt Michigan State without entering the teeth of the defense. Two of those three will need to get hot.

*Notre Dame can't let Joshua Langford get hot

If Notre Dame has an advantage, it’s at the guard spots. Farrell is one of the best facilitators in the country, and Gibbs is looking like a killer secondary ball-handler.

Michigan State’s backcourt might be more talented than Notre Dame’s, but it’s not as consistent. Langford is an X-factor: he’s averaging 13.7 points on 48 percent 3-point shooting, and is playing solid defense. The biggest reason the Spartans beat North Carolina was their defense, but Langford was their best player on offense. He scored 23 points on just 11 shots.

In Michigan State’s only loss of the season, vs. Duke, Langford scored nine points on 3-of-9 shooting while tallying one rebound and zero assists. He also struggled on Grayson Allen, so Tom Izzo had to slot Matt McQuaid on him. Langford is good, but he’ll throw up the occasional dud. Michigan State needs him to play well more than anyone else.

Now, that may not sound right. But it’s true. Why? Because Michigan State doesn’t have anyone else like him. Bridges and Jackson are objectively better players, sure – but the Spartans are so loaded in the frontcourt than it can afford a bad performance from one of them. Ward is capable of going off. Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter would start for most teams.

If Cassius Winston has a bad game, Tum Tum Nairn is capable of spelling him. McQuaid is a nice player, but Langford is the only dynamic wing scorer who can check opposing dynamic wing scorers. That’s why he’s so important.

He’ll play a big role in this one.

*Will Bridges be able to get to the rim?

Bridges has taken 60 shots this year – 35 of them have been 2s; 25 of them have been 3s.

Bridges is a decent shooter. He’s knocking down 36 percent of his 3s. But he’s at his best when he’s rampaging to the rim – something we haven’t seen nearly as much from him as a sophomore as we did as a freshman. Why? Because he’s playing with Jackson and Ward. Jackson is similar to Bridges in the sense that he can shoot, but he’s better inside. Ward lives in the paint.

So, there’s really no room for those Bridges rumbles we grew to love last year. He’s also been battling an ankle injury, which could be a factor.

Here’s the thing: Michigan State ranks 14th on offense, which is fine. Even if Bridges isn’t putting up the Naismith-caliber numbers many expected, this is a formula the Spartans can win with.

But this Notre Dame matchup is so tasty for him. The Fighting Irish will have no choice but to put Pflueger (205 pounds) or Harvey (a freshman) on Bridges – because if not, they’d have to guard the bigger Jackson. In theory, Bridges should be able to dominate both of those guys.

But smaller players have been guarding Bridges all season, and he’s been content to chill behind the 3-point line. We’ll see if he’s more aggressive come Thursday.

*Farrell is the best point guard on either side – he needs to play like it

The difference between Michigan State’s point guards and Notre Dame’s: Winston and Nairn are guys you can win national championships with. Farrell is a guy you can win a national championship because of.

Farrell assists on 22 percent of Notre Dame’s buckets – easily tops on the team – and he’s a huge reason why the Fighting Irish have the nation’s No. 3 offense. He rarely coughs the ball up; Notre Dame turns it over on just 12.8 percent of its possessions. That ranks fifth. Gibbs, a natural point guard, also helps in that area.

Michigan State turns the ball over on – shield your eyes, Spartan fans – on 22.8 percent of its possessions, ranking 305th. Winston is averaging 12.2 points and 7.5 assists on 52 percent shooting – all great numbers. But he’s also averaging nearly three turnovers, which is way too high. Winston is a wicked-creative passer, but sometimes, he’d be better-served making the simple play rather than the dazzling one.

Given the Spartans’ defensive excellence, the easiest way for them to lose is if they maintain their current turnover rate. Winston and Nairn don’t need to combine for 25 points. But if they get the ball to Langford, Bridges and Jackson in prime spots and limit the mistakes, Michigan State should prevail at home.

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