Thanks again for giving us some insider information Chris. Lets fire away:
1. What is the status of Keith Appling's injury? Has it been lingering? How confident are you feeling about it? Can MSU win without him?
Chris: He'll be good to go, and he says he's fine, but you can never tell if a player is telling the truth. Appling reportedly wore a brace in practice and is hoping he can ditch it by game time. I do worry about it affecting him in this one. I'm sure he'll play, but his game has been so inconsistent this season that I don't know what to expect. As to winning without him, the talk leading up to the tournament was that MSU can only go as far as Appling takes them. Well, he had just two points in 28 minutes against Memphis, not having much of an impact, and MSU won by 22. Now, Memphis obviously isn't Duke, and I think MSU will need Appling to play well to win, but MSU has shown this season that it has a high floor.
2. Tom Izzo can usually be counted on to 1) have a tough minded team 2) be a great rebounding squad and 3) have his team ready for the tournament. To what degree are these all true this year?
Chris: Building that tough-minded team always takes time. Izzo breaks down his team before building it back up. They lost to UConn in the opener and then at Miami in nonconference play (though we didn't know what was coming from Miami after). Even in home games against Boise State and Louisiana-Lafayette, the games were closer than you would like. But when the team traveled to Penn State early in Big Ten play, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson got in a scuffle at the hotel before the game. Both were suspended for the first half, but it seemed like a moment that brought them together and it was the moment where Payne started to take off. Finding leadership has been an issue throughout the year, but the team has played together.
As for the rebounding, this actually isn't one of Izzo's better rebounding teams. MSU is just No. 40 in offensive rebounding percentage and No. 41 on the defensive end. Part of this is due to using a smaller lineup at times. The rebounding has been better since 6-foot-10 Payne was inserted as a starter at power forward following that Penn State game. MSU has posted an offensive rebounding percentage greater than 40 percent in five of the last 10 games, while Payne has at least five offensive rebounds in five of those 10. Collectively, it hasn't been a terrific rebounding team, but they have been at times, such as when they grabbed 43 percent of their misses against Memphis.
3. What goes right for MSU when they win? What goes wrong when they lose?
Chris: If I had to pick one thing, it's all about turnovers. This team turns the ball over way too much, allowing lesser opponents to stick around or prevent a blowout from starting (like against Memphis). MSU is No. 238 in turnover rate. The biggest worry for MSU in this game is that any possible edge on the offensive glass will be offset by giving up possessions thought turnovers. They usually have an edge in offensive rebounding, allowing them to get away with some low shooting percentages, but if they waste those extra possessions with turnovers, they don't get away with it.
4. How has this Sparty team lived up to preseason expectations? Do you think they can win this region? Can they win in Atlanta?
Chris: I'd say it has probably exceeded expectations a little bit. After losing Draymond Green, there were questions as to where the scoring would come from or where the leadership would be. There was a disappointing three-game losing streak in conference play, but they were a missed Michigan layup against Indiana from winning another share of a Big Ten title. In the Big Ten, the regular season title means everything, rather than the conference tournament. If Michigan makes that layup, MSU would have four titles in five years. Alas, that's what happens when you rely on your rival to do your dirty work.
Can MSU win this region? Absolutely, but it's the region of death for a reason. For MSU, it feels like 2005, when the Spartans defeated Duke and Kentucky in the region to reach the Final Four. It's certainly a tall task, but MSU has shown it can take on anyone in the nation, with wins over Kansas, Ohio State and Michigan plus Izzo seemingly always knowing which buttons to push in March.
5. What matchups against Duke do you think are the key(s) to the game?
Chris: The biggest key will have to be the rebounding. Duke's numbers show them to be a below-average rebounding team, and MSU will have to battle it out on the glass for those extra possessions that will be huge. Coupled with that is avoiding turnovers, for the reasons listed above. Duke doesn't give the ball away, and MSU will have to minimize the amount of times it does. Probably the third key would be defending Duke's three-point shooting. They're obviously a team that likes to take plenty of them, and if the Blue Devils were to hit 10 or something, that might be too much for MSU to overtime.
6. Would a win against Duke change the narrative of the season much if you lose to Louisville?
Chris: I don't think so. Louisville is the No. 1 overall seed, and they beat MSU in the tournament last year, so there would certainly be no shame in losing to them. Still, Izzo is 18-3 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend. He tells players to win the first game, and he and the coaches will win the second. Those three losses all are to No. 1 seeds, and Louisville would be No. 4 if that was the case. It certainly would be disappointing to fall short like that, but no shame.
7 : There's a lot of respect for Izzo amongst the Duke fan base. What is the general attitude towards K amongst Sparty nation?
Chris: I'd say it's typical of most fanbases. They don't like him, but that's because he wins all the time. There certainly is a tremendous amount of respect, and the fans don't suspect him of cheating, as they do with other programs. It's a sore spot that Coach K has a 6-1 record against our fearless leader, but a win Friday would give Izzo a 2-1 record against Krzyzewski in the tournament, which would help MSU fans pump out their chests a bit.
8 : With the recent spate of tough losses to UNC, what's the level of antipathy like towards Carolina amongst the fanbase?
Chris: I wouldn't put it on the same level as Duke, but maybe that's because of UNC's inconsistency. They win a national championship, then they miss out on the tournament. They reach the Elite Eight, but then they're a No. 8 seed. Duke is always there. MSU has the third-longest active NCAA Tournament appearance streak, while Duke is No. 2. There's consistency. Although UNC has denied MSU a championship and a spot in the championship, I think it's more frustration than anger. Duke is Duke. There's more respect for the program, and therefore more desire to beat it.
Alex: Thanks so much for taking the time to hook us up with insider information Chris. Great work. Be sure to check out what the Spartans asked us in returning the favor.