PHOENIX - The hot button topic for Michigan State heading into Thursday's Regional Semifinal game against Louisville is dealing with the Cardinals' full-court pressure.
Aside from Iowa, Michigan State has not faced a team that presses on a regular basis this season. Louisville plays a form of run-and-jump press for 40 minutes.
"Even though we've played everybody you could play, we really haven't faced a team that brings this much pressure," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
Louisville's press is a "run-and-jump" style press, popularized years ago by Dean Smith.
The run-and-jump involves full-court man-to-man defense leading to a single trap on the ball, rather than a series of zone traps.
At some point during the press, one of the full-court man-to-man defenders leaves the man he is guarding and traps the man with the ball.
Who does the trapping? That depends on reads by the defensive players. It can come from various times or angles, depending on the offensive player advancing the ball.
The trap usually comes near the mid-court line. In the Smith system, the trapping player usually comes from the direction in which the dribbler is headed. He leaves his man, a teammate rotates over to cover the vacated man.
The run-and-jump concept aims to put the trapped player into a panic and intercept the next pass.
If the offense completes the first pass out of the trap, the press then retreats into the base halfcourt defense, which is a matchup zone in Louisville's case.
"The way they press, there's reads you've got to have and run and jumps and there's things that it's harder to do that than a normal zone press," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
Can MSU Break It And Make Louisville Pay?
Historically, Tom Izzo has aimed to make teams pay for pressing, by getting the ball to open spaces and attacking with a numbers advantage after crossing mid-court (see the 2000 National Championship game or the 1986 defeat of Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA Tournament).
Numbers advantages such as 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 are easier to create against trapping zone presses. But it's harder to make a run-and-jump team pay at the other end. A run-and-jump press doesn't leave as many defenders hung out to dry if the press gets broken.
New Mexico beat the Louisville press for three field goals last week, but the Lobos didn't do enough damage with the press breaker to make the press an overall net-negative for the Cardinals.
"The big key has been our pressure and the intensity that we play with," said Louisville wing forward Kyle Kuric. "We don't let up and it's relentless. If their shots don't fall, they get tired and fatigued and it just snowballs.
"If we play our style, it is hard for teams to keep up with us. Eventually we wore teams down and they wilted under pressure."
In Michigan State's victory over Louisville in the 2009 Regional Finals, Louisville pressed on occasion, but not throughout the game.
MSU didn't try to attack the Louisville press every single time on that day, but instead had success by occasionally changing speeds and picking certain opportunities to break it.
Wednesday's interview opportunities in Phoenix yielded conflicting signals from the Spartans. The players say MSU is eager to try to attack the press. Izzo indicated that MSU will attack it only occasionally.
"I don't want to walk the ball up; that's not the way we really play our best ball," Izzo said. "But I don't want to get into a track meet that makes us play at a level for 40 minutes that we can't handle, either."
Izzo would like to have been able to attempt to simulate the press at full blast in practice. But time restraints and concerns with wearing down his team prevented it.
The Spartans returned to East Lansing on Sunday night after beating Saint Louis in the third round in Columbus. The Spartans then left for Phoenix on Monday evening.
"When you came off that Sunday night game and you're leaving for Phoenix on Monday night,
"I would have loved to have brought Mark Dantonio's defensive backs and receivers over to press us," Izzo said.
He's dead serious about that. If MSU has had an extra day in East Lansing, the Spartans would have used football players on the scout team. But this week's odd Sunday-Thursday turn-around shortened MSU's prep week.
"I have my scout team, I call them my Iron Mountain 5, but those guys are not quite as athletic," Izzo said.
MSU worked on beating a six-man press in practice, something Izzo has done as part of preparation for pressing teams for ages.
Izzo feels good about his team's chances of dealing with the press and perhaps even beating it for buckets. But there is also some anxiety about the unknown.
"You can see a lot of things on film, but you can't see athleticism or chaos," Izzo said. "And Rick's teams create chaos, they really do. And they're very, very good at it. That's been the most difficult thing."
Louisville point guard Peyton Siva and reserve combo guard Russ Smith will do a lot of slapping while trapping. They will dig at the ball.
"It is going to be a challenge for our guards," said Michigan State wing Austin Thornton. "They are really going to have to take care of the ball and understand that they are going to get pushed. They are going to get shoved, they are going to get fouled. They are going to have to play through it.
"Give Louisville guards some credit because they are in great shape, they are picking you up full court and they are putting pressure on you. They do a great job of putting pressure on the entire court and when you get into the halfcourt they continue to pressure."
Adjusting To 'Racehorse' Basketball
Izzo felt Louisville called off its press in 2009 after the Spartans beat it for baskets a few times. But this year's Louisville team, which is not as talented as the '09 team and not as good a shooting team on offense, is more committed to 40 minutes of pressing.
"We just came off a smash mouth game, and now it's going to be a racehorse game," Izzo said. "So we're going to see if we can adjust in this four‑ or five‑day period.
"Finding the happy median has been more difficult because we just can't match that athleticism in a practice and especially at this time of year you don't want to wear your team down."
Spartan players are eager to try to break the press for points.
"I think one of the keys to the game is breaking the press and attacking them and trying to get easy buckets," said back-up point guard Travis Trice. "That's been one of the main things in practice and in film, is watching the press."
In breaking the press, Michigan State ball handlers will need to be aware of defenders coming from behind them to "back-tip" the dribble away from them for turnovers. Decisions must be made quickly, and any dribbling that is done must be kept to a minimum with fast and efficient forward practice. In other words: don't dribble it too much.
Pressure-release players like Brandon Wood will be key in breaking the press. He could find success hovering near the mid-court line and receiving the first pass out of the trap.
"I think it is important that we stay patient and not try and rush up the court," Wood said. "We have to spread the floor and make good passes. I think if we do that we will have an advantage every single time out of the trap. From there, we are just planning to attack and then get back and play Spartan defense."
Pitino respect's MSU's ability to run, perhaps more so than he did prior to the 2009 game.
"Michigan State is as good a running team as there is in college basketball," Pitino said. "In their game against Saint Louis, every time Saint Louis took a shot, they sent five guys back to defense. They didn't go to the offensive glass. They made Michigan State play slow."
But Pitino is not going to backdown from a horse race.
"We got our guys to this point by pressing and running, and we're not going to change because the other team may be a little better on the backboard and try to take possessions away," Pitino said. "We're going to let them go out there.
"So we're going to run with them. They obviously are the better backboard team. But we're going to make it that type of basketball game. So we do not want to play slow against Michigan State."
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