Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 3/21/12
Of the 16 teams still standing in the NCAA tournament, only three - Michigan State (Big Ten), Louisville (Big East) and Ohio (Mid-American) - won their conference tournament. Others such as Florida State (ACC), Vanderbilt (SEC) and Missouri (Big 12) have been sent packing. It shows just how difficult it is to sustain a high level of performance, not to mention good fortune, at this time of the year. In the case of both Michigan State and Louisville, who will meet in a West Region semifinal Thursday in Phoenix, defense is what brought them to the dance. And it's the reason they're still dancing. While high-scoring offenses can come and go, defense usually remains a constant. It's certainly been that way for these two Sweet 16 opponents. "Doesn't seem to change no matter what sport," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a firm believer that defense still wins championships. Michigan State and Louisville are virtually tied for No. 2 nationally, behind only Kentucky, in defensive field-goal percentage. MSU leads by a few percentage points - 37.88 percent for the Spartans' opponents to 37.90 by the Cardinals' opponents. No. 1 seed Michigan State has allowed just 59.4 points per game this season. No. 4 seed Louisville is giving up 61.1. The way in which they choose to defend, however, is drastically different. Izzo believes in a tough, man-to-man half-court style. His counterpart, Louisville's Rick Pitino, unleashes his athletic team with a vicious full-court press. How well the Spartans can handle that pressure will determine who moves on to play the Marquette-Florida winner in Saturday's regional final for a trip to the Final Four. Louisville (28-9) forces 15.6 turnovers per game. Michigan State (29-7) commits 12.9 a game. "They score a lot of points off their press, off their defense," Izzo said. "I think they'll press us a lot." Michigan State's Draymond Green was a freshman when these programs met three years ago in the Midwest Region final. The Spartans, then a No. 2 seed, committed only 12 turnovers in a 64-52 victory over the No. 1 seed. "Last time they thought they were going to run us out the gym, we ran them out the gym," Green said. "We attacked (the press) and we didn't turn it over early, so they backed off it," Izzo recalled. "I think they have a different kind of team now. They had four pros on that team. They could beat you other ways. This team I think does try to beat you off their defense a little bit more than that team did." The Spartans' approach against the press, for better or worse, is likely to be the same as in 2009: Bring it on. They've prepared by using seven or eight defenders on the floor to try to simulate Louisville's tenacity as much as possible in practice. What's more, they're not just going to settle for getting the ball over mid-court. They will try to take it all the way to score whenever possible. "We've been pretty good at breaking the presses over the years," Green said. "We're going to attack. A lot of people make a mistake. A lot of people just try to break the press. We're not just trying to break the press, we're going to make you pay for pressing us." Another key element of Louisville's shutdown defense comes from the presence of 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng, who ranks eighth nationally in blocked shots with 3.14 per game. Dieng has a way of getting into the heads of opponents coming into the lane against the match-up zone that Louisville plays in the half-court. There's a tendency to worry more about Dieng than making the shot. "He affects inside shots, whether he gets the block or not, against everybody," Pitino said following a victory over New Mexico in the Round of 32. "The only time he struggles a little bit is when he gets early fouls and then he becomes tentative and can't play as hard." With Michigan State's defense, it all starts on the perimeter with sophomore Keith Appling hounding the other team's point guard. No Spartan team during the Izzo era has held opponents to such a low shooting percentage. It's a startling statistic, even to the coach, because he has built the program on defense and made it to the Final Four six times in the last 13 years, winning one national championship. "I look at the people we have, I look at the freshmen going in there and I say, 'How?'" Izzo admitted. While Izzo gives credit to his assistant coaches for their help in developing sound game plans, he also believes Green's intelligence and communication have played a major role. Green is often telling his teammates what to do, even motioning them to go one way or another, in the middle of a play. "We don't consider him our best defensive player, we don't even consider him in our top couple," Izzo said. "The physical part of what he does is decent to good. But the mental part of what he does might be off the charts. "Like Jud (former MSU coach Jud Heathcote) used to say about Magic (Johnson), who sat in the back of that zone and wasn't a very good defender, I guess, but he told everybody else how to defend. They were a good defensive team. "You need those kind of guys. That's some of the reason we're better defensively than I think our talent lets us be." While their methods are so different, the end result is about the same. It's going to be tough to make a shot against either of these defenses. So what's the biggest difference in the match-up? Offensively, there's no comparison, largely because of Green. Michigan State ranks No. 16 in shooting percentage (48.2 percent) compared to No. 216 for Louisville (42.5 percent). For the Spartans, it all comes down to handling that press. Break it and win going away, cough it up and possibly lose.
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