EAST LANSING – For the past two days in practice, Michigan State had to spend time unlearning some ingrained defensive habits.
The Spartans’ man-to-man defense is typically heavy on help. Forwards shade over to help one another. Guards dig down to help big men in tough matchups.
But with mammoth Purdue center Isaac Haas coming to the Breslin Center, Tom Izzo and his coaching staff made an unorthodox decision: they wouldn’t help defensively at all on Haas, and instead guard him one-on-one.
That decision proved key in Michigan State’s 68-65 win over Purdue.
“For once, we executed it to a T,” Izzo said of his team’s gameplan.
Purdue coach Matt Painter recognized the strategy and responded accordingly: by throwing the ball to Haas at every opportunity. Haas finished with a game-high 25 points and took a career-high 22 shots. But he also missed 10 of those shots, making him less efficient than normal.
While Haas scored often in the post, Michigan State was able to accomplish its goal of containing the rest of the Boilermakers and holding them in check from the 3-point line. As a team, Purdue went 6-for-19 from 3-point range, marking their second-lowest 3-point output of the season.
While Haas’ 7-foot-2, 290-pound size overwhelms any single defender, Izzo also knew the danger overplaying Haas: leaving outside shooters open. Purdue entered the game tops in the Big Ten at 9.9 3-pointers per game.
“We were just so paranoid with the 3,” Izzo said.
The decision Izzo made was simple: allow the 2’s, but stop the 3’s. He heard the groans from the Breslin Center at times as Haas made short buckets, but stuck to the plan.
Going one-on-one with Haas has been an uncommon strategy in large part due to the foul risk. Big men defending Haas tend to pick up fouls in a hurry, something most teams can’t afford.
Michigan State, though, has as much frontcourt depth as any team in the Big Ten. It ran a succession of big men against him, from Nick Ward to Gavin Schilling to Kenny Goins and even the seldom-used Ben Carter for a brief second-half stretch.
Michigan State’s reserve big men haven’t always played significant roles this year behind Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. But with Ward sitting for extended stretches in a difficult matchup and Jackson suffering the worst foul trouble, the Spartans played Goins and Schilling extended stretches.
“We thought all year we were going to need us,” Goins said of the reserve forwards. “Now when other teams might get tired and not have the same guys to keep throwing in there, this is where we start to shine.
Schilling played the biggest role against Haas as Michigan State’s best frontcourt defender. Haas scored his share of buckets over him, something for which Schilling said he was prepared. But on Haas’ last attempt of the game, Schilling won the battle.
With 35 seconds left, Haas caught an entry pass 10 feet from the hoop with Schilling pressed up against him. He took three dribbles trying to move closer, but couldn’t budge Schilling. He settled for a long jump-hook that bounced off the top of the rim.
“I just didn’t want to give up any ground on him and the lower man always wins,” Schilling said. “I just got lower than him and tried to be lower than him the whole time and I was successful trying to do that.”
For as well as it ended, the gameplan didn’t start out well, with Purdue hitting six first-half 3-pointers. Izzo in part blamed himself after Purdue caught the Spartans coaching staff off-guard by using Haas as a screener to spring guards open for 3’s.
In the second half, though, Michigan State held the Boilermakers to no 3-pointers, as it came back from eight points down for its biggest win of the season.
“It changed the rest of their team when they would throw it in and he would just dribble, dribble, dribble,” Izzo said. “That’s not who they are, they move the ball so well. I thought that, in a sick way, worked to our advantage.”