For just the fifth time, the Villanova Wildcats will face off with the Michigan State Spartans. Villanova owns the matchup with three wins and one loss. Both prestigious programs enter this matchup unranked.
It has been a while since the two programs have played — the last time the two programs faced off was in Jay Wright’s second season at ‘Nova in 2002. Villanova defeated No. 9-ranked MSU 81-73 in… Alaska.
To get a sense of how long ago this game was, Gary Buchanan and Ricky Wright led the way for the unranked Wildcats, with 29 and 18 points, respectively. Meanwhile, future stars Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Frasier were just freshmen on that 2002-03 team.
For the first time in 20 years, these programs will face off Friday at 8 p.m. ET on FS1, with the Wildcats traveling to East Lansing to take part in the Gavitt Games. Ahead of the matchup, let’s highlight three things to watch out for:
Villanova's Shaky Start
Villanova has not looked quite right this season in part due to the massive coaching change, injuries, lineup tinkering and in part due to the lack of experience. For the first time in what feels like forever, Villanova has multiple freshmen playing significant roles — probably since Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu had big minutes as frosh in 2012-13.
Jay Wright kept the rotations very tight, sometimes playing as few as six trusted players in a game. On the other hand, out of necessity, Kyle Neptune has taken a different approach where every healthy scholarship player has seen meaningful minutes this season.
Villanova started off the season with a convincing 81-68 win over La Salle which put a lot of fans at ease after the coaching change. Although the final score does not stand out, the Wildcats' play did not seem to miss a beat from the Jay Wright era.
Just a few days later, Villanova traveled to the Liacouras Center where they fell 68-64 to a Temple team who previously lost to Wagner at home. Villanova shot only 2-for-7 from three and did not look like a Villanova basketball team. This loss bumped Villanova out of the AP top 25 for the first time since the 2018-19 season.
The three-point shooting woes continued on Monday vs Delaware State where Villanova began the game 0-of-17 from three. It was clear that Neptune’s gameplan revolved around ball movement and shooting the three — the only issue was Villanova was not creating good looks and couldn't cash in when they did. The lack of a point guard who can penetrate, put pressure on the defense and kick it out to open shooters is a glaring omission in this offense.
This poor performance vs a two-win program a season ago dropped Villanova to No. 34 in KenPom rankings – the program’s lowest ranking since the end of the 2012-13 season.
Michigan State Has Been Tested Early and Impressed
Tom Izzo has never been one to shy away from tough early-season matchups to get his team ready for a daunting Big Ten schedule. Michigan State has already faced two top four teams this season and proved they can play with anyone in the country.
Michigan State lost to No. 2 ranked Gonzaga, 64-63, after leading for most of the game. Michigan State’s lead grew as large as 12 points early in the second half but it wasn’t enough. Mady Sissoko went head-to-head with Wooden Award favorite Drew Timme, dropping 14 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
This Tuesday, Michigan State defeated No. 4 ranked Kentucky 86-77 in double overtime as part of the Champions Classic. Former Big East foe Joey Hauser led the way for Michigan State with 23 points and eight rebounds. Malik Hall, a versatile 6-8 wing added to the win with 20 points and five rebounds.
Michigan State returns only two starters from last season’s team but multiple highly ranked recruits who have had two to three years in the program. The Spartans start three seniors and two juniors this season.
This year’s Michigan State team consists of trusted, big-bodied backcourt members A.J. Hoggard and Malik Hall. Tom Izzo refused to explore the transfer portal this offseason with three scholarships available, leaving fans puzzled with the plan in the frontcourt. Izzo has proved to be correctly confident in his frontcourt so far with Hauser and Sissoko stepping up this season.
The Upcoming Matchup
Starting guard A.J. Hoggard left the Kentucky game in double-overtime due to a lower body injury, so his status will be something to keep an eye on before Michigan State takes the court against Villanova.
Michigan State’s experienced starting five and program continuity can prove to be an issue for most teams in the country - the young Kentucky team fell victim to this earlier in the week. The Spartans will have the edge in that department once again against Villanova.
Villanova lacks a trusted ball-handler early in the season while Michigan State has strong bodies to pound the paint at every position. Michigan State is content with going inside while Villanova has historically tried to win games from the three-point line. If Villanova shoots anything like their last two games, expect Michigan State to win in a blowout. If Villanova can shoot the way they did versus La Salle, they have a chance to win.
A Program in Search of Their Next Star
Michigan State has always had a go-to guy under Tom Izzo — whether it was Denzel Valentine, Gary Harris, Draymond Green, Zach Randolph, etc. Since Cassius Winston’s Senior season in 2018-19, Michigan State has been looking for its next star to guide the ,program.
Joshua Langford who was Winston’s promising backcourt-mate during their underclassmen years never became “the guy” due to a multitude of injuries. Langford averaged 15.1 points per game in only 13 games during his Junior season with Winston on the team. Langford had surgery and missed the entire 2019-20 season, then came back and averaged only 9.7 points per game in his Senior season.
Emoni Bates was one of the most highly regarded recruits in recent memory who was supposed to take over the reins of the program. Bates - declared a prodigy in 7th grade - grew up just an hour drive from East Lansing in Ypsilanti, Mich. and committed to Michigan State at 16 years old. Bates ended up decommitting from Michigan State, playing one disappointing, injury-filled season at Memphis and is now playing for Eastern Michigan.
Max Christie was a promising five-star Freshman guard on last year’s Michigan State team who did not develop as the scorer they needed him to be, averaging just 9.3 points per game. Christie now plays 11.5 minutes per game for the Los Angeles Lakers.
During a 12-year span from 2008 to 2020, Michigan State finished no lower than 5th in the Big Ten with six regular season titles and four Final Fours. Since the departure of Winston, Michigan State finished in eighth and seventh in the Big Ten and failed to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Tom Izzo and Michigan State are hoping to find the go-to guy to lead them on a deep tournament run this March this season.