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November 19, 2012
First Impressions
Gonzaga and Michigan State are Underrated

by John Gasaway


This morning I sent off my first top 25 of the regular season for ESPN.com's Power Rankings. When I'm putting together my rankings, I'm always conscious of which picks are the same as everyone else's (I have Indiana No. 1) and which ones aren't. Frankly, it's much easier to agree with everyone, and, anyway, I happen to think there really is something to that whole "wisdom of the crowd" thing.

But every once in a while I can't help feeling the crowd is missing something. And when it comes to Gonzaga and Michigan State in particular, I think the pollsters are insufficiently respectful. These project to be two very strong teams in 2012-13.

Number that matters: 0.48
The Bulldogs have been creatures of scheduling extremes so far on the young season. Mark Few's team has played two opponents (Southern Utah and South Dakota) who will likely finish the season rating out in the bottom fifth of Division I. On the other hand the Zags also played West Virginia, who may just end 2012-13 in the top fifth of D-I. What's interesting there, however, is that it really hasn't mattered which extreme is present in a given game, Gonzaga has blown away all comers regardless.

We're looking at the results of three home games, granted, and I don't suppose the Zags will continue to outscore opponents by a whopping 0.48 points per possession once they leave the cozy confines of the McCarthey Athletic Center. Still, West Virginia is hardly a cupcake, and, as I said last season regarding another team's impressive three-game showing against uneven competition, when you're outscoring the other guys by half a point per trip you're looking at domination that can be translated into mere wins against stronger opponents.

We'll find out how impressive the Bulldogs look outside Spokane this week, as they journey to Orlando to play in the Old Spice Classic. The Zags face Clemson in their opener, and there's even a chance for a rematch against Bob Huggins' Mountaineers if the brackets hold form. Meantime I'll be very interested in Gonzaga's performance on a neutral floor against the Tigers and, after that, either Oklahoma or UTEP, because up to now Few's men have been stellar on both sides of the ball.

Of course Few returns the nucleus from last season's team in the form of Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and Sam Dower, and those guys have all looked about like you'd expect -- great. One very large question heading into this season, however, was how much the team would miss Robert Sacre, and whether 7-1 freshman Przemek Karnowski could step into that role. Thus far Few's chosen to use Karnowski as a super sub. When the big guy's been in the game, the offense has gone through him to an extreme degree, and since, surprisingly, Karnowski really hasn't been getting offensive boards we can infer that all those shots are the result of the coach's choice more than on-floor circumstances. The freshman's been hitting his shots in close (draining 73 percent of his twos), but it's already clear to me that one very important question this season will be simply whether Karnowski can make free throws. (He's just 4-of-13 so far.) A 305-pound freshman is likely to both foul and be fouled from time to time.

Looking ahead, on New Year's Eve the Bulldogs will be in Stillwater, Oklahoma, for a road game against an Oklahoma State team that everyone's talking about all of the sudden. (Hey, I liked the Cowboys when the Cowboys weren't cool.) With any luck both teams will arrive at that game undefeated -- emphasis on "luck." OSU has a much easier path to that goal (their toughest game between now and then should be at Virginia Tech) than the Zags (who will face Kansas State in Seattle and Baylor at home). Still, stranger things have happened. Here's hoping for a "something's got to give" showdown at Gallagher-Iba to ring in 2013.

Michigan State
Number that matters: 27.1
If the Spartans win the 2013 national championship, I will conclude that Division I results from outside the United States don't hold much analytic value. The first glimpse we had of Tom Izzo's team this season was when they lost 66-62 to Connecticut 10 days ago in a game played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

I won't be surprised if, even with that blemish, MSU turns out to be an elite team anyway. My reasons are as follows....

Despite my best waving and shouting, people never really did get just how good this Spartan defense was last season. The only question I had heading into this season was whether Izzo could replace the defensive rebounds that used to be recorded by Draymond Green. So far, Adreian Payne looks like he can answer that question satisfactorily, and the Spartans are already forcing opponents to miss their shots. Michigan State gives every indication of playing excellent defense again this season.

And as for offense, stop me if you've heard this one before: MSU would be really good if they just stopped committing turnovers! (If I had to pick one hoops saying that would still be true in 50 years and chisel that saying into a rock, it would be either the previous sentence or "The RPI lives.") In three games the Spartans have given the ball away on 22 percent of their possessions. That and the fact that their (rare) threes haven't fallen has meant this team isn't exactly lighting up the scoreboard.

Call me an optimist, but I expect the Michigan State offense to improve over what we've seen to this point, and I'm basing that expectation on two things: Gary Harris, and regression to the mean. Harris is a 6-4 freshman who's taken 27.1 percent of the team's shots during his minutes, and that speaks volumes to me. Green's gone, sure, but this Michigan State team is hardly lacking for options on offense. (See: Branden Dawson and Keith Appling.) If Izzo's giving a freshman that kind of latitude on a team that's already blessed with proven performers, the coach clearly sees something in his newly arrived star. And with Izzo's track record, I weigh his opinion pretty heavily. A freshman this good plus normal perimeter shooting will net out to a pretty fair offense when all's said and done, plus or minus some turnovers.

Izzo's team started 0-2 last season, yet entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed. Don't be shocked if something similar takes place this season, even with MSU's 0-1 start.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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