EAST LANSING - Tom Izzo has been uncomfortable with substitution patterns and player rotations pretty much all season. Facing a versatile, skilled Duke team tonight will put more stress on matchup questions than MSU has faced all year. Roe on approaching the Duke game as unfinished business, having missed out on the opportunity to play the Blue Devils in the national title game last year:
The Spartans are still somewhat in experimentation mode in some areas, and Cameron Indoor Stadium isn't the best place for test studies. But Michigan State might look to try a new pair of legs in an expanded defensive assignment against the No. 1-ranked Blue Devils.
Junior Delvon Roe is likely to be the primary defender on talented, multi-faceted Duke combo foward Kyle Singler in tonight's game. Roe might not be an ideal choice to match up with Singler, who was named most outstanding player of last year's Final Four and is arguably the best returning player in college basketball this year.
Roe, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound junior, never been called upon to match up as a primary defender against a superstar player. But the new Roe, having enjoyed good results while test driving his improved legs for three weeks, has asked for expanded responsibility as a defender in recent days. And Izzo is apparently warm to the idea.
"Me and coach talked about it (on Saturday) about defending, and I told him I believe I am the best defender on our team," Roe said. "I want to take that challenge and I feel like I can be our best defender. He is giving me the challenge and putting me on Singler on Wednesday and I'm really looking forward to it, and playing the way I know I'm capable of on the defensive end and guarding a player that is an NBA prospect like him."
Singler often begins games as a small forward, and then plays the bulk of his minutes at power forward.
Roe has never played small forward at Michigan State. But there are indications that Roe could expand his game to include some minutes at small forward in the near future, perhaps as soon as tonight.
Roe was slowed by knee injuries and severe pain in his first two seasons at Michigan State. Roe was asked after practice on Monday if he could have guarded Singler last year if MSU had advanced to meet Duke in the National Championship game?
"No, no, no," Roe said with a laugh.
Roe played through excruciating pain last March, and at times had all the mobility of Fred Sanford. Still, Roe logged extensive minutes during Michigan State's patchwork run to the Final Four in 2010.
Corrective surgery in April and successful rehabilitation in the spring and summer has allow Roe to feel good for the first time as a college player.
"I've been 100 percent since about August," Roe said. "I'm feeling great. Coming back from Maui, I told the coaches and trainers, 'I'm not sore. I don't know why I'm not sore.' I felt like I could play another game the next day. Usually after three straight games like that your body will be sore. But I'm doing a good job of stretching and doing the little things that I have to do and it's showing in that I'm not pain-free."
Of equal importance, Roe's confidence in his knees has soared. Now, he wants to maximize usage of his long, fast legs, which were the basis of his No. 24 ranking coming out of high school in 2008. Roe was never tremendously skilled in the halfcourt, but in transition, he could outrun most players his size.
Now that the wheels are working again, Roe and Izzo would like to maximize them on defense.
"He agreed with me right away when I said that, and he wants that of me to go out there and defend and be that stopper that we can rely on," Roe said.
The Spartans are missing the jack-of-all-trades defensive prowess of Raymar Morgan, who graduated last year. Roe isn't as strong or cagey as Morgan, but he is no weakling. And there's no better time to begin gaining experience as a hopeful defensive stopper than right now, against one of the tougher matchups in college basketball.
Roe isn't a proven trump card as a defensive player. He is getting the assignment to guard Singler not because he has proven he can handle the job, but partly because the Spartans don't really have a natural choice to put on Singler. Junior Draymond Green is a candidate, and undoubtedly will match up with Singler at times. But Michigan State would prefer to keep Green out of foul trouble. The tricky Singler has a knack of getting to the foul line.
"He likes to use the pump fake a lot," Roe said of Singler. "He is real crafty at getting the shot off so you always have to be disciplined. You can't reach. You have to be really solid. That's something I have to do, as well as use my strength and athleticism."
Roe does have plenty of strength and athleticism. Perhaps enough to experiment with playing time at small forward, as a matter of fact.
"Coach and I have been talking about that a lot," Roe said. "Since they see that I'm healthy now I'm actually playing the three. I'm running and playing the three on offense (in practice), playing the three on defense, doing the switches with the guards. So I'm doing basically everything that the guards do and what the bigs do."
He has never done it in a game, so keep an eye out for it tonight. This doesn't sound like one of Izzo's pregame misinformation campaigns. Michigan State is low on candidates for the Morgan role. Green is playing some small forward for the first time in his career, this season. It's not a shock that Roe could get some time there as well, although Roe's face-up perimeter shooting has regressed in the past 12 months whereas Green's has blossomed.
But Roe is much faster than Green in the open court, which could make him a threat as a receiver in transition. During Michigan State's loss to UConn last week, there was one loose ball situation which resulted in Roe receiving a pass while sprinting down the left lane. He gathered the ball, accelerated with the dribble and finished at a high speed and high altitude around the rim while getting fouled.
No one was ready to compare Roe to Morris Peterson or Jason Richardson as a left wing sprinter, but MSU certainly has never had a power forward get out and fly like that (unless you count Alan Anderson in 2005, who was a makeshift four).
That play apparently aided Roe's argument for an expanded role.
"That's exactly what we talked about," Roe said of his surprising speed on that play against UConn. "I told him I felt like I could do it. He was totally on my side and said I can do that more. The last couple of days in practice, I have been running the wing and I have been running down the middle (as a five) and have been doing a lot more stuff in terms of running and using my athleticism. I love it. That's something I have always wanted to do. That's the reason my two final schools coming out of high school were Michigan State and North Carolina, two teams that run really well. I feel like I'm at my best when running. I like running down the middle (as a frontcourt player in MSU's structured transition game) but I feel like at times you can put me on that wing and I feel like I can outrun some guards."
Putting Roe on Singler when Singler is at the four is not a big surprise. But is there a chance we could see Roe guard Singler when Singler is at the three?
"Absolutely," Roe said. "Hopefully I can get to the point that I can switch and guard a point guard if needed, and that's something that I'm really looking forward to showing on Wednesday."
Truth or misinformation? We'll begin to find out at 9:30 p.m.
Izzo has used Austin Thornton as the starting small forward for most of the young season. Green has come off the bench, repeating his sixth man role of a year ago.
Thornton (6-5, 220, Jr.) has improved his defense this season, and the Spartans can certainly use his fouls tonight, but he is probably not an ideal matchup for Singler when Singler is at the three. Thus perhaps the Roe option is a viable one.
"It's in your mind because they were the National Champion and that's something that we wanted to be last year. We feel that Duke took something away that we didn't play for. We will play with that mindset that there is still unfinished business from last year.
"I watched it (the Duke-Butler game) at my apartment. It was hard. I remember talking to coach at halftime saying, 'Man we should be in this game. We should be in this game.' We made a great run but it was not a run that was finished."
Roe on the keys to the game: "Turnovers. We can't have turnovers. We have to make our free throws. We are preparing for a game that we think will come down to one or two possessions to decide the game. We have to go out there and know that we are not going to get any calls, we are going to be the underdog going into their place but at the same time we have to realize that we are a very experienced group and we can go out there and win that game and do things we know we are capable of doing."
Kalin Lucas on the key to the game: "The thing we have to do a better job of is limiting the turnovers. That starts with the guards. I think if we do a better job with that we'll be fine.
"Fixing the turnover problem is going to take some time because have had guys out, and some guys missed a lot of time during the summer, including myself. It is going to take some time. It is getting better but we have to do a little better job with turnovers. We have to just slow down a little bit and don't go for home runs and make the simple pass."
Lucas on freshman Duke guard Kyrie Irving: "He is a good player. He is big and strong and quick and goes to the rack."
Lucas on playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium: "We have played in crazy places and big arenas so the fans and that stuff doesn't matter to me and it shouldn't matter to the team either."
Lucas on the task of playing the defending national champion: "They are a good team. They are the No. 1 team in the country and they have been playing real well so it's a challenge for us. We have to go there and play hard and be real physical. We want to make sure we have a great focus going into the game. We need to continue to prepare well and get ready for a dogfight."
Spartan hero Mateen Cleaves was at Michigan State's practice on Monday. He spoke with Lucas for more than 10 minutes after practice. "Mateen was telling me to just go out there, play my game, let the game come to me and rankings don't mean anything, just go out and have fun," Lucas said.
Lucas missed two practices after MSU's return from Maui after having his left knee slightly hyperextended at the end of the Spartans' victory over Washington. Lucas returned to action on Sunday against Tennessee Tech and did not miss practice this week.
"It's a little sore," Lucas said. "I have to keep getting treatments on it, and keep rehabbing on it. It feels good right now and by Wednesday it should be back to 100 percent."
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