Michigan State waited until March last season to play its best basketball – something that so often has been the case under coach Tom Izzo – and advanced to its seventh Final Four since 1999.
The most unlikely of those runs went through a Louisville team in the Elite Eight as Denzel Valentine’s all-around effort had the Cardinals on their heels defensively.
If Valentine puts on another stat sheet-stuffing show in Wednesday night’s rematch between the third-ranked Spartans and No. 24 Cardinals in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Breslin Center, he’ll have done it against a group that bears little resemblance to last season’s Louisville squad.
"This is a totally different team," said Valentine, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a 76-70 overtime win over the Cardinals in the NCAA Tournament. "It’s pretty much a new five that we’re going to be playing against, but similar offense and similar defensive styles. We’re just going to have to come out and play our best."
Indeed, the Cardinals (5-0) have a vastly different look. Former Drexel guard Damion Lee is averaging a team-high 17.4 points, and fellow senior transfer Trey Lewis, who previously played at Penn State and Cleveland State, is second at 12.4.
Guard Quentin Snider is the only returning regular starter from last season’s squad, although center Mangok Mathiang played 37 minutes against the Spartans.
Mathiang had career highs of 17 points and 13 rebounds while Lewis scored 22 in Saturday’s 77-57 win over Saint Louis in Brooklyn.
"I’m really happy with my new basketball team," coach Rick Pitino said. "Four starters from last year and 85 percent of the scoring are gone. This is a damn good basketball team."
Pitino’s new faces are still playing the same old solid defense. The Cardinals are giving up the second-fewest points in the nation at 51.2 per game and rank third in defensive field-goal percentage at 32.4. They’ve won by an average of 33.8 points, but they haven’t exactly faced stiff competition.
Louisville also leads the nation with a plus-21.4 rebound differential, with Michigan State (7-0) sitting in third at plus-18.3. They had 41 boards apiece in the Elite Eight matchup.
"Louisville’s been a team like us, where even if they don’t have the same names they’re still always good," Izzo said. "Defensively right now, they’re off the charts. What’s different there are their two leading scorers. They’ve got some veteran guys playing for them."
The Cardinals likely will need a host of different defenders to slow the versatile Valentine. The senior is averaging 19.9 points and 8.9 rebounds while ranking second in the nation in assists per game with 8.6.
Valentine already has posted two triple-doubles with the latest coming against Boston College in the opener of the Wooden Legacy tournament, which Michigan State won by beating Providence 77-64 on Sunday behind Valentine’s 17 points, six rebounds and five assists.
The Spartans finished with a season-low 18 assists, but they still rank second in the country by assisting on 79.0 percent of their baskets. Point guard Lourawls Nairn is among the nation’s leaders with a 5.17 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Their ball movement is outstanding," Pitino said. "When you think of Michigan State, you think of toughness, which they (have). You think of rebounding, which they’re great at. The thing that they’re awesome at, they get the ball up the court quicker than any team in college basketball with the exception of maybe North Carolina."
This will be the first head-to-head matchup between Izzo and Pitino that hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament. Izzo has won two of the first three.