Contrasting styles clash in UK-MSU

March, 21, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The differences likely to define Monday's second-round game between No. 4 seed Kentucky and No. 5 seed Michigan State are about as subtle as the differences in accents between Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell's drawl and Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant's Midwestern vowels.

In other words, you don't need to be John Wooden to spot the battleground.

Michigan State is big, most notably in the form of 6-foot-9 Allyssa DeHaan, but more tellingly in the big frames the Spartans deploy across the court. Seemingly the whole roster is about 6-1 and solid. The Spartans are a good, if perhaps not great, rebounding team. And more than that, they excel when fans start to notice the shot clock and opponents start to notice the toll cutting through the middle or bodying up on defense is taking.

Kentucky can't claim similar size. Liberty entered the NCAA tournament as the nation's leader in rebounding margin, but it was still striking to see the Flames come away from their first-round game against the Wildcats with a 38-26 edge on the boards. It's not a perfect measure, but if Lykendra Johnson, Aisha Jefferson, Lauren Aitch and even DeHaan start piling up rebounds, it could be an indication of bigger problems for Kentucky.

"I was disappointed in the rebounding," Mitchell said after his team advanced behind 32 points from freshman A'dia Mathies. "It is something that you're trying to get prepared for going into the game. That was an area of strength for them. It's been at times for us an Achilles' heel of sorts, and then we've had some performances when we were able to rebound."

But if the Spartans are to make use of the glass, particularly on the offensive end, they first have to get the ball to the basket. Kentucky makes up for what second chances its opponents get and it doesn't by denying teams first chances on a lot of possessions. Mitchell's team ranked 14th nationally in steals and forces better than 20 turnovers per game. The Spartans take reasonably good care of the basketball, but Monday will be a whole new challenge for everyone, particularly Brittney Thomas, who leads her team in both assists and minutes per game.

Bowling Green isn't Kentucky defensively, but Thomas and Michigan State's guards were stellar in that regard in the first round. How they contend with Amber Smith and the forefront of the Wildcats' pressure will be telling.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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