So I’ve touched on a handful of Big Ten teams, but I have yet to discuss the team in first place that is the Michigan State Spartans. Sparty had some embarrassing losses early in the year, losing by 18 points to Maryland and by 35 points to North Carolina. They have picked up some quality wins since then, including wins over Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, and most recently at Ohio State. Michigan State seems to be most often mentioned as the Big Ten team with the most potential to reach the Final Four, albeit we seem to hear that every year.
Part of the reason pundits most likely praise the Spartans is because they are clearly the only Big Ten team with an elite offense, and that is what typically grabs the most attention on the national scale. Michigan State is 10th in the nation at almost 1.17 points per possession, and they haven’t been slowed down that much during conference play where they are putting up 1.12 points per possession. The next closest Big Ten team is Wisconsin at 1.06 points per possession in conference play.
Characterizing the Michigan State offense is fairly easy. It’s basically a dominant rebounding machine at both ends that attacks the basket very hard and plays at a faster pace than almost every Big Ten team (another reason pundits probably like the Spartans as they don’t slow it down like other Big Ten teams).
About the Michigan State offensive rebounding. It is very good, and it always is under Tom Izzo. Izzo is the only coach in the Big Ten that really emphasizes sending his guys to the offensive glass instead of bringing his defense back to stop transition baskets. As a result, the Spartans rebound 42.2% of their own misses. In the entire country, only Cincinnati, West Virginia, Kansas State, Pittsburgh, and Washington are higher than that. The offensive rebounding is what makes the Spartan offense elite, because they only shoot an average percentage from the field, hitting 37.3% on 3-point attempts and 50.1% on 2-point attempts. The defensive rebounding is also in the top 10 in the country, where they limit opponents to rebounds on only 26.9% of their misses.
Just like they go to the glass for offensive rebounds, the Spartans take it to the glass in the first place to get shot attempts. They actually attempt very few 3-pointers. In fact, only 26.8% of their total field goal attempts are 3-point attempts. More than 300 teams in the nation attempt more 3’s than the Spartans.
The Spartans would much rather get to the rim for two points or get fouled trying to get to the rim. That explains why their ratio of free throws made to field goals attempted is .416 which is the best the Big Ten. They have multiple ways of accomplishing all this. Sophomore point guard Kalin Lucas is continuously getting to the basket or the free throw line with his quickness. Or he can find Raymar Morgan who has a nice post-up game but also the athleticism to face up and score. Goran Suton and Delvon Roe also provide post options when they are in the game.
When the Spartans do attempt threes, it is most likely the 6’3” Chris Allen or 6’4” Durrell Summers. Summers is the best three-point option on the team at 45.5%.
Why the pundits are most likely wrong about the Spartans’ Final Four chances boils down to turnovers and defense.
Turnovers have been a recurring problem for the Spartans over the last few years. They find ways to lose games against teams they should beat usually because their offense ends up being limited by too many empty possessions that result in a turnover. They show the ability to take care of the ball, but the problem seems to pop up like an acne breakout every so often. In the Spartans recent loss to Northwestern, they turned it over 18 times in a 64 possession game and as a result were limited to only 63 points in 64 possessions. That’s not the only case as you can look at their 18 turnovers against Illinois which led to them scoring only 63 points in a 66-possession game. You can also look at their losses to Maryland and North Carolina for more examples.
Turnovers also play a role in me saying the Spartans have an average defense. Michigan State is currently giving up 1.02 points per possession in conference play, in a league that isn’t known for great offenses. Part of the reason for that I believe is that their defense doesn’t force very many turnovers. In fact, there are 238 teams in the country that force more turnovers per possession than the Spartans.
Now, there is no law saying you have to force turnovers to play tough defense. However, if you do not force turnovers than most defensive possessions will result in the opposing team attempting a shot, which means the defense has to be good at forcing misses. The Spartans are nothing special in this regard either. Often times it is either the lack of forcing misses or the lack of forcing turnovers that hurts their defense, and sometimes the combination of both. But to reiterate the point about forcing misses, the Spartans are 138th in the country in opponents’ 3-point percentage and 154th in the country in opponents’ 2-point percentage.
That’s surprising, given all the talk about the physicality of their defense in practice and all that you hear about them using football pads. Where that shows up is in their foul rate on defense, most likely in tightly called games which are a bit rare in the Big Ten.
In summary, Michigan State beats opponents by dominating the glass and attacking the basket for easy lay-ups, post up moves, or drawing fouls and getting to the line. Opponents can put together a highly efficient offense if they take care of the ball, as the Spartans will not force many turnovers. They still have to make shots, which they can against the average field goal defense of Michigan State, or hope for a tightly called game that sends them to the free throw line.