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2007-2008 Michigan State Spartans

by Chris Mackinder | March 9th, 2008

Record: (23-6, 11-5 Big Ten)
Key Wins
: N-Texas; Purdue, N-BYU, Indiana
Key Losses: N-UCLA, @Wisconsin, @Iowa, @Penn State
Key Stats: 20-1. The Spartans are undefeated at home this season and have recorded a 5-1 neutral floor record. While road record is important, there are no “road” games in the NCAA Tournament. And, if the Spartans get placed in the Midwest Regional and find themselves in the Sweet 16, rounds three and four will be played at Ford Field in Detroit – a neutral site with some of that home-court feeling.

13.8. Despite Spartan fans hitting the panic button earlier this season, MSU is committing just 13.8 turnovers per game – not a great number, but not as bad as previous season. In six losses, the Spartans have averaged closer to 15 and, in four of those losses, have topped 17. The best news in East Lansing these days is the following numbers: 7-5-6-9 (MSU’s turnovers in each of the last four games).

Key Numbers: RPI: 14; SOS: 39; NSOS: 40; Vs. Top 50: 5-4

Biggest Strengths: Depth. While most onlookers would assume MSU coach Tom Izzo loves to play games in the low 60s and high 50s, that assumption is completely false. Izzo loves to put up points but realizes that certain teams, depending on experience, point guard play and poise, can play at faster paces than others. This year’s squad goes 10 deep – in a recent loss to Wisconsin, the Spartans actually had a “second Starting 5” enter the game after a television timeout. And, best of all, players 9 and 10 aren’t just out there to take up space. Izzo actually is comfortable with any player on the floor taking a last-second shot. That differs greatly from when Izzo called former Spartan Tim Bograkos the sixth option when he buried a 3-pointer to beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena in 2005.

It’s also no secret that Tom Izzo is one of the most successful NCAA Tournament coaches in history. Coach K and Roy Williams dwarf some of Izzo’s numbers, especially wins, but that duo also has a significant edge in years on the bench. Izzo does have four Final Four appearances (1999, 2000, 2001 and 2005) and an Elite Eight appearance when MSU was a No. 7 seed in 2003 on his recent resume. In the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans win when they are a high seed. Recent losses, such as the loss in ’06 to George Mason, come when the Spartans are not a Top 5 seed. It is likely this season that Izzo’s team is a No. 3, No. 4 or No. 5 seed, meaning Izzo will be at his best when it matters most.

Biggest Weakness: The jitters. For a team that has a decent amount of upperclassmen, turnovers not kill momentum but they also turn what should be close games into blowouts. In recent games, the Spartans are valuing the ball better than ever, but one cannot tell if this is a mirage or a sign of things to come. In games in January and February, the Spartans were coughing up the ball so much opposing teams were throwing lozenges onto the floor. Worse, the turnovers weren’t necessarily forced. With their head coach’s main emphasis on defense, Izzo understands if an opposing team has some challenged takeaways. What he can’t stand, however, is the propensity in which Michigan State travels, sets illegal screens and can’t even hand the ball off to another player with out getting it taken away. With the Spartans playing more of a walk-it-up style of offense, there aren’t that many chances for the Spartans to score when they’re throwing the ball away.

Another weakness that might or might not be a factor come tournament time is Michigan State’s lack of a back-to-the-basket big man. Goran Suton, a lanky 6-foot-10 junior, likes to face the basket and doesn’t have strong to-the-hoop moves. Drew Naymick, a 6-11 senior, is more of a Ben Wallace-type player where he’s a defensive wall but one of the last options on offense. (For the record, Naymick’s trademark shot this season has been the 12-foot jumper from the elbow). The inability to get the ball to a dominant big man in the post could pose problems against a superior defensive team.

Most Important Player: Goran Suton. Many people would expect to see either Drew Neitzel or Raymar Morgan’s name here. While those players are better than Suton, it is hard to ignore Suton’s stats in Michigan State’s losses. In the early-season loss to UCLA, Suton played 20 minutes and had four fouls and no shots; in a mid-February loss at Indiana, Suton played 16 minutes and had four turnovers and didn’t take a shot. In other losses, he recorded single-digit points and wasn’t a force on either the offensive or defensive glass. It isn’t as if Suton needs to touch the ball on every possession – a la a typical point center – but when he becomes a factor in the post, everything opens up for Neitzel and Morgan.

As far as Neitzel goes, his biggest weakness is height. At 6-foot, Neitzel is often gives up three to four inches to a defender. That, coupled with his inability to create his own shot, means other players need to open things up for Neitzel. When the big guys or swingmen are drawing defenders, Neitzel doesn’t have to work so hard for a shot and efforts like he had against Wisconsin (1-for-10 shooting, 3 points) won’t show up in the stat sheet. Morgan’s biggest weakness is his hesitation. For a 6-7 small forward with mad skills, Morgan is almost fearful of attacking the basket. He’s not the player Kansas’ Brandon Rush is, but he plays a similar game and, if he was in attack mode more often, could dominate a game.

X-Factor: Kalin Lucas. The “quickest” player Tom Izzo has ever had at Michigan State already is a fan favorite across Green and White country. Not only is Lucas fast, but he’s so skilled with the ball that Michigan State has a great point guard for the first time since Marcus Taylor left for the NBA following the 2002 season. Lucas has the pull-up jumper, the six-foot floater, the triple and, most importantly, the ability to get to the rim. When the ball is in Lucas’ hands, defenders undoubtedly all have their eyes on him, opening things up for other players. When Lucas is on his game, the jolts of energy are felt throughout an entire arena. Oh, and for those wondering, Lucas is only a freshman – and, according to Rivals.com, was the “worst” of the Spartans’ class.

Might Lose When … turnovers become prevalent. With talent at every position, the Spartans have the ability to wear opponents down. Giving opponents free points after coughing up the rock goes against everything Izzo stands for. When opponents score, he wants his Spartans to make the opposing team earn every point. If the Spartans have close to a dozen turnovers in the first half – a number they’ve approached and topped numerous times this season – it will be a long game.

Might Surprise You With… rebounding tenacity. Why does Izzo pull his hair out so much when his team throws the ball away? Maybe it is because the Spartans were grabbing an offensive rebound on nearly 50 percent of their misses earlier this season. Think about that: Every two possessions the Spartans had, they would be able to take three shots. Turnovers not only take away one shot for the Spartans but, in many cases, two or three shots on one possession. The rebounds come from all over the floor. Obviously Suton and Naymick are the big bodies that patrol the lane but a staple of Izzo’s teams has been the rebounding ability of his guards and small forwards. Morgan is second on the team with 6.3 boards per game while Neitzel, Lucas and other guards account for nearly 10 boards per game.

Predicted finish in the NCAA’s: This team seems bound for the Sweet 16 with the hopes of reaching another Final Four. With a seed likely in the No.4 or No. 5 range, the Spartans will have good matchups through the first two rounds. After that, Michigan State likely will have to knock off a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16 round. It isn’t that Michigan State can’t win that kind of a game – MSU led UCLA 63-58 earlier this season before surrendering the final 10 points and beat Texas on a neutral floor – but it is hard to imagine the Spartans, who have lost to Penn State and Iowa, beating one of the likely No. 1 seeds (Memphis, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kansas) it hasn’t played before. A rematch with Texas seems like the best-case scenario because of how Michigan State matchups up with the Longhorns.

Editor’s Note: Even if the Spartans are placed in the Detroit regional, it might be too risky to take them for a deep run because of their significant early-exit potential.  Iowa and Penn State are pretty much abysmal teams this year, and as Chris points out, turnovers are a major concern against a team that defends well, as is outside shooting.  No team has been more Jekyll-and-Hyde than the Spartans, and I’ll have to see their draw before I make a definitive prediction.

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