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Michigan State Spartans

by Chris Mackinder | March 4th, 2010

MICHIGAN STATE (22-7, 12-4 Big Ten)

Good Wins: Gonzaga, Wisconsin, @ Purdue.
Bad Losses: None.

Strengths:
1. Toughness. This seems to be MSU’s biggest strength every year, and 2010 is no different. The “War Drill,” explained in last year’s team capsule, highlights why MSU teams are tough. What the Spartans lack in height, they make up with heart and guts. Draymond Green, a 6’6” power forward, personifies this belief. While Green’s offensive game is average, there are few players who seem to work harder on the floor. His numbers are pedestrian – 10.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.1 apg, 0.9 bpg, 1.3 spg – but because of MSU’s depth, he plays about 25 minutes per game. If he averaged 30+, he’d be Mr. Double-Double and more of a household name. As is, he is Tom Izzo on the floor, and–this isn’t a joke–just as important to the Spartans as Kalin Lucas.

2. Rebounding. Year after year, the Spartans are among the best teams in the country in rebounding margin. Michigan State (+9.1) trails only Kentucky (+9.8) and Quinnipiac (+9.6) in that statistic this season. Obviously, if Spartan opponents are shooting poorly, MSU will have ample opportunities for rebounds. What separates the exemplary rebounding team from the good rebounding team are the extra possessions gained from offensive rebounds. The Spartans rank 10th in the country, rebounding more than 40 percent of their offensive misses. In turn, the Spartans hold their opponents to offensive rebounds nearly 28 percent of the time, good for 19th best in the country.

3. Depth. With Lucas’ recent ankle injury, walk-on Mike Kebler was getting significant minutes for the Spartans. Kebler is just another example of the Spartans’ sick depth. Without Kebler, MSU uses 10 players regularly, though–for whatever reason–Izzo tends to rotate his bigs in very sparingly. That said, the Spartans have two point guards (Lucas and Korie Lucious) to go along with a lethal 3-point shooter (Chris Allen), two athletic freaks (Durrell Summers and Raymar Morgan), a game-changing sophomore big (Delvon Roe), a do-everything glue-guy (Green), and two rookie bigs (Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman). Throw in Kebler and 3-point specialist Austin Thornton and that’s your heaping rotation. While there are really eight major contributors on the squad, the handful to dozen minutes given to each of the other three players throughout the season will inevitably help come tournament time.

Weaknesses:
1. Low post play. Losing Goran Suton from last year’s national runner-up team created a magnanimous void in the middle. Without another experienced center on the roster (junior Tom Herzog was expected to fill the role but the 7-footer just can’t thicken up), Izzo has filled the void by either going small or rotating his two freshmen (Nix and Sherman). Both are very limited offensively and rely on weakside defenders more than normal. Teams with a dominant post presence (like Kansas’ Cole Aldrich, Texas’s Dexter Pittman, Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins, etc.) will exploit the Spartans.

2. Turnovers. Comparing MSU’s turnover numbers to previous seasons, this team doesn’t seem to have a glaring problem holding on to the ball. The Spartans turn the ball over on 21.2 percent of their possessions, slightly worse than the league average (20.5). But the game at Purdue – a slugfest the Spartans won 53-44 – was an oh-my-gosh-this-could-be-a-tournament-time problem. In the 63-possession game, MSU turned the ball over 23 times, a whopping 36.5 percent of its possessions. Think about that: the Spartans didn’t even get a shot off more than one out of every three trips down the floor. If there is one complaint some Spartan fans have of Izzo, it is that is offensive playbook is so large and he likes to keep things structured that it doesn’t allow his players to create on their own. That, in turn, leads to players traveling or throwing the ball away because they’re “trying to follow the playbook.” If players like Morgan, Summers and Allen were given the liberty to take players off the dribble and felt comfortable letting 15-footers fly, the turnovers almost certainly would disappear. However, a free-flowing offense would inevitably lead to more run-outs for the opposition and would prove to be a chink in MSU’s defensive armor – something Izzo would never allow to happen.

Other Factors

Coaching: This is Izzo’s 15th year on the MSU sidelines and the Spartans will be making their 13th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. MSU has been to five Final Fours in the past 11 years–tops in the nation–and an additional Elite 8. His teams are 9-3 in opening-round games and 8-1 in second-round games (the lone loss coming to UNC in 2007). When the Spartans are a top-5 seed, they have never failed to reach the Sweet 16 (six times). Hands down, Izzo is one of the best NCAA Tournament coaches because he gets his teams ready to play regardless of the seed. (Not to knock Duke and Coach K, but it is pretty easy to reach the Sweet 16 when your team is a No. 1 seed nearly every year). That isn’t to say Duke did not deserve the seed or did not to work to advance to the second weekend, but Izzo has reached the second weekend twice as a No. 5 seed twice and once as a No. 7.

Izzo also has said the perception of his teams is that MSU prefers to play in a walk-it-up-the-floor game. Most of the time, Big Ten games end up that way because Spartan opponents know that is the best way to beat MSU. In the NCAA Tournament, however, teams tend to play to their strengths a little more and a team like Cincinnati, that is similar to MSU in style and preference, will try to push at every opportunity. That is when the Spartans seem to look like a completely different club on their way to pulling an upset or two.

Key Numbers:
Offensive Efficiency: 112.9 (28th)
Defensive Efficiency: 90.4 (31st)
Tempo: 67.4 (172nd)

Tournament Prediction:
Sweet 16/Elite 8. I know this is somewhat of a cop-out, but let me explain. If the Spartans are slotted on the No. 4 or No. 5 line, the Sweet 16 will be the end of the road. If somehow the Spartans can make a run in the Big Ten Tournament and (gasp!) win the tournament for the first time since 2000, I can see the Spartans hitting the No. 3 line. If MSU reaches the No. 3 line, I think it will not only have momentum but also a great opportunity to take down a somewhat-sketchy No. 2 seed. Given time to scheme against another highly-ranked team, I’ll give Izzo another edge.

But against the nation’s elite – which Michigan State will inevitably have to face to reach a sixth Final Four in 12 years – the team just doesn’t have it. This has the look of a team that–losing just one senior–will return to the Final Four in 2011 primed to contend for a championship. In 2010, the second weekend will have to suffice.

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  1. Joe B Says:

    Need to change “magnanimous” – as Inigo Montoya said “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Maybe “monstrous” or “gargantuan” or “tremendous”?

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