Michigan State Spartans
Good Wins: Oklahoma State, @Texas, @Minnesota, Ohio State, Kansas, Illinois, @Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, @ Illinois.
Bad Losses: None.
1. Toughness. The mantra of Tom Izzo’s Spartans has been toughness from the first day he stepped in the gym. You may have heard of the “War Drill” which Izzo instituted as a regular at practice in the late ’90s. The procedure went as follows: Izzo would have the basketball team layer up with football pads; Then the players would spread out within the 3-point circle as Izzo held the only basketball being used; Lastly, Izzo would clank some sort of shot off the glass and/or rim and the players would fight for the rebound (and when I say fight, I don’t mean box out and get position).
The players would end up with black eyes, bruises, bloody noses and even a few chipped teeth. The “winner” wasn’t the player who sustained the fewest injuries; it was the player with the rebound. The drill has been toned down in recent years but the mantra and style of play remains the same. When that ball goes up in the air, regardless if the Spartans are on offense or defense, four players charge to the glass as if there are a few thousand dollars sitting atop the rim. The results speak for themselves. As of Sunday, the Spartans were the second best team in the nation with a +9.9 rebounding margin over its opponents. That is a big reason the Spartans won their first Big Ten Championship since 2001.
2. Camaraderie/Depth. There is a reason this MSU team doesn’t mirror the past six or seven MSU clubs. The team has weapons spread across the floor and all work flawlessly as interchangeable parts. It isn’t as if all the players are of the same class either. What the Spartans have is the perfect mix of grizzled veterans and skilled-yet-experienced young players. The trio of seniors – Goran Suton, Travis Walton and Marquise Gray – is filled with role players, but each brings a valuable asset to the team (Suton – inside presence; Walton – ferocious on-the-ball defense; Gray – toughness and ferocity on the glass). Couple that trio with another trio of sophomores (point guard Kalin Lucas, sharp shooting guard Chris Allen and swingman Durrell Summers) and the Spartans have a solid six.
The group plays so well together that, at times, it kind of has the methodical look of the recent Detroit Pistons whose camaraderie led them to six straight Eastern Conference finals. The fact super frosh Delvon Roe, who has been called the best freshman post player in the country, and Draymond Green, who posted a 15-and-15 game last week, have filled in the cracks without affecting the team’s flow speaks volumes. Furthermore, I haven’t even mentioned junior forward Raymar Morgan; a player Izzo says has the most talent on the team. He too enters and exits the lineup without altering team chemistry, allowing the Spartans to go 9-deep without hesitation.
Turnovers. Doesn’t this seem like a staple weakness of recent Michigan State teams? The Spartans don’t seem to veer far from the Division I average, but Michigan State turns the ball over more than 1/5 of its possessions. Think how good this team would be if it didn’t throw the ball away so often. In MSU’s last loss (at Purdue on Feb. 17), the Spartans has 22 turnovers in a 72-possession game. Michigan State turned the ball over on more than 30.5 percent of its possessions. The result was a non-surprising 18-point loss.
Free-throw shooting. At the moment, this is a surprising weakness for the Spartans. Typically, Michigan State shoots in the 70-75 percent range as a team with a few shooters who are in the high 80s. It was an ominous start of the season from the charity stripe (13-for-21 vs. North Carolina, 12-for-27 vs. Maryland) but the Spartans have begun to come around. It could be the fact a lot of MSU’s early-season free throws were shot by guys who you would not want on the line in the closing seconds of a game while nowadays, guards are getting to the line more frequently. Nevertheless, if the evil free-throw shooting bugaboo hits the Spartans in crucial games, it wouldn’t be pretty.
Coaching: Listen to any announcer on ESPN and I swear that every single coach is “one of the best coaches in America.” If all the commentators are speaking the truth, than there are approximately 200 “best” coaches. In all seriousness, Izzo’s track record speaks for itself. The NCAA Tournament has been a mainstay for the Spartans, who have been to the Big Dance for 11-straight seasons. In that time, the Spartans have won a national championship and been to four Final Fours and an additional Elite Eight. When it comes to the biggest games, Izzo knows how to coach against anybody.
The Departing: A little known fact about Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State: Every recruit that has stayed for four seasons has been to the Final Four. It’s an astonishing stat, but one that could come to an end this season. The Spartans last went to a Final Four in 2005. The following season was the first in East Lansing for Suton, Walton and Gray. Izzo and his players would do anything to keep that streak alive.
Elite 8. This Michigan State team is the best team Izzo’s had since his national title squad in 2000. Does that mean this team will win the title? Absolutely not. It just happens that there are a few teams Michigan State will not be able to beat this season (UNC and Pittsburgh are the biggest names). I believe a team with a group of talented upperclassmen is the one that not only will to play deep in March but also reach a Final Four. The Spartans core of talent resides in the sophomore class. That means it’ll be one more year before Izzo takes Michigan State back to the Final Four. But, chances are, he’ll have the team on the doorstep this season.