Opposition Q&A: Previewing Michigan State with The Only Colors

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Dustin Johnston

When one of the best team specific basketball bloggers on the internet happens to cover Michigan’s rival, it only makes sense that we tap him for a question and answer session before a big game. KJ of The Only Colors agreed to provide his thoughts and insights on Michigan State, tonight’s game and more.

My answers to his questions can be found right here at The Only Colors.

I have a hard time figuring out what to make of this year’s Michigan State team. I think last year’s team was better but this team just keeps on winning. We’re half way through the Big Ten race and Michigan State sits tied at the top of the league despite not racking up nearly as many national headlines as Indiana or Michigan. Break it down for me: How good is this team?

Having spent the last two months intensely studying this question, I can definitively answer that they are *just* good enough.  This certainly isn’t a vintage Tom Izzo team.  They’re not deep, they don’t crash the offensive glass at an elite level, they’re more likely to create their own shot, and they’re more aggressive (but also less disciplined) on defense.  But they’re doing enough things at a good-but-not-great level to stay in games, and they’ve won basically all the close ones.

They’ve certainly had some good fortune along the way–Big Ten opponents are shooting just 60.9% from the free throw line–but they also have a starting lineup that’s as talented as any Izzo has fielded since at least 2001 in my opinion.  The starters have all improved as the season has gone along (maybe with the exception of Keith Appling, who was pretty good to start off with), giving the team five guys who can legitimately take over the game at any moment.  The lack of depth has meant they’re not dominating most games.  That will come back to haunt them at some point, but so far it hasn’t been the severely liability many observers–yours truly most prominently–would have predicted.

What’s wrong with Michigan State’s interior defense? Big Ten opponents are shooting 49% on two point attempts – the worst in the conference. This comes just one season after the Spartans ranked 1st in the league in shooting percentage defense.

Another great mystery!  I think it’s a combination of several factors.  First, the team is defending more aggressively on the perimeter than most Izzo-coached squads have, as evidenced by their league-leading steal rate of 13.4% in conference play.  The downside of that approach is that it can setup easy lanes to the basket when a defender gets burned.  Second, the interior help rotation hasn’t been very good.  Some of that may be a factor of Izzo being forced to play two true bigs most of the time following Brandan Kearney’s midseason transfer (after signalling he preferred Branden Dawson paying the 4-spot early in the season).  Finally, I think the lack of depth may play a factor here, as defenders can’t scramble quite as hard and may be reticent to pick up fouls.

The strangest part of this equation is that MSU’s two-point defense was extremely good early in the season, despite the fact they were turning the ball over in bunches and, therefore, giving up a lot of easy baskets going the other way.  Those turnover issues have mostly been corrected in conference play, but the two-point defense has completely reversed itself for the bad.  Like I said, ’tis a mystery.

The Spartans still attempt just 27 percent of their shots behind the arc in Big Ten play but are connecting at an impressive 41 percent clip. How important is the three point shot to Michigan State?

The offense still isn’t designed to create three-point looks as a primary option, but some hot three-point shooting has definitely helped keep the team in a lot of games.  Gary Harris has been the biggest contributor in that department.  While he’s (quite rightly) billed as a very well-rounded player, he’s actually putting up numbers you’d associate with a three-point specialist, shooting 42.6% on over 4 attempts per game from beyond the arc.  Given his shoulder issues throughout the season and the back issues more recently, he’s started focusing more on his perimeter game.  Over the last four games, Harris has attempted 26 three-pointers vs. just 11 two-pointers.

Elsewhere, Appling shook off last year’s late-season three-point shooting slump and is making 36.8% of his attempts this year.  (Appling may also be a little more likely to take the perimeter shot after his shoulder popped out, and back in, at the end of last Wednesday night’s game.  Our pets’ heads aren’t falling off, but are players’ shoulders are popping out.)  Adreian Payne, meanwhile, has just very recently emerged as three-point shooting threat (as part of a larger offensive emergence), making 7 of 12 long distance attempts over the last month.

Michigan State’s statistical profile is unique in the sense that there aren’t many obvious strengths. Looking at the four factors in conference play, the Spartans rank 5th or 7th in all offensive statistics and between 3rd and 8th defensively. Other than winning close games, what are the top strengths of this team on both ends of the floor?

They’re still solid on the defensive glass (3rd in conference play) and they’re creating more turnovers than the average Big Ten team (also 3rd).  So they’re limiting the number of chances opponents get to score the basketball.

Offensively, it’s really been a balanced approach, with no areas of real domination.  In conference play, the five starters are all averaging between 9.5 and 13 points per game.  The positive spin is that the lineup can adapt to what the defense gives it in any particular game.  The less charitable interpretation is that the team still really hasn’t developed a distinct identity.  At this point, though, I think MSU fans will take what we’ve got and see how far it can take us. If the team can get and stay healthy (which is a big “if”), that could be quite a ways.

What match-up advantages will Michigan State attempt to exploit against the Wolverines on Tuesday? In the past, the Spartans have almost always had an interior and athletic advantage, do you think that’s the case this season as well?

Looking at the individual match-ups, it’s pretty even across the board.  I think the only MSU starter who has a clear advantage in terms of talent and/or experience is Derrick Nix.  And Nix’s decision making in the post has really improved of late.  After posting just 13 assists vs. 27 turnovers in the team’s first 17 games, he’s posted 17 assists vs. 7 turnovers in the last 7 games. His conditioning (30+ minutes in most recent games) and free throw shooting (78.4% in conference play) have also taken massive leaps this season.  So I’d expect Izzo to try to run the offense through Nix for a decent chunk of the game–particularly in light of the fact that Jordan Morgan is out (or at least at less than 100%) and Mitch McGary is the one Wolverine susceptible to foul trouble.

I do think MSU will have the interior advantage, with both Nix and Payne on the court most of the time.  But the athletic gap has definitely been closed.  These are two of the most athletic teams in the country.  And MSU’s big lineup will create a challenge for guarding Glenn Robinson III.  Deshaun Thomas continually took advantage of the problems MSU’s bigs had on switches to get open three-point looks when Ohio State played at Breslin.

The common denominator in Michigan State’s four losses appears to be free throw rate. The Spartans four losses are their four games with the fewest ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts. Is that a coincidence or does Michigan State need free throw attempts to win?

That’s an interesting statistical correlation I hadn’t noticed.  All four of the teams MSU has lost to (UConn, Miami, Minnesota, and Indiana) have good size on the interior, making it tougher for MSU to impose itself in the post or drive the lane.  So you may be on to something there.  Of course, MSU had turnover issues in most of those games, too, so I’m not sure it’s all one thing with this team.

Give us your three key statistical (or non-statistical) indicators to whether Michigan wins or loses Tuesday night — and a prediction.

  1. The rotation on defense has to be much better than it has been.  Michigan has scorers all over the court and continued individual defense lapses will mean digging a big hole fast.  That will be a very large task given how well Trey Burke runs the pick and roll.  On a related note, MSU players can’t afford to put themselves in bad positions and foul.  With Travis Trice out for a second stretch of games due to head-related injuries, Tom Izzo really only has 6 players he trusts to play in key situations.
  2. Denzel Valentine needs to play well.  He’s that sixth guy.  After struggling quite a bit with the transition to conference play, Valentine has emerged in the last few games to an important X-factor for the MSU offense, scoring 24 points and posting 6 assists over the last three games.  His court vision makes the offense less predictable, and he’ll need to play competently as the primary ball-handler if and when Appling needs to go to the bench for any stretch of minutes.
  3. Overall, the offense will need to get to the rim.  That’s not exactly an earth-shattering statement, but two-point field goal defense appears to be Michigan’s only real defensive weakness.  MSU will need to find enough ways to get the ball in the lane without forcing turnovers or offensive fouls.  Posting up Nix and Payne will be a starting point.  Branden Dawson playing within himself and getting baskets in transition, off cuts, or off offensive rebounds will be critical.  If MSU can somehow reassert its historic identity on the offensive glass, in spite of Michigan’s superb defensive rebounding numbers this year, that would be a *very* positive indicator for us Spartan types.

I am an avowed non-predictor of individual game results.  And the predictions I have made this year have almost all been wrong.  So I’m not picking the winner.  But I do think both teams may be able to take advantage of the other team’s defensive weaknesses.  So I’ll say this: Unlike most recent Michigan-Michigan State contests, it’ll take 70 points to win this one.  (Regular TOC readers are all rushing out now to place a bet on the under.)

  • Mattski

    If we’re 3-D on offense we’ve got a good chance. But just three days removed from a deflating OT loss at Wisconsin, I won’t be surprised if our freshmen struggle tonight. Work. Cut. Out. For. Us.

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