First Look: Post offense, Gary Harris and other keys to Michigan-Michigan State

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan-58-Michigan-State-57-18[1]Michigan and Michigan State face off in East Lansing on Saturday. Both teams are undefeated and fighting for sole possession of first place. Here’s a first look at what the Spartans bring to the table against the Wolverines.  (Photo: Dustin Johnston)


Michigan State will be shorthanded on Saturday, but how shorthanded remains to be seen.

Branden Dawson is out for 4-5 weeks with a broken hand sustained punching the table during a film session. Dawson was frustrated with his play and was set off by Dan Dakich’s comment that Michigan State’s success this season depends on his effort.

Tom Izzo told reporters that the chances Adreian Payne – who hasn’t played since January 7th against Ohio State – plays are “slim to none”. Izzo also called the decision whether to play Payne “the toughest coaching decision in my life” earlier this week.

Considering Payne sustained the injury before that Ohio State game and still gave it a go (scoring 18 points in 32 minutes), I would be surprised  if he didn’t at least try to play on Saturday. His absence would limit the Spartans’ options offensively.

UPDATE: Adreian Payne has been ruled out according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

Post Up Game

Post play has always been a staple of Tom Izzo’s offense. A year ago the Spartans led the league in post-up efficiency and were second in the league in percentage of post up possessions. Just 9.1 percent of Michigan State’s offensive possessions originate in the post this season (including passes), down from 15.5 percent last season. 

The following scatterplot shows that the Spartans are still the second most efficient low-post team, but have shifted toward the middle of the conference in usage.

Data: Synergy Sports

It’s worth noting that Michigan has improved significantly in the low post. The Wolverines are using nearly twice as many possessions on the low block – 2.3% last year (68 poss. total) to 4% this year (53 poss. total) – and are scoring 1.02 PPP this season, up from .691 PPP.

MSU’s numbers are down because Derrick Nix is gone and Adreian Payne has missed a few games. But the Spartans still have one of the best post players in the conference if not the country. Frank Kaminsky is more efficient, but Payne has more volume despite sitting out for the last three games.

Data: Synergy Sports

Payne can do just about everything on the low block. He passes, finishes in both directions, dunks and fights for position. Michigan State also makes it a priority to get him the ball on the block when he’s in the game. Here’s video footage of Payne’s post-up actions in his last few games.

Michigan State’s problem is that Payne is really the only option on the low block. Branden Dawson has 14 post ups, but he’s out. Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling and Alex Gauna have combined to score 9 points on 17 post ups combined. Kenny Kaminski, expected to start at the four position, isn’t a threat on the low block either.

Gary Harris diversifying game

Gary Harris is a projected NBA lottery pick and he’s the complete package on both ends of the floor. He might not have the hype, but he grades out almost identically to Aaron Craft in Synergy Sports’ defensive metrics. He’s the guy that is likely to guard Nik Stauskas and he’s more than capable of slowing down Michigan’s star sophomore. That battle will be the one to watch when the Wolverines are on offense.

But offensively, Harris has improved as well, even if the numbers don’t jump off the chart when examining his statistics. His 3-point shooting numbers (33%) are down from last year (41%), but his usage is up 6%. He’s still a major threat in transition and leads the league in 3-pointers since Big Ten play started, shooting 41%.

Harris has become a much more dynamic offensive player in his sophomore year. He’s done it by becoming a much more effective player off of screens.

Data: Synergy Sports

Off ball movement has always been a big part of Tom Izzo’s offense, but Harris has been much more efficient in those situations this season. Watch this video from Luke Winn’s Power Rankings and you’ll see what I’m talking about:

Harris has improved his efficiency when catching the ball off screens by 31% and he’s even using a few more screens. He’s also using significantly more ball screens this season. Just 11% of his offensive possessions were ball screens (including passes) last season, despite the fact that he was fairly efficient. He’s doubled that usage this season while making a modest improvement in his efficiency. Harris is the Spartans most efficient ball screen player by a wide margin.

Transition offense

We’ve harped on transition play for the last week or so when discussing Iowa, but Michigan State is the only other team in the conference that matches the Hawkeyes in quantity of transition opportunities. If we bring back the graph from the Iowa preview, Michigan State runs more than anyone in the league.

Data: Synergy Sports

Stopping the Spartans in transition will be a focus, especially within the friendly confines of the Breslin Center.Gary Harris and Adreian Payne (1.48 PPP, 94th percentile) are the top Spartans in transition while Keith Appling is also very good.

Other notes

  • Michigan State’s ball screen defense is designed to take away the ball handler (.67 PPP, 80th percentile), but the Spartans have been susceptible to losing the roll man (.98 PPP, 46th percentile). There should be opportunities for Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford if Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert can find them.
  • Keith Appling is shooting the ball much better this season, but he’s actually much more effective in isolation situations (1.06 PPP) than he when he has a ball screen (.71 PPP). Appling is a very tough matchup for Michigan with a freshman point guard recovering from the flu and Spike Albrecht, who isn’t the fastest on-ball defender.
  • Kenny Kaminski is a knock down spot up shooter. He’ll start at the four in Dawson’s place and is excited for the opportunity.
  • Scott


    How would you be shocked if Payne didn’t at least try to play on Saturday? Do you think Izzo is lying? Plus, this tweet from Rexrode:

    Joe Rexrode‏@joerexrode17 hrs

    For those who think Izzo is being coy on Payne, he’s not — Payne is doing absolutely nothing in practice. Big game, not bigger than March.

    • Shocked is maybe a bit over the top. I would be surprised though. I expect Michigan is prepping like Payne could play.

      • JVS

        Agreed. If there is any way he can play w/o making it worse, even limited minutes, you’d think he would be out there. Game planning, conditioning, practice time wouldn’t be a reason to limit his minutes, as he’s too impactful to what they want to do.

        This was a great piece by the way.

      • Scott

        Haha I like how you changed the word to “surprised” in the article. Also, I will never be happy that a player gets hurt, especially a college athlete, but I think it’s funny that the father of a Michigan player ended up actually being a cause of a MSU player’s injury.
        Big fan of the site/your insight and keep up the great work!

        Go Blue!!!

        • Ha! I did change it, agreed shocked was a bit harsh.

          Updated again with Goodman’s report that Payne is out.

  • MLaw

    Big opportunity and obviously huge game for the sake of bragging rights. I’ll eat my hat if Payne doesn’t play. I thought there were rumblings from Payne himself that he would play this week. I think Izzo is just drumming up the story and getting in a little gamesmanship. In the post-game, Izzo will credit Payne’s toughness, when he has probably been practicing 2-3 days. I expect a tough game that is poorly officiated, with a few bad calls turning momentum in MSU’s favor.

    • Mattski

      Earlier–yes–the rumblings were that Payne would play. Several sources now suggesting that he won’t, however, and it’s likely more than head games. Izzo’s not dumb enough to think that he tricks Beilein.

  • Champswest

    Izzo is such a Drama Queen.
    This is not a difficult decision. If he has been cleared to play, you play him. If he would risk further injury or hinder his full recovery, you don’t play him. Izzo is just setting the stage so he can insert Payne and get the crowd fired up or give himself an excuse to whine about after the game.

    • He hasn’t been cleared to play, correct?

      I think it’s a tricky issue with a foot injury/plantar fasciitis and balancing rest/recovery, etc.

      • Champswest

        I don’t know if the doctors have cleared him to play or not. If they haven’t cleared him, then as I said, this is a no brainier.

        • guestavo

          You can be cleared to play with plantar fasciitis but it never FULLY goes away unless you rest that foot for a long period of time.

          • Champswest

            Do we know for sure that is what the injury is?
            If that is the case, what would you do. You are leading the Big Ten, you are 18-1 and ranked 3rd in the country, a likely 1 seed. I would rest him for the future and take my chances without him on my home court with a Game Day crowd. They will need him more at Iowa.

          • guestavo

            A tournament run > A B1G title. I’d rest him.

    • Kenny

      Love how Dakish took a swipe at Izzo the other day on TV.

    • mazs

      You nailed it. Whether he can play is one question. But if he dresses, he will obviously play—and in the exact way and for the exact reason you state.

  • Kenny

    What a difference a week makes. Most of us would settle for 1-2 out of the three game stretch. Now 3-0 is very much within our reach.

    Without Payne and Dawson, and with Appling with a troubling shoulder, I don’t see how Izzo can keep its traditional physical style in the upcoming game. Gary Harris is still very good, but he has to carry the team defensively and offensively. If Zak Irvin does not have a chance to check his cousin personally, he can definitely share a trick or two with Levert and Stauskas on how to agitate Harris.

    And I agree with Dylan that Payne will dress-up for Saturday and at least give it a try, and regardless, we will attack the basket relentlessly.

    • arsenal926

      Can’t remember if it was on this site, but someone made a comment that Michigan is basically playing with house money at this point. Going into this stretch I thought 1-2 would be good enough to be firmly in the race for a B10 championship. Find a way to go 3-0 and there’s a realistic chance to be 2 games clear of the field by the end of next week. Any one know what the Vegas line is on this game?

      • Fab 5 Legends

        the lines are not out yet…im assuming it will be within -3.5…Michigan maybe +2.5 I would predict – it will def be great value on Michigan 2morow – the line will change before tip-off 100%

        • Russ

          I bet the line is more like Michigan +7.. I hope it is +3.

  • chazer

    I expect “slim to none” to be a factor Saturday. It could cost MSU a final four run if the injury lingers, TIZ is in a tough spot! This game is going to be a battle regardless of the players on the floor.
    Go Blue!

    • Champswest

      Agree. It would be short sighted to risk losing Payne for the long haul (not to mention risking his future) by rushing him back.

  • Chezaroo

    Dawson being out seriously affects their rebounding, hopefully negating their transition opportunities. I’m still very leery of this game, Izzo will embrace the challenge of adding to his local legend status by playing the “underdog” role with his reduced cast. That place is a zoo, and when the games tight and Payne makes his obligatory cameo, the roof will come off. He is a master at crowd involvement and motivation. This will be a VERY difficult game to win, believe me. Go Blue!

    • MLaw

      This. You can bet Izzo is drumming up the team to get this one game as the “underdog”. You can bet they will play out of their minds vs. Michigan. Gary Harris and Appling can still beat any team in the Big 10 by themselves if they play to their potential.

      It was interesting in the interviews following Iowa that the Michigan players view this as “just another tough road game” which I think is the healthier approach in basketball.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    lets go blue! we got this…no payne & dawson is huge…we are more than capable of getting a W in east lansing – the way our team is meshing is absolutely amazing…our 8 man rotation is playing well…anything from Walton & Irvin is a bonus – I feel like we pull out a squeaker W – GR3 & Levert with big games since Sparty will focus on shutting down stauskas

    • Fab 5 Legends

      Beilein needs top remind returning players of last years drubbing – motivation to come out ready to shock mich state with an early run

  • TimgColo

    I will still be shocked to see Payne sit this game. Especially if we get up early. Unfortunately Breslin is a very tough place to win, regardless of the injuries. Hope Tantrum Tommy doesn’t intimidate the usually suspect officials into some homer calls… Still believe we can do it, 75-70 Michigan!

  • rlcBlue

    Sparty is facing a serious matchup problem at the 4 spot – I can’t see Kaminski or Costello or Gauna or Schilling staying in front of GRIII. I’d guess Valentine is their best bet, but I’d imagine he’d be vulnerable to being posted up, and a four-guard lineup would be really, really small – Ellis or Trice would have to deal with LeVert or Stauskas.