That last post should sit atop this site no more.  Go read this instead.


Unfathomable sadness, indeed

[Therapy costs a lot of money. Venting on your dormant blog is free.  Commenting is still off.  Dial me up on the Twitters.]

After 120 minutes of football played between Michigan State and Wisconsin this season, the cumulative score is MSU 76, Wisconsin 73.  As a purportedly rational stats-oriented type, it’s tempting to console myself by chalking up last night’s conclusion to the inherent randomness of athletic competition.  Two evenly-matched teams.  One got the late breaks in the first game.  One got them in the second game.

But that doesn’t really work here.  Because, by the numbers, these two teams weren’t evenly matched last night.  MSU was demonstrably superior in all major facets of the game.  They outgained the Badgers by over 100 yards, performing more efficiently in both the running game and the passing game.  The MSU defense sacked a very elusive quarterback three times, while Kirk Cousins was barely touched by the Wisconsin defense.  By the time MSU first punted the ball, Wisconsin had already done so four times.

Ten-point underdogs that fall behind 21-7 don’t usually end up with fourth quarter leads.  But this ten-point underdog executed a masterful offensive gameplan (Dan Roushar’s playcalling has improved by an estimated 341.5% since the Notre Dame game), found its bearings defensively, and went on a decidedly unflukey 22-0 run (221 yards gained, despite a turnover, and three three-and-outs forced).

And you know what?  All that just makes all of this that much worse.  Through 35 quarters of Big Ten football, MSU had emerged a clear head above the rest of the league–a full game better than everyone else over an eight-game schedule (having played as tough a slate as anyone) and eight points up on the team, already vanquished once, that both the experts and the numbers deemed the most talented and capable in the conference.

You could already taste the rose stem in your mouth.  Three decades of mediocrity were on the verge of being, if not erased, overcome.

And that right there, and that alone, should be the source of all of our tears of unfathomable sadness.  Not Michigan going to a BCS game–that’s just a function of a wacked out college football postseason “system.”  (And, truth be told, I’m pretty sure most UM fans would have gladly traded places, raised the division championship trophy, and took the shot at the Rose Bowl.  After all, it’s not “Those who stay will . . . back into a BCS at-large bid.)  Not the inane “Sparty No!” exclamations strewn across Twitter and Facebook.  (The last time MSU had lost a close [one-possession] game?  31 games ago, vs. Minnesota, 42-34.  Implying that this group of Spartan football players is choke-prone is objectively laughable.)  No, it’s all about the Rose Bowl.

The old saw is something like “You can only get as high in the good moments as you were low in the bad moments.”  The problem is that the inverse of closing down an Indianapolis bar, trying to imbibe beer while gripping a rose between your teeth, is a kind of numbing distress that an athletic contest has no business inducing.

And, perhaps making things worse, it’s not even clear who we should be mad at.  The coaching staff made all the right calls, or at least highly defensible calls.  Dantanio’s overly conservative decisions to punt both played out according to his plans.  The players made too many key plays to enumerate in the course of building that 8-point lead.  (Kirk Cousins could not have been any better on his 29 non-INT passing attempts.)  The refs had no choice but to make the running-into-the-kicker call, regardless of the classic Badger flop.

You can be mad at Nick Hill, I guess.  He certainly didn’t follow through on Dantonio’s statement that ball security would be the top priority (or something along those lines).  And Isaiah Lewis had as rough a fourth quarter as you’ll find.  (The 4th-and-7 pass conversion is the one that will haunt me, as it occurred in the corner our seats were in.  In Lewis’s defense, it was a very strange angle and trajectory to be defending a pass against.  Not in his defense, ARRRRRRGH JUST GET ONE HAND ON THE BALL IT’S HANGING RIGHT THERE.)

Blaming those guys won’t help, of course.  In the end, the team came up one play short–or one nonplay short, in the case of the attempted punt block that will live in infamy.  (Underrated candidate: the ball that glanced off Keshawn Martin’s fingers in the endzone that would have put MSU up two scores with under nine minutes to go.  Nobody’s fault, but that was the first crack at nailing the thing shut.)  That should do nothing to reduce our pride in the team–quite the contrary, in fact–but that one unmade play translates into a yawning gulf between the binary outcomes available.

The standard routine at this point in a post-loss blog post is to try to find a silver lining.  I find none.  Yes, this team has built another piece of the foundation for future success for the Michigan State football program.  But that was true before the team took the field last night and would have remained (and does remain) true regardless of how the game played out.  The opportunity was there to turn future success into current success–to send Cousins, Cunningham, Martin, Nichol, Foreman, Robinson, et al. out as fully deserving participants in the Granddaddy of Them All.  But, for reasons that are both starkly obvious and, at the same time, defiant to rational analysis, it was not to be grasped.

To avoid paying any more monthly server costs, I’ve moved the SW archives back over to the free WordPress platform.  I think the only major loss is the Java-based StatSheet charts.  Other than that, everything should be here for your browsing pleasure.  If anyone finds any other major glitches, shoot me an e-mail.

For fresh Spartan blogging content, of course, head over to The Only Colors.

The end of the beginning

Barring future developments of an unforeseen nature, this is the final post of the Spartans Weblog.  Commenting will be shut down in a few days; the site will remain up for archival purposes as long as Mrs. SW lets me continue to pay the server costs (or I figure out how to upload the contents back to the free WordPress service).

I won’t repeat everything I said when I first announced the transition to the new site, except to say how much I’ve appreciated everyone’s kind words about my work here.  (Announcing the end of this blog has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my ego.)  You, my friends, are the primary reason that my blogging career is not ceasing entirely.

The conversation will continue–with more voices and a more interactive blogging setup–at the following address:


See you on the other side.

14 seasons as head coach

14 .500-or-better Big Ten regular season finishes

12 NCAA Tournament appearances

12 first-team all-Big Ten player selections

10 20-win seasons

8 Sweet Sixteens

6 Elite Eights

5 Final Fours

5 Big Ten regular season championships

5 former assistants currently coaching Division 1 teams

4 Big Ten player-of-the-year selections

3 30-win seasons

2 Big Ten Tournament championships

2 national championship game appearances

1 national championship

.738 NCAA Tournament winning percentage (31-11)

.711 all-time winning percentage (336-137)

.690 Big Ten regular season winning percentage (160-72)

Zero 4-year players without a Final Four appearance

Nothing but class

Friday Morning Links

Breaking down the defense

A couple months ago, KenPom added something called “defensive fingerprint” on each team page.  Mr. Pomeroy’s explanation:

Defensive Fingerprint attempts to objectively identify the style of a team’s defense. Inputs into the system are the departure from the D-1 norm of the following defensive characteristics…

– assist percentage (triple weight, higher means a more likely zone team)
– 3-point attempt percentage (triple weight, higher means a more likely zone team)
– free throw attempt percentage (double weight, higher means a more likely man team)
– turnover percentage (single weight, higher means a more likely man team)
– defensive rebounding percentage (variable weight depending on offensive rebounding percentage, higher means a more likely man team)

All those factors go into a super-secret formula that calculates whether, based on its stats, a given team is likely a zone team or a man-to-man team.

What’s interesting is that, despite the fact that MSU played man-to-man defense for all but a handful of possessions this past season, the formula spits out an “inconclusive” on our team page.  To investigate this phenomenon, I’ve put together a table showing MSU’s rankings for the five stats used in the formula.  The first set of numbers are the full season; these are the numbers that KenPom is using.

All Games/National Rank
MSU Value MSU Rank Indicates
Assist % 52.4 131 Neutral
3PA/FGA 35.8 271 Zone
FTA/FGA 36.5 178 Neutral
TO% 19.9 190 Neutral
Opp OReb% 27.3 11 Man-to-Man

You can see why the formula can’t identify us as a man-to-man team.  Our opponents shot a lot of 3-pointers, which makes us look like a zone defense.  But we ranked 11th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, which implies that we play man-to-man defense.  For the remaining three factors, we’re very near the national averages, so the formula has nothing to go on.

One reading of these numbers is that Tom Izzo’s defensive scheme got the best of both worlds this season:

  • By placing in emphasis on preventing dribble penetration by hedging off shooters, the team forced a lot of perimeter shots from its opponents (the primary benefit of a zone defense).
  • But the fact the team was fundamentally playing man-to-man defense, particularly on the interior, meant the team didn’t sacrifice anything in terms of defensive rebounding (generally the main weakness of a zone defense).

Before declaring victory in the age-old quest to find the perfect defensive scheme, though, I think we meed to get a little more definition on those three middle-of-the-road formula factors.  To do so, I pulled the same numbers for conference games only (with ranks within the Big Ten).

Conference Games/Rank
MSU Value MSU Rank Indicates
Assist % 54.2 2 Man-to-Man
3PA/FGA 32.4 9 Zone
FTA/FGA 34.7 7 Man-to-Man
TO% 20.7 8 Zone
Opp OReb% 24.7 1 Man-to-Man

For assist percentage and free throw rate, we look more like a man-to-man team.  For turnovers, we look more like a zone team.

I’m not sure the low assist percentage is necessarily a major asset or weakness.  But the other two numbers are unfavorable.  Playing physical man-to-man defense resulted in a relatively higher number of fouls that created additional free throw opportunities for our opponents.  At the same time, the fact that our perimeter defenders were more focused on preventing penetration than with disrupting our opponents’ offensive rhythm meant we didn’t create a lot of turnovers.

Overall, then, we had one strength (defensive rebounding) and one weakness (fouling quite a bit) generally associated with man-to-man defense and one strength (forcing perimeter shots) and one weakness (not creating turnovers) generally associated with zone defense.

On net, the way this team played defense obviously worked pretty well, as they finished the season ranked 10th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.  Most of the numbers above are pretty consistent with the team’s numbers over the past several seasons, indicating that Tom Izzo’s approach to defense hasn’t changed much in recent years.  The biggest change from 2007-08 to 2008-09 was an increase in defensive rebounding percentage of roughly 4 percentage points.  As one might expect with a Tom Izzo-coached team, the key to success was rebounding.

P.S. You can probably sense I’m stalling for time by throwing a lot of numbers at you.  There’s been a bit of a delay in getting the new site launched.  It should be ready to go late this week or first thing next week.