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Archive for January, 2008

First, a few links:

Joe Rexrode notes that winning in Champaign is not going to be a cakewalk.

Eric Gordon hurt his left (non-shooting) wrist but will play tonight in Madison.

Dave Dye points out how unselfish the Spartans are–ranking 5th nationally in assists per game.

This last link leads to the reader feedback question of the week:

For a team that generally has very good ball-handling skills, why does MSU turn the ball over so much?

This is a team with three legitimate Big Ten-quality starting point guards, at least two of whom are almost always on the floor. And their top post player handles the ball pretty well, too.

The Bleacher Guy notes that Izzo has framed the question of reducing turnovers in terms of toughness. But is toughness really the question when it comes to making intelligent decisions with the ball?

Here’s my previous take on the topic:

Tom Izzo runs one of the most complex offenses in college basketball. It relies heavily on set plays, rather than individual play making. This has two benefits:

1) MSU doesn’t take a lot of bad shots, resulting in higher shooting percentages.

2) When everything’s clicking, the MSU offense can be nearly unstoppable–talented players running precise plays that are impossible to defend.

It also has two downsides:

1) A higher number of turnovers as players often make bad decisions when forced out of the offensive sets.

2) When players aren’t playing well in the offensive set pieces, everything can fall apart because there’s not individual playmaking to fall back on.

Clearly, over the course of the Izzo era the benefits of Izzo’s offensive philosophy have outweighed the costs. But the continuing turnover problem and the occasional offensive catastrophes are becoming serious issues. If these problems persist, Izzo may need to rethink this philosophy a bit and give his players some additional freedom on offense.

But I’m not sure this theory is sufficient to explain how persistent this problem has been the last two seasons. Let’s here what alternate theories the Spartans Weblog readership has to offer.

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MSU pulls it out, 51-41.  If I had to describe this game in four words, they would be U-G-L-Y.

On defense, things went swimmingly.  Illinois is a very poor shooting team to start out with, and MSU played tough man-to-man defense all night.  The result:

  • 11-28 shooting on 2-pointers (39.3%)
  • 4-22 shooting on 3-pointers (18.2%)
  • 7-19 shooting from the line (36.8%)
  • 0.63 points per possession

Remarkably, all 4 of Illinois’ 3-pointers came in a 3-minute stretch when they took the lead late in the first half.  Subtract that stretch and the Illini shooting was as frigid as the air outside the arena.  Any time your opponent’s high scorer has 7 points (Brock/Meacham), you’ve played great defense.

On offense, things could have gone better, to put it mildly.  Once again, turnovers were a major problem–19 in 65 possessions (29.2%).  Lucas really struggled tonight: 4 turnovers, zero assists.  Most maddening was watching MSU turn the ball over four times in the last two minutes–with all three point guards on the floor for most of that time.

And they didn’t do much with the possessions they actually shot the ball on.  They didn’t make a single 3-pointers (0-9) all night.  In fact, by my count they only made 2 shots outside 12 feet (Morgan early in the first; Neitzel early in the second).

What saved MSU from an upset was getting to the line.  They made 19 of 25 free throw opportunities.  The Illini were called for 23 fouls, and probably deserved to be called for a few more as they bumped and knocked over Spartan players all night.

Neitzel led the way, making all 7 of his attempts from the line.  Despite going 0-6 from 3-point range, he managed to score 15 points.  He fueled the Spartan resurgence in the second half, scoring 9 points in a 3-minute stretch to overcome a 4-point halftime deficit.

It’s an ugly box score, so I won’t break it down any further than I already have.  Instead, let’s focus on the bright side of life:  MSU has achieved it’s best start ever at 19-2.  As much as it feels like the Spartans have underachieved to date, 19 wins in 21 games is pretty darn good.

Next game: 8:00 Saturday at Penn State.  Big Ten Network.

IU and Wisconsin play tomorrow night at 9:00 on ESPN.  Somebody’s gotta lose.

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9:00 Wednesday. The Breslin Center. BTN.

Conference play is not treating the Illini well. They’ve won just two of eight Big Ten games–home games against Michigan and Northwestern. For what it’s worth, they’re coming off the win vs. Northwestern–a 70-37 drubbing.

The tempo-free stat sheet tells the story of Illinois’ struggles. On offense, Illinois is really good at only one thing: offensive rebounding. They rank 18th in the nation in offensive rebounding % at 39.4%. Meanwhile, they are very, very poor shooters. They’re making just 31.2% of their 3-point attempts and hitting on just 59.7% of free-throw attempts.

Their most efficient scoring options are Trent Meachem (40.2% on 3-point shots) and Shawn Pruitt (54.4% on 2-point shots). Beyond those two guys, the rest of the team has struggled mightily. Four players are attempting more than one 3-point shot per game but shooting less than 30% from beyond the arc–a pretty good sign a team is struggling to generate good scoring opportunities.

Defensively, this is a solid team. They rank 23rd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The strength of their defense is playing good man-to-man defense–led by versatile 6’8″ senior Brian Randle–and forcing poor shots. Opponents are making just 31.4% of 3-point attempts and 43.8% of 2-point attempts.

Hoopraker takes a more qualitative approach in examining Illinois’ offensive woes.

On the other hand when Weber got what he thought to be a solid verbal from Gordon, he stopped looking for a 2007 two-guard. The loss of Gordon, the late, failed attempt for recoup with Watkins, and the absence of Jamar Smith, yet another scoring 2-guard, elucidates what is less a recruiting deficiency of Weber’s than a coach and program absorbing what were unexpected and impactful interruptions to an otherwise successful and principled recruiting strategy.

The result is a roster without enough consistent perimeter shooting/scoring. The team’s only answer to this deficiency is a non-scholarship walk-on in Meacham. It isn’t hard to see why opponents are packing the paint, putting Pruitt and Randle in a cage where their every manuever and shot is double and triple contested, and taunting the depleted Illini perimeter into beating it with jumpshots.

The Illini Basketball Fans Blog, meanwhile, makes the case for Rodney Alexander to get more minutes to boost the offense. Alexander is a 6’7″ juco transfer averaging just 14 minutes per game. He’s one of the guys shooting below 30% from 3-point range, but is knocking down 57.4% of this 2-point attempts. And he scored 20 points in 24 minutes against a pretty stingy Ohio State defense a week ago.

Despite all the negativity above, Kenpom predicts MSU to win this one by just 7, 66-59. The methodological reason for this is that Illinois has been extremely unlucky. They rank dead last in the country in Kenpom’s “luck” factor. In short, their win-loss record is worse than their efficiency stats would predict. We’ll see if Illinois can keep it close and validate tempo-free stat analysis. As a Spartan fan, here’s hoping the statistics decide to shut up.

I’ll be taking this one in from the upper reaches of the Breslin Center, so the game recap probably won’t be up until early Thursday.

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Kalin Lucas is really, really quick.

MGoBlog ponders why Michigan and MSU bother to talk to Drew Sharp anymore.  He concisely and thoroughly analyzes Mr. Sharp’s utter incompetence. This should probably be the final word on that topic.  As Brian points out, the only reason the Free Press can possibly still be employing the man is to get angry sports fans to click on his article webpages.

The Michigan Daily says Manny Harris got the “Jordan treatment.”

The Chicago Tribune splits the conference into an upper five and a lower six.  Interestingly, the conference-only tempo-free stats do the same.  See below.

TAFKATBTW takes a look at conference-only team efficiency stats across the major conferences.  Here are the Big Ten stats:

                                     Opp.      

                     Pace    PPP     PPP      EM      

1.  Wisconsin        61.0    1.09    0.92   +0.17      

2.  Indiana          67.4    1.06    0.90   +0.16      

3.  Ohio St.         67.2    1.03    0.88   +0.15      

4.  Purdue           65.4    1.05    0.94   +0.11      

5.  Michigan St.     64.8    1.05    0.96   +0.09      

6.  Illinois         62.3    1.02    1.02    0.00      

7.  Minnesota        69.7    0.98    1.00   -0.02      

8.  Iowa             62.6    0.91    1.00   -0.09      

9.  Michigan         64.2    0.96    1.10   -0.14      

10. Penn St.         62.8    0.98    1.13   -0.15      

11. Northwestern     63.5    0.90    1.15   -0.25  

As Mr. Gasaway notes, the first thing that jumps out is Ohio State’s numbers.  Their efficiency margin is only a hair behind Wisconsin and IU, on the strength of their defensive stinginess.

Note that Wisconsin is being very Wisconsinesque, with the fewest number of possessions per game in conference play.  They’re even slower than the plodding Hawkeyes.

MSU comes in at 5th in efficiency margin.  They’re tied for third on points per possession in offense, but rank just fifth in defensive efficiency.  Per usual, turnovers are what’s holding the Spartans back from an elite performance level.  Their offensive TO% has been over 22% in 6 of 7 conference games.  And their defensive TO% hasn’t exceeded 21% in any conference game.  As a result, conference opponents have been able to attempt 29 more field goal tries than MSU has.  Based on the efficiency stats, MSU is actually fortunate to only have one conference loss at this point.

There is clearly a tier of five teams in the conference.  The top five teams on offense are the same as the top five teams on defense.  Illinois has been thoroughly mediocre.  Minnesota is struggling against more talented opposition, having played a very weak nonconference slate.  For this early in the season, the odds of getting exactly five teams into the NCAA tournament are pretty high.

(Note: I realize the tempo-free stats aren’t really pulling a rabbit out of a hat in terms of the 5-team-tier thing.  The conference standings do the same, with a big game between Ohio State’s 5-2 record and Iowa’s 3-5 record.  The stats do confirm the gap is a result of fundamental differences in performance, though, rather than a couple close wins or losses.)

Coincidentally, I also decided to take a quick look at MSU’s conference-only individual stats today to get a sense of how players have performed in recent games.  Here they are:

MSU Conference-Only Individual Stats (1/29/08)

Brief highlights/lowlights:

  • He’s struggled in a few games, but Morgan is still making over 60% of his 2-point shots.
  • Suton just keeps rebounding: total rebound % of 19.6%.  He also has an assist rate of 5.3/100 possessions–which is pretty darn good for a big man.
  • Walton is shooting an abysmal 22.7% on 2-point shots.  He’s still passing the ball well (assist rate of 10.9 per 100 possessions) and he’s obviously been a major factor on defense, but that number simply has to go up to justify his 25.9 minutes/game.
  • Lucas’ offensive numbers, meanwhile, are on the upswing.  He’s shooting 49.0% on 2-pointers, 38.9% on 3-pointers, and 93.8% from the line.  He also leads the team in taking shots; he’s attempted shots on 30.0% of the possessions he’s been on the floor for.  As he’s been more aggressive, his ball-handling has suffered a bit.  His assist/TO ratio is just 1.10.
  • Gray is doing the one thing he’s always done well: rebound on the defensive end.  His defensive rebounding % is 25.0%.  Beyond that, there’s not much to get excited about–particularly in comparison to Naymick’s numbers.
  • Chris Allen is taking fewer shots than he did earlier in the year, shooting on 26.0% of possessions he’s on the floor for.  And he’s scoring much more efficiently, leading the team in PPWS at 1.39.

I hope to do delve into the stats a bit more next week, when MSU doesn’t play a mid-week game.

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Monday Night Musings

Updated Rankings

MSU jumps up to #8/7 in the AP and coaches’ polls. They leapfrogged Washington State and IU in both polls, and moved ahead of Tenneessee in the coaches’ poll. IU and Wisconsin are ranked 11th and 13th, respectively, in both polls. Purdue is now receiving honorable mention votes in both polls.

The Spartans are more or less holding steady in the formula-driven rankings:

Sagarin ratings: #9 (up from #11)

Kenpom ratings: #17 (down from #16)

BB State ratings ($): #8 (up from #12)

RPI at StatSheet: #6 (down from #5)

Catching Up With Old Foes

The quality of your nonconference schedule can obviously be a big factor when it comes time for NCAA tournament seeding. I thought I’d look at how well our key nonconference opponents have fared since we played them to see how strong our resume might look to the tournament committee.

Missouri

Record: 12-8 overall; 2-3 in the Big 12

Key wins since we played them: Maryland, Purdue, Texas

Losses since we played them: Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa State, Kansas, Texas Tech

Comment: Obviously an up and down team. They just lost their leading scorer to yet another off-court incident, so they may continue to fade down the stretch.

UCLA

Record: 18-2 overall; 6-1 in the Pac 10

Key wins since we played them: Stanford, California, Washington State, Oregon

Losses since we played them: Texas, USC

Comment: The only nonconference foe to defeat us, this still looks like a “quality loss” (if you can forget the fact that we led for most of the game).

NC State

Record: 13-6 overall; 2-3 in the ACC

Key wins since we played them: Seton Hall, Florida State (both road games)

Losses since we played them: East Carolina, UNC, Clemson, Georgia Tech

Comment: They haven’t performed well; Kenpom projects them to go just 5-11 in conference.

Bradley

Record: 11-10 overall; 4-5 in the MVC

Key wins since we played them: Illinois State

Losses since we played them: Seven of the nine games have been losses

Comment: Apparently, the Bradley faithful haven’t exerted themselves like they did when MSU came to town. They’ve dropped four of six home games since then.

BYU

Record: 15-5 overall; 4-1 in the Mountain West

Key wins since we played them: Utah (on the road)

Losses since we played them: Bouse State, Wake Forest, UNLV

Comment: It appears they’re taking care of business in conference.

Texas

Record: 16-3 overall; 3-1 in the Big 12

Key wins since we played them: St. Mary’s (???; ranked 32nd in Pomeroy Rankings); beat UCLA and Tennessee before they played us

Losses since we played them: Wisconsin, Missouri

Comment: Still the best entry on our resume; they’re currently ranked 10th in both polls.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, our nonconference wins aren’t looking quite as impressive as they did when we played the games. Ultimately, though, if we win the conference, the Texas win should be enough to get us at least a #2 seed. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Kenpom currently projects Wisconsin at 15-3 and IU at 14-4 in conference play. MSU is currently 6-1 in conference play. So, barring a collapse by both the Badgers and Hoosiers, it’ll probably take a 9-2 or 8-3 record down the stretch to earn at least a share of the conference title. That’s a pretty fine margin, given that road games remain against IU, Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State, and Illinois.

The Spartans have three games to continue putting it all together (home to Illinois, at Penn State, home to Northwestern). Then it’s go time, with road games at Purdue and Indiana. I think those two games may give us a sense how good this team really is.

Update: I’d almost managed to block it from my memory completely, but there was that one other loss during nonconference play–the one that doesn’t really count.  The good news?  Hoopraker notes that Grand Valley is currently 21-0 and ranked #2 in the country.  Nevertheless, let’s not speak of this again.

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Drew Neitzel is POTW

Kudos to #11.  Full release here.

Michigan State men’s basketball senior guard Drew Neitzel was named Big Ten Player of the Week on Jan. 28. In wins over Northwestern and Michigan, Neitzel averaged 19.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds, shooting .583 from the field and .500 from 3-point range. This is the first weekly accolade for Neitzel this season, and the fourth of his career.

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MSU wins comfortably, 77-62.  The final score was very close to the Kenpom prediction of 78-59.

The Spartans made Michigan pay for only having two reliable scoring options.  Travis Walton hounded Manny Harris all game long.  And, despite pickup up a number of fouls guarding him, Drew Naymick made sure DeShaun Sims never got going.  Harris and Sims combined to shoot 5-21 from the field and score only 17 points.  For much of the game, you hardly even noticed Harris was in the game.  When he did start shooting, he was forced to take very difficult shots.

Michigan managed to keep the game close, and led briefly, in the first half on the backs of their supporting cast.  Several Wolverines were hitting from beyond the arc, as they shot 6-13 from 3-point range as a team in the first 20 minutes.  But their 3-point shooting touch disappeared in the second half, as they made just 2 of 18 attempts.  This allowed MSU to pull away and lead by 15-20 points most of the second half, despite turning the ball over 16 times.

Some tidbits from the box score:

  • MSU shot an astounding 71.4% on 2-point attempts (25-35).  Kalin Lucas shot 6-9 from 2-point range and made all 6 of his free throw attempts to score 18 points.
  • Good all-around game for Neitzel.  He scored 18 points on just 13 FG attempts.  He added 7 assists, with some great passes coming off screens where both defenders hedged toward him.  And he hauled in 7 rebounds to boot.
  • Surprised to see Walton had 8 assists.  In terms of scoring the ball, he continues to struggle; he scored just 1 point today.
  • The rebounding numbers don’t look good for MSU at first glance.  UM had 17 offensive rebounds vs. MSU’s 7.  But a part of that was the number of opportunities each team had.  UM’s Off Reb % was 37.0% (17-46); MSU’s Off Reb % was 28.0% (7-25).  So Michigan was better on the boards, but not that much better.
  • I thought Michigan’s most impressive player might have been Zach Gibson.  He scored 8 points and pulled down 5 rebounds in just 18 minutes of time.  A couple of the baskets he scored were pretty athletic moves going toward the basket.
  • 3 assists vs. zero turnovers for Suton.  He has a 10-1 ratio in those stats over the last three games.

Today’s minor gripe: I think one downside of MSU always having two or three point guards on the floor is that sometimes none of them takes the initiative to dribble through pressure.  Each knows there’s another ball-handler on the floor so they tend to pass off, which can lead to turnovers, rather than attacking the pressure with the dribble.  Lucas, Walton, and Neitzel can all usually beat their man off the dribble in the open court and should do so more often to keep defenses honest.

MSU certainly didn’t play a perfect game today.  Their intensity on offense didn’t seem quite as good as it was vs. Northwestern, with a few stretches of casual passing.  But they did enough to make sure this game was never in question after halftime.

In other Big Ten action, both teams ahead of us in the conference standings lost on Saturday–although only one of the losses benefits us in the conference race.   Purdue beat Wisconsin 60-56 in West Lafayette.  E’Twaun Moore led Purdue with 16 points on 7-14 FG shooting.  Purdue is now 6-1 in conference play and may be a factor in the Big Ten race down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Indiana dropped a nonconference match-up to UConn by the score of 68-63.  Eric Gordon finally had one of those off nights I predicted he would–shooting just 5 for 16.  Unfortunately, it didn’t come in a conference game.

I watched most of this game.  Because we’re into conference play, my instinct was to root against IU.  But the loss is probably actually a bad thing for us:

  • Bad for the Big Ten’s image: Our top-ranked team losing at home to an unranked opponent on national TV.
  • It might wake up IU a bit.  From the games I’ve seen, they’ve been relying too much on one-on-one play on the offensive end.  This loss might cause them to be  more disciplined on offense, which would not be a good thing in terms of our chances of catching them for the Big Ten title.

All things considered, I’m feeling more upbeat about MSU’s place in the world than I was a week or two ago.  We’re now one loss back of a single team ahead of us in the conference standings.  IU and Wisconsin play each other this Thursday night in Madison, so one of them will pick up a loss in that game.

We need to take care of business at home against the Illini Wednesday night.  9:00.  Big Ten Network.

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