What does this team need to do to fall entirely out of the top 10? MSU moves down just three spots in the AP and coaches’ polls to #11/10. Wisconsin ranks ahead of them at #8 in both polls. Indiana remains below them at #14/13. Purdue is now #24 in the coaches’ poll; they’re the second honorable mention team in the AP poll.
From a simple win-loss perspective, I guess it’s hard to argue with the ranking. MSU and IU are the lowest ranked 3-loss teams from BCS conferences. But they just don’t feel like a top 10 team.
Here’s what the formula-driven rankings say:
Sagarin ratings: #13 (down from #9)
Kenpom ratings: #20 (down from #17)
BB State ratings ($): #7 (up from #8)
RPI at StatSheet: #9 (down from #9)
The Kenpom rating seems the most appropriate to me at this point. Maybe it’s just the fog of the Penn State loss, but I think it’s also a reflection of the fact that the Kenpom ratings are based on fundamental statistical measures, with less emphasis on win-loss record. And at this point, what fundamental basketball skills would you say MSU is excelling at?
Take a look at their fundamental tempo-free stats over the nine conference games.
- Their shooting has been inconsistent–effective FG% over 50% in just 4 of 9 games.
- They’ve turned the ball over on 22%+ of possessions in 7 of 9 games.
- Their offensive rebounding has been good, but not great–over 40% in only 4 games.
- They’ve gotten to the free throw line a decent amount, if you ignore the FT rate of 7.7% vs. Iowa.
- FG defense may be their best attribute in conference play, having held 6 of 9 opponents to an effective FG% under 50%.
- Only 2 opponents have turned the ball over on more than 20% of their possessions.
- They held their first 4 conference opponents to an offensive rebounding % below 30%, but 4 of the last 5 have been at or above 35%.
- They’ve allowed everyone but Northwestern and Michigan to get to the line a decent amount (30%+) and allowed Iowa and Penn State to practically live there.
Now team stats are bound to bounce around from game to game, but compare the above to Wisconsin’s consistently ability to get to the free throw line and hold their opponents to an effective FG% under 50%. Or Indiana’s track record of shooting the ball well (eFG% over 50% in 7 of 9 games) and keeping their opponents off the offensive glass.
The net result of all of this is the following conference-only tempo-free aerial:
Halfway through the conference schedule (and, let me emphasize, the more favorable half), MSU is simply mediocre on offense, scoring 1.00 points per possession. That’s only 0.02 points higher than offensively-challenged Illinois. They’ve been good, but not great, on defense–ranking on par with Purdue and just ahead of Iowa.
In short, MSU’s superior athleticism and depth has not translated into high-level play in the conference season, particularly on offense. How to address this is not immediately obvious. Put the ball in Lucas’ hands more to create opportunities on his penetration and live with the freshman mistakes? Run more set plays for Neitzel to get open at the expense of the other offensive options? Push the ball more to create transition opportunities for Morgan against Big Ten defenses that don’t get beat much in transition? Feed Suton the ball more and hope he’ll be a consistent scoring threat?
In the end, it may come down to adaptability. They have to find a sense of knowing when to push which button. Being an elite team requires winning in different ways.
But like solving the turnover problem, it’s not clear how to teach a team overnight how to roll with the punches and counterpunch. Izzo has built this program on toughness and offensive discipline, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I fear a lack of decision making skills and the fluidity to respond to different situations may be a cost of that focus with this particular group of players.
Nine games remain to right the ship and prepare for an NCAA tournament run. It’s possible this team just isn’t built for grinding it out in the Big Ten. It’s painful to realize the Spartans’ Big Ten championship drought will almost certainly be extended by another year, but the beauty of college basketball is that the season doesn’t end with a couple bad losses.
P.S. If you think I’m being too harsh here, check out Joe Sheehan’s take at Basketball Prospectus:
12. Michigan State (19-3) (9). You can’t spin a loss to Penn State, no matter where the game is played. Teams that turn the ball over more than they force turnovers fight an uphill battle, and that’s the 2008 Spartans. They scrimmage against a I-AA team this Saturday before a road trip to Purdue—which smells an NCAA berth and picked off Wisconsin at home—and Indiana. They could be unranked by Presidents’ Day. [Emphasis added]