Today’s mandatory story for MSU beat writers was about the Spartans’ willingness to play at the faster pace Memphis tends to play at:
From the Dye piece:
Izzo calls Memphis’ fast break “as good as anybody’s in the country,” but doesn’t plan to back down.
“I see it as an up-and-down game,” Izzo said. “I hope it is an up-and-down game. I think we have enough athletes. I think we have enough depth that we can run.
“I hope our transition defense is good enough to stop some of that. That’s what I hope we do is somewhat stop some of that fast-breaking. Contain would be a better word because I don’t think you’re going to stop it.”
The mantra around here for the last several months is that MSU needs to do whatever it can to pick up the pace. Previously, we had found that MSU’s turnover percentage was actually lower when they’re playing at a faster pace–counter to what you’d normally expect for a basketball team. At that time, I said:
But there’s a ray of hope, at least, that MSU’s offense will run more smoothly against faster-paced opponents in the NCAA tournament, as it did against NC State and Texas.
Well, Memphis certainly provides a clear test of this proposition. They play at an adjusted pace of 69.3 possessions per game, which is 5th highest among the 64 tournament teams and a full possession per game higher than the fastest-paced Big Ten team (Purdue).
I thought we’d take a quick look at MSU’s tempo-free stats relative to the pace of its games over the entire season. The graphs below are all based on a 28-game sample that includes (1) MSU’s 20 games against Big Ten opponents and (2) their 8 games against “quality” nonconference opponents (Missouri, UCLA, NC State, Texas, Bradley, BYU, Temple, Pitt). This eliminates the possibility of faster-paced games against patsies skewing the results.
Let’s start on offense.
MSU’s offense has clearly tended to perform better when they’ve played at a faster pace. They’ve scored over 1.1 points per possession in all but one of the nine games they’ve played that contained more than 65 possessions.
It’s no longer turnovers, though, that explain the increased offensive performance at a higher pace. The late games they played against Penn State, Illinois, and Wisconsin–which featured fewer than 60 possessions but offensive TO percentages below 20%–have shifted the trendline to basically flat.
Shooting percentage is the key variable now. MSU posted effective field goal percentages above 50% in 7 of their 9 games of 66 possessions or more (the average for the 9 games is 57.5%). Three of those games were nonconference wins against Missouri, NC State, and Texas. The home wins against Purdue and IU are also in that group of games.
This jives with what we’ve all seen on the court most of the year: When MSU can push the ball in transition, the athleticism of Lucas and Morgan is better utilized to create scoring opportunities. When they’re forced into a slower, half-court game, things can stagnate if Neitzel isn’t getting and knocking down 3-point looks.
Now to the defensive side of the coin:
Here’s the downside: MSU’s opponents also score more efficiently when games are played at a faster pace. Six of the 9 opponents in the 66+ possession games scored more than a point per possession. The trendline isn’t as steep, though, and MSU managed to outscore their opponent in all but one of the 9 high-paced games. The exception was the foul-plagued loss to Penn State. (For the sake of space, I won’t post another graph, but the key factor on defense is also effective field goal %.)
Conclusion: Clearly, Izzo is right to direct his team to not fear a high-paced game against the Tigers. MSU is 14-1 in games with 66 or more possessions over their full schedule–vs. 13-7 in games with 65 or fewer possessions.
But MSU is going to have to walk a very fine line. MSU’s defense also suffers somewhat when the pace quickens. And Memphis is an extremely athletic team that will be lethal if given too many transition scoring opportunities. (Notice how it took me four fancy graphs to reach the exactly same conclusion Izzo reached in the quote above.)
MSU has to push the ball intelligently on offense. If they commit too many turnovers or don’t convert fast break opportunities, there’s no doubt the Tigers will make they pay on the other end. The stakes will never be higher for Lucas, Neitzel, and Walton to make smart decisions with the ball.
This should be a highly entertaining game for the average basketball fan. Whether it’s entertaining for us Spartan loyalists will depend largely on whether can use Memphis’ own tendency to play at a fast pace against them. The good news: Using a tournament opponent’s strength against it is Tom Izzo’s specialty.