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1.  We beat them earlier this year.  Handily.

So that’s good.

2. They’re a young team.  Of the eight Jayhawks who average more than 10 minutes per game, three are freshman and three are sophomores.  So it’s likely they’ve improved more than the average team has over the last 10 weeks.

So that’s bad.

3. They finished the regular season on a bad note, losing two of their final three games (including the conference tournament opener).  They allowed all three of their final conference opponents to post offensive efficiency numbers above 108.

So that’s good.

4. But they’ve rebounded from the late-season funk to be pretty dominant in their first two NCAA Tournament games.  They beat North Dakota State and Dayton by a combined 27 points.  Sherron Collins scored a total of 57 points and 10 assists in the two games.  Cole Aldrich put up 36 points and 33 rebounds (!) in the two contests.

So that’s bad.

I guess my initial impressions are a wash.

I’ll compose a more detailed game preview in the next couple days.

P.S. Some subset of the SW clan (including me, of course) will be heading down to Indy again.  Anyone else going?  Looks like plenty of tickets are still available.

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First Impressions

You guys have already covered a lot of this, but the draw looks about as good as we could have hoped for:

  • All of our six potential games would be played in the Midwest (Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Detroit).
  • Nothing on paper gives us any reason to be particularly afraid of Boston College and USC in the second round.  Boston College is even more reliant on offensive rebounding to score than we are.  USC is fairly well-rounded, but they’re not very deep and they have even bigger turnover issues than we do.
  • We’ve beaten Kansas, so at least we know how it’s done.  (They’re a pretty young team, though, so they’ve had more room to improve than we’ve had since we met in January.)
  • Louisville’s hot (10-game winning streak), but is the least imposing of the #1 seeds in terms of pure talent. (Not that they’re a fluke as a #1 seed: they rank #2 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.)

Of course, things always look pretty doable on paper.

If you want to worry about something right now, worry about the fact that Robert Morris shoots 39.7% on 3-pointers.

Mr. Rexrode says we play at 9:50 Friday night, so we’ve got all week to chat about the bracket outlook.

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To date, this basketball season has been a blogging dream.  On the court, our team has fulfilled, if not exceeded, preseason expectations by running away with the Big Ten Championship–despite a series of injuries and illnesses along the way.  On the blog, I managed to make some pretty good predictions before the season began (more on that later), and readership has continued to grow, exceeding 1,000 page views per day the last few weeks.

But I can’t keep it up.

As rewarding as this experience has been–it’s forced me to learn a lot more than I previously knew about college basketball, and it’s introduced me to a lot of really smart MSU fans–I can no longer maintain the daily posting pace needed to keep a good sports blog going.  Pesky things like a job and a family (both of which are expanding this year) keep getting in the way.

So, effective at the end of MSU’s NCAA Tournament run, the Spartans Weblog will cease operations.

That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news: Something even better is going to replace it.  All the details haven’t been finalized.  But a team of some of brightest minds in the MSU blogosphere (or at least the brightest minds willing to talk to me–most of them are people you already know) will be joining forces to bring you a bigger, better MSU blog experience.

Upside for me:

  • I’ll still have an outlet to share insights (or, absent insights, Excel-generated scatterplots) when they occur to me.
  • I won’t have to try to do that every day of the week.

Upside for all of us:

  • You’ll get multiple perspectives on MSU athletics, not just mine.
  • There will be a lot more football talk.
  • We’ll all still have a gathering place to analyze, discuss, celebrate, and commiserate about events in Spartan land.

Thanks to everyone who’s helped make this website what it is today.  If not for you, I wouldn’t even have thought of putting together the new blogging team.  As much as I’m going to miss running this blog solo, I think the new site is going to be a blast.  Stay tuned for all the details.

Until then, though, I have every intention of manning my post (or, rather, laptop) until the final buzzer goes off on the 2008-09 Michigan State basketball season.

Now, back to how smart I am (That’s what we were talking about, right?)

We’ve touched on this in the last couple days, but let’s examine it in excruciating detail: Did I hit the nail on the head with my preseason predictions or what?

Prediction #1:

(Note: Predictions are not presented in chronological order.)

  • There are six nonconference games that should be comfortable wins (Idaho/IPFW/Bradley/Alcorn St/Citadel/Oakland).  That leaves six games against BCS-level competition (three in the Old Spice Classic).  With Delvon Roe slowly getting up to full speed and the team adjusting to a more up-tempo style, I think 9-3 would be a reasonable outcome.  If they made the Old Spice Classic final, lost to UNC, and split with Texas/Kansas, they’d hit that mark.
  • In conference play, this team should be good enough to hold court against the entire league for a 9-0 home record.  Road games against Purdue and Ohio State lean toward losses.  Thankfully, we don’t play in Madison this season.  Toss in one more road loss against the middle of the league (Minnesota/Illinois/Penn State/Michigan) and you get a conference record of 15-3.

I was within one game on the nonconference mark.  We actually beat my 9-3 prediction by a game (assisted by the easier Old Spice Classic schedule the opening-round loss to Maryland created).  And I hit the conference mark exactly.

Had I known Goran Suton and Raymar Morgan would both miss substantial playing time, I doubt I would have been so optimistic in my prognostications.  But the mark of this team from the beginning was depth, and that depth paid dividends when injury/illness struck.

Looking ahead, I had us going a combined 5-2 in postseason play.  Let’s hope we get 3 of those wins in the BTT or 4 of them in the Big Dance to earn ourselves another banner, eh?

Prediction #2:

So I must force myself to make at least one bold prediction about the upcoming season.  I worry they’ll pull my sports blogger union card if I don’t.  Here it is:

Kalin Lucas will be the Big Ten Player of the Year.

The popular preseason picks for this honor are Hummel and Morgan.  And you can make a reasonable argument for both.  My inclination is to think that there’s less room for either of those guys to improve on their performances from last year (at least statistically) than there is for Lucas, though.

. . .

Lucas, meanwhile, should see substantial increases in his numbers.  MSU’s commitment to push the ball on offense, along with Lucas’ new role as the clear #1 point guard, should boost his assists/game number from last year’s 3.8.  There’s room for his shooting percentages to rise from the .445/.364/.768 numbers he posted last season, and he’ll have even more oppotunities to score in the half-court offense as the go-to guy with the shot clock running down.  Both those factors should boost his scoring from 10.3 points/game.

Bammo!  As I pointed out last night, Lucas wasn’t even named to the preseason all-conference team.  So you can’t say this was a UNC-will-win-the-national-title kind of a prediction.  I’m just that smart.  (And let’s say we ignore the part about how B.J. Mullens could be a contender for POTY, OK?)

Prediction#3:

The major outstanding question is what happens when the team is forced to play half-court offense.  Last year, the team struggled to score at times when things bogged down, leading to inconsistent offensive performance in conference play.

The good news is that we have several players who should be able to create scoring opportunities near the basket: Lucas and Summers off the drive and Morgan, Roe, and Suton in the low-post.  To keep those options open, though, MSU will need to show it can consistently make perimeter shots, particularly from 3-point range.  Otherwise, defenses will be able to collapse on players in the paint and it will be tough to create good looks at the basket.

. . .

My intuition is that if Lucas and Summers both shoot 37% or better from 3-point range this season, while each taking 2-3 three-point shots per game, MSU will have a Big Ten Championship/Final Four-caliber offense.

Well, here you go:

  • Kalin Lucas: 39.5% 3pt%.
  • Durrell Summers: 38.5% 3pt%

And:

bigten-banner
(Man, do I love that photo.)

Now the path to that banner wasn’t quite as simple as I laid it out in that preseason post.  Statistically, our offense was driven almost entirely by getting to the free throw line and rebounding the ball.  And we slumped pretty badly shooting the ball from beyond the arc down the stretch; over the first seven games of the second half of the conference schedule, the team made less than 30% of their 3-point attempts in all but one game.

Still, Lucas and Summers both hit some big 3-point shots at various points during the season.  And, over the full season, their numbers are quite good (better, in fact, than the one guy we thought would be our most reliable long-range shooters).  Summers, in particular, has been a big enough threat from 3-point range that you’ve seen defenses adjusting to make sure he doesn’t get good looks from beyond the arc in the last several games.

So I’m definitely chalking that one up as a success, too.  Three for three, baby!  (Maybe I should retire completely from the blogging business, as my odds of ever repeating this feat are roughly 1,000-1.)

P.S. There’s still time to enter the The Second Annual and World’s Only (As Far As We Know) Big Ten Tournament Bracket Contest.  I admire everyone’s fidelity to MSU, given the fact that picking the same team as 90% of the other entries reduces your odds of winning.  But I have to say–having been as optimistic as any Spartan observer out there over the course of the season–I now have a strange, ominous feeling about our fate in the conference tournament (visions of Northwestern staking their claim to an NCAA tournament slot at our expense).  Hopefully, that’s just my subconscious overcompensating.

(More rational discussion of BTT chances: On the one hand, Izzo might not want to burn the team out by pushing the players full-bore over the three-day weekend, given that we took home the regular season conference title.  On the other hand, playing 2-3 more games with the full lineup at 100% is probably a good thing in terms of establishing an offensive rhythm going into the Big Dance.  My bet: He pushes the team hard, but keeps the starters’ minutes below 30 per game.)

P.P.S. One of the reasons I think this is a good time to step away from this site and move to something more specifically MSU-focused is the emergence of the Big Ten Geeks.  (The impetus for starting this blog, after all, was the departure of the Big Ten Wonk.)  Be sure to check out their excellent defense of the Big Ten’s  credentials for the Big Dance (I love disagreements among stats-prone writers) and their stats-based All-Big Ten team (superb analysis of Lucas’ adapation over the course of the season).

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OK, it’s already “later tonight” and the all-Big Ten selections have been released.

Your Spartan awardees:

  • Kalin Lucas was selected as the conference Player of the Year–and a first-team all-conference pick–by both the coaches and the media.  Chalk up another rock-solid preseason prediction for the all-knowing, all-seeing Spartans Weblog.  (You’ll recall that Lucas didn’t even make the preseason all-conference team.)
  • Tom Izzo was named Coach of the Year by the coaches; Ed DeChellis was picked by the media.  (If he had to pick only one, I’d think Izzo will value being selected by the coaches more than he would be by the media.)
  • Travis Walton was named Defensive Player of the Year by both the coaches and the media.
  • Goran Suton was named to the all-conference second team by both the coaches and the media.  (I was ready to throw a full-size blogger hissy fit if this didn’t happen.)
  • Raymar Morgan was granted honorable mention status by both sets of voters; Walton received that status in the media voting only.
  • Delvon Roe was named to the All-Freshman Team.

That’s a very nice haul of awards–appropriate for a team that finished in first place by 4 games.

I have to say, I have almost no gripes with any of the selections made by either the coaches or the media.  I had jotted down a rough draft of the three all-conference teams in a meeting earlier today–and the names match almost exactly what I had.

The first team (Harris/Lucas/Turner/Battle/J. Johnson) seemed pretty clear to most observers, I think.  Manny Harris and Talor Battle both struggled some in conference play (Harris more than Battle), but both were very, very good in nonconference play and both made some huge plays to get their teams into NCAA Tournament position down the stretch.

You can argue what order to put the 10 guys who made the 2nd/3rd teams in (reflecting the league’s parity this season), but the list is a solid one (click through to see it).  The only name that jumps out at me as out of place is E’Twaun Moore.  For a guy who’s only real role is to score, a shooting line of .487/.333/.778 doesn’t impress.  But I don’t necessarily have a better pick.  (Surprisingly, this turned out to be a better year for post players than for perimeter guys.)  Walton might deserve a spot, but the all-conference teams tends to focus on offense, with the defensive awards as a consolation.

On that note, you can’t argue with one iota of the All-Defensive Team (Frazier/Walton/D. Johnson/Kramer/J. Johnson).  Walton and Damian Johnson would both have made deserving Defensive Players of the Year.  And Gatens/Roe/Buford/Mullens/Jackson is a good looking All-Freshman Team.

In short: I’m glad I didn’t too much time compiling my picks, as it would have been an exercise in redundancy.

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A Banner Day

bigten-banner

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Rankings Update

Question (that I do not know the answer to): Could we be placed in the Midwest region (final in Indy) as a #2 seed?  It seems like I remember similar situations occurring in past years, but the couple of bracket projections I looked at today (including Lunardi’s) show us elsewhere.

Izzo for Big Ten Coach of the Year?

The Detroit News’ Eric Lacy has a blog post up making the case for Tom Izzo as the conference’s coach of the year.  Key segment:

Player injuries and illness have forced Izzo to use 13 different starting lineups, as well as play three freshmen (Korie Lucious, Delvon Roe and Draymond Green) key minutes.

Izzo’s team is 23-5 (13-3 Big Ten) despite playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules and they are an NCAA-best 11-2 against the top 50 teams in the RPI.”

Beat the Indiana Hoosiers on Tuesday and the program earns its first outright conference championship since the 1998-99 season.

It’s an uncoventional nomination.  Generally, high-profile coaches of teams expected to compete for the conference title are only considered for conference coach of the year if they put together a truly dominant conference record.  In this case, though, the team in question has played nearly half its conference schedule (eight games) with its preseason all-conference player missing or severely limited and nevertheless put together a title-winning record while losing just one game on the road.  It’s hard to do that without some stellar coaching along the way.

The conference coach of the year race is a lot like the conference player year of the race: There are plenty of plausible candidates, with no clear front runner.  Really, you could make an argument for any of the guys whose teams have increased their number of conference wins from last year:

  • Bruce Weber (+6): From second division to title contender–except that their fundamental performance really hasn’t improved.
  • Bill Carmody (+6): Do you give him credit for how close they’ve come to a winning conference record or hold the late-game collapses against him?
  • John Beilein (+3): From 10-22 to 18-12 with basically the same talent.
  • Ed DeChellis (+2): Built an upper-division team around two undersized stars.
  • Tom Izzo (+1)

What do you guys think?

Indiana Game Preview

7:00 Tuesday.  Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Indiana.  ESPN.

There was certainly very little time for the players to celebrate clinching a share of the Big Ten title.  In fact, our Spartans didn’t even have time to come home–going straight from Champaign to Bloomington.  Thankfully, the extra day of rest/preparation is the only advantage Indiana brings into this game:

Category MSU Off Rk IU Def Rk
PPP 1.07 1t 1.11 11
TO% 21.6 7 19.2 8
eFG% 48.7 7t 56.3 11
FTR 38.5 1 38.8 11
OffReb% 42.8 1 28,8 4
Category IU Off Rk MSU Def Rk
PPP 0.93 11 0.94 2t
TO% 25.6 11 20.7 3t
eFG% 48.2 9 48.1 4
FTR 34.5 4 34.3 7
OffReb% 33.3 3 24.7 1

What I said about the numbers prior to the last meeting:

The rebounding numbers, I think, reflect this is a team that works hard and hustles in a league that doesn’t place much emphasis on offensive rebounding.  The 3-point shooting is more impressive, given that they don’t have any quality inside scoring options to draw defenders in; their 2-point shooting percentage of 43.1% is only slightly higher than their 3-point shooting percentage.

Offsetting those strengths are a multitude of weaknesses.  A high turnover percentage 24.4%) and opposing free-throw rate (39.9%) indicate they’re overmatched defensively.  And they’re allowing opponents to shoot the same 41.3% on 3-pointers.

Three-point shooting is, of course, the one great hope of underdogs facing long odds.  Earlier in conference play, IU looked like it was emerging as a serious 3-point shooting threat, hitting over 50.0% of their 3-point attempts in 4 consecutive games (culminating in their single conference win, against Iowa).  Since then, however, the Hoosiers have shot just 29.6% from 3-point range over 7 games.

Devan Dumes had been the main source of the torrid 3-point shooting numbers, making 18 of 29 long-distance shots in the 4-game stretch.  The next game was against us.  He did a bad, bad thing in that game, was suspended by Tom Crean for two games, and has hit a pedestrian 7 of 21 three-point attempts in the four games since.

Verdell Jones III has been Indiana’s leading scorer of late, scoring 59 points in the 4 games since these two teams met in East Lansing.  At 6’5″, Jones does the vast majority of his scoring from inside the 3-point arc.

On the other end of the court, this game might represent a chance for MSU to refind its own 3-point shooting stroke.  Seven of IU’s conference opponents have hit the 50.0% mark from beyond the arc.

Kenpom predicts a 71-59 MSU win in a 67-possession game.  The conventional thing to say here is that we can’t take anything for granted–and point out that the Hoosiers played Penn State to the wire on the road on Saturday–but I just really can’t see this MSU team losing this game under anything but the most bizarre circumstances.  Indiana has lost 18 of the last 19 basketball games it’s played.  If ever there was a time not to take a bad team too lightly, this is the time.  An outright conference title awaits.

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A banner beckons

The situation:

  • Thanks to some help from our friends in Ann Arbor, both our closest pursuers in the conference race both have 5 losses now.
  • We have 3 losses.
  • We have 3 games remaining.
  • If any Big Ten road game has ever been a near-certain win, the game in Bloomington next week is it.
  • Barring that upset happening, we are guaranteed at least a tie for the Big Ten title.

Don’t get me wrong: an outright title is clearly the goal.  And winning a title despite losing twice to Purdue would be a bit less satisfying.

But it’s also reassuring to be nearly certain of adding to the collection of banners hanging from the Breslin Center rafters.

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