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On the heels of our conversation here about the great guards of Spartan seasons past, MSNBC.com’s Beyond the Arc has anointed MSU the 15th greatest college basketball program.  He provides a nice overview of Spartan basketball achievements through the years (including a nod to our look at MSU’s rebounding during the Izzo era).  Here are the big picture numbers:

MSU’s been to six Final Fours (more than Georgetown or Cincinnati), has won 67 percent of its NCAA tournament games (better than Indiana), has logged 22 appearances in the Big Dance, has 10 regular-season conference titles to go with 1,418 wins, more than its fair share of great NBA players and hasn’t missed an NCAA tourney since 1997.

And probably most memorable, they’ve cut down the nets twice in the NCAAs – the first of which vaulted the NCAA tournament into must-see TV.

(I note that the 11 NCAA appearances MSU has now made under Tom Izzo are exactly half of the total appearances for the program.)

Looking at the list of likely candidates for the next few slots above MSU (Arizona, Florida, Maryland, NC State), we’ll probably be able to make a reasonable argument for being a couple spots higher.  We’ll wait for Beyond the Arc to make his case for teams 11-14 before we file a formal protest.

But the three programs just behind us on the list aren’t too shabby: Georgetown, Arkansas, and Ohio State.  Michigan State is clearly among the all-time elite programs.

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There was a little discussion in the comments section of the last post as to whether Neitzel belongs up there on the new banner with Magic, Skiles, Smith, Respert, and Cleaves. The first five guys are no brainers:

  • Magic Johnson was the driving force behind MSU’s first national title. Despite playing only two years at MSU, he ranks 6th on MSU’s all-time career assist list. And he’s unquestionably one of the top ten players in the history of the game of basketball.
  • Shawn Respert, Steve Smith, and Scott Skiles are the three leading career scorers in MSU history (in that order). All of them were the unquestioned stars of MSU teams that achieved a decent amount of team success. (Two NCAA appearances for Skiles, two NCAA appearances plus a conference title for Smith, three NCAA appearances for Respert.)
  • Mateen Cleaves was the leader on three Big Ten championship teams, two Final Four teams, and MSU’s second national championship team. He ranks first all-time in career assists at MSU.

The thinking in including Neitzel was (1) I wanted to stick with guards, since MSU has a long history of great guards, (2) I wanted a player from the post-2001 era, (3) he’s my favorite Spartan, and (4) he was the key player in terms of keeping the current NCAA Tournament appearance streak alive.

Admittedly, he’s a little more of a stretch than the other five. I was a little surprised, though, when I took a closer look at his final career numbers. They stack up pretty well:

  • 14th on the all-time MSU scoring list (within 60 points of Peterson, Ager, Cleaves, and Hill).
  • 4th on the all-time MSU assist list (within 70 of #2 Scott Skiles, despite not playing point guard for the majority of his career).
  • 10th on the all-time Big Ten assist list (meaning four of the top ten all-time Big Ten assist leaders are Spartans).
  • 3rd in all-time MSU 3-point field goals made (behind Respert and Hill).
  • 1st in all-time MSU free throw percentage.

So there you go. Only this blogger could perform such an in-depth analysis of his own blog banner, eh?

On a related note, Steve Grinczel reports that MSU’s trio of all-time leading scorers could help Neitzel achieve his goal of playing in the NBA:

“Neitzel works so hard on his game and he already shoots better than 80-90 percent of the guys in the league,” Respert said. “And he’s demonstrated his ability to be a playmaker. When teams see that, their interest will grow. And with guys like me and Steve (Smith), Coach Izzo and Scott (Milwaukee Bucks coach and former Spartan Scott Skiles) advocating for him, he’ll get his chance.”

Back to the present: I’m a bit late on this, but all of MSU’s healthy players (Roe and Lucious are both on the mend from injuries) are participating in the Moneyball Pro-Am summer league here in Lansing. Games are played on the weekends at Everett High School, starting two Saturdays ago and going through August 10. Former Spartans Thomas Kelley and Drew Naymick are also participating.

I’ve been vaguely aware of these summer league games in the past, but have never attended. Have any readers gone so far this year or in past years? Is this worthwhile viewing for MSU basketball junkies?

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In my post looking back at the MSU basketball roster over the last 13 years, I asserted that depth is a key component for a Tom Izzo-coached team to be successful. This is, of course, not an original conclusion. The Artist Formerly Known as the Big Ten Wonk (TAFKATBTW) in a November 2006 post:

Let’s define “Izzo depth” as seven players each getting between about 40 and 70 percent of the minutes. As seen here, the 2005 team had Izzo depth. The 2006 team–while featuring three demonstrably more talented players than any member of the 2005 team–did not. The first went to the Final Four. The second lost in the first round. And there you have a neat little parable on talent vs. team. (Note to high school coaches everywhere: feel free to use this. And tell the kids to read up on their Big Ten Wonk.)

When Izzo has seven or eight players he trusts–whether by virtue of their experience or talent–he can both demand human-wave effort (including and especially on the boards) and parcel out minutes in a way to make said effort continuous and overwhelming to the opponent. (This is a particular stylistic preference of Izzo’s, mind you, not an immutable law of hoops. Illinois in 2005, to cite but one example, went 37-2 with a minutes distribution that looked a lot like MSU’s in 2006.)

My goal in this post is merely to refine TAFKATBTW’s methodology. His rule of thumb (7 players playing between 40 and 70 percent of a team’s minutes) is a decent one, but it’s a binary function. And, I’d note, the 2004-05 team was the only Izzo team to meet the standard (it’s the only team on which the top player played less than 70 percent of the minutes available).

So I propose a new stat to measure Izzo depth. Let’s call it “depth ratio.”

Depth Ratio = (minutes played by top two players) / (minutes played by 8th and 9th players)

This ratio allows us to compare a single number across different teams and captures two key aspects of having depth:

  • Not relying too heavily on one or two players to play nearly all of the minutes in important games, thereby reducing their ability to defend, rebound, and push the ball in transition with the intensity Izzo prefers.
  • Having enough bench players to allow everyone to play hard every minute they’re on the floor and be able to deal with foul trouble. Nearly every basketball team has to have seven guys who play significant minutes (five starters plus one perimeter bench player and one interior bench player). Having two more bench players you can count on is what sets a good Izzo team apart from other teams.

Here’s MSU’s depth ratio in conference play, along with their Big Ten and NCAA results, for the last 12 years (statsheet.com only goes back to 1996-97, so we’re missing Izzo’s first season–no big loss). Remember: The lower the depth ratio number, the better. I’ve sorted the seasons based on the ratio–lowest to highest.

Season Depth
Ratio
Conference
Record
NCAA
Result
2002-03 2.35 10 – 6 Elite 8
1998-99 2.62 15 -1 Final 4
1999-2000 2.67 13 – 3 Nat Champ
2004-05 2.74 13 – 3 Final 4
2007-08 2.90 12 – 4 Sweet 16
1997-98 2.91 13 – 3 Sweet 16
2000-01 2.93 13 – 3 Final 4
2001-02 3.14 10 – 6 1st Rd Loss
1996-97 3.28 ,9 – 9
2006-07 3.96 8 – 8 2nd Rd Loss
2003-04 4.39 12 – 4 1st Rd Loss
2005-06 4.51 8 – 8 1st Rd Loss

How do you like them apples? (Scouts honor: I came up with the ratio formula before I looked at the data). The magic line is 3.00. Every team with a ratio under 3.00 has sported a winning record in conference play and advanced to at least the Sweet Sixteen. Of the five teams with ratios above 3.00, three had .500 records in conference play and none advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

A depth ratio of 3.00 would be achieved by a team whose top two players play 30 minutes per game and whose 8th and 9th players play 10 minutes per game. Here are some examples of the actual minutes/game figures for a few past Spartan teams in conference play (minutes per game is based on team games played, even if a player missed one or more games):

2002-03 (Best Depth Ratio)

  • 1 – Hill: 31.8
  • 2 – Torbert:31.3
  • 8 – Lorbek: 14.4
  • 9 – Bograkos: 12.3

1999-2000 (National Champions)

  • 1 – Cleaves: 29.8
  • 2 – Granger: 29.3
  • 8 – Richardson: 13.1
  • 9 – Thomas: 12.1

2004-05 (Good Depth Cited in Wonk Post)

  • 1 – Anderson: 27.8
  • 2 – Davis: 26.3
  • 8 – Trannon: 11.4
  • 9 – Bograkos: 8.3

2003-04 (Second Worst Ratio)

  • 1 – Hill: 32.6
  • 2 – Torbert: 29.9
  • 8 – Bograkos: 8.2
  • 9 – Trannon – 6.9

2005-06 (Worst Ratio; Bad Depth Cited in Wonk Post)

  • 1 – Brown: 36.2
  • 2 – Neitzel: 34.8
  • 8 – Suton: 9.8
  • 9 – Rowley: 8.3

Note that part of the difference between 2003-04 and 2004-05 was that Izzo was willing to use Bograkos and Trannon for an additional 2-3 minutes/game. So it’s not necessarily that the 8th and 9th guys have to be major-talent guys. They just have to be able to defend, rebound, and take care of the ball long enough to give your starters substantial minutes to rest. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if your 8th guy is a future NBA star, ala Jason Richardson in 1999-2000.

(Note that Bograkos played 12 minutes/game during the good-depth 2002-03 season, but only 8 minutes/game in the bad-depth 2003-04 season. That’s because the lack of depth in 2003-04 was among the big men; Ager, Torbert, and Brown were available at the wing position.)

As a final note, the ex-Wonk was right about the unique nature of the importance of depth to Izzo-coached teams. He cited the example of the 2004-05 Illinois team (national finalist); that team had a depth ratio of 4.06, which would be disastrous for an Izzo team. For those who might complain that Izzo doesn’t recruit enough NBA-level talent, it’s important realize that he’d have to completely rework his on-court philosophy to deal with the regular roster turnover that other top programs experience when their players leave early for the pros.

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With the techie stuff taken care of, let’s move on to some historical analysis of the MSU basketball program. To start, I thought we should refresh our memories regarding all the guys who’ve donned the green and white under Tom Izzo. By my count, there have been at least 40 scholarship players brought into the program by Izzo.

Linked below is a PDF file that shows all of those players (plus the guys on the team when Izzo took over for Heathcote and a handful of walk-ons) on a season-by-season basis. It’s a work of art–if I do say so myself–so have a look see:

MSU Basketball Roster: Tom Izzo Era

Technical notes:

  • The legend at the bottom tells you how to identify redshirt years, transfers in, and early departures (NBA, transfers out, early career endings due to injury/graduation).
  • Four walk-ons made the cut: Tim Bograkos and Matt Trannon because they were both significant contributors at various points in their careers, Austin Thornton because he could be a significant contributor at some point in his career, and Mat Ishibia because he’s the favorite all-time Spartan of The Official Wife of the Spartans Weblog.
  • I’m sure there are a few errors somewhere–probably in the earlier years. Feel free to point them out if you find them.

Here are my initial observations:

The Heathcote Guys

Don’t let anyone tell you that Izzo hasn’t raised MSU’s recruiting profile. From what I remember of David Hart, Damon Beathea, Anthony Mull, Steve Nicodemus, and Steve Polonowski, and DuJuan Wiley, they were all nice, hard-working guys–but none of them were conference championship-contending level players, even as role players.

It appears that Ray Weathers–who was the leading scorer for Izzo’s second team–left the team with one year of eligibility remaining. Anyone remember what the deal was there?

Redshirt Seasons

Ten Nine players have been redshirted as freshman under Izzo. All ten nine were big men. Thomas Kelley and David Thomas took mid-career redshirt seasons (Kelley due to a foot injury).

It’s been a mixed bad for the ten nine big men. Goran Suton, Drew Naymick, and Adam Ballinger, and Aloysious Anagonye all went on to fairly successful careers. Ken Miller, Jason Andreas, Adam Wolfe, and Delco Rowley never panned out as major contributors (injuries prematurely ended Miller’s and Rowley’s Wolfe’s careers). The book is still out on Marquise Gray and Tom Herzog; Idong Ibok’s probably peaked.

Early Depatures Have Indeed Hurt

It’s not so much the guys who went on to the NBA (Richardson, Randolph, Brown), it’s the guys who left unexpectedly that set the program back a bit after the three final four seasons. Marcus Taylor’s departure after his sophomore season left the team without a true point guard for two years while Chris Hill held down the fort.

(Note: Brandon Cotton’s departure for the University of Detroit after playing just three games in the 2003-04 season didn’t help. On the other hand, Cotton ended up averaging 17.5 points/game and . . . a whopping 2.1 assists/game for his career, so maybe we didn’t miss out on that much.)

And Erazem Lorbek’s departure after just one season left Paul Davis to more or less man the low post by himself for two full seasons. (Note: It appears Larry Bird is still allowing Lorbek to age like a fine wine in Slovenia.)

Izzo Depth, Baby

Depth has been a trademark of successful Izzo teams, to the point that TAFKATBTW named one of his metrics “Izzo Depth.” The early final four teams all had Izzo Depth. which allowed those teams to defend, rebound, and push the ball on offense the way Izzo wants his teams to.

The aforementioned early departures led to short benches in multiple seasons. The one subsequent team that really had depth among all three groups of players (points, wings, bigs) was the 2004-05 final four team. You can make an argument for the 2003-04 elite eight team, except that community college transfer Rashi Johnson was the back-up point guard. Next up would be last year’s team. (I’m basing these judgments on eye-balling the players available and their stage of development in a given season. Perhaps I’ll take a more quantitative approach at some point in the future.)

In short, MSU has been most successful under Izzo when the bench has been fairly long. The good news is that the roster for the upcoming season has all the markings of a classic Izzo team, with depth across the board. (Note that the upcoming season is the last shot to maintain the “every Izzo scholarship player who’s stayed four years has gone to a final four” thing.) And the 2009-10 roster looks just as deep, assuming Lucas, Morgan, and Roe don’t have NBA-worthy campaigns this year. The one question mark will be whether the big men in the 2008 and 2009 classes can quickly become starter-quality players as Suton, Gray, and Ibok depart at the end of next season.

A few elite programs (Duke/UNC) can win consistently by recruiting elite players who only play one or two seasons before leaving for the NBA. That’s never been Izzo’s model. His goal has always been to build a deep roster of players who can develop over their careers, excel at their individual roles, and form a solid, all-around team with no major weaknesses. Hopefully, these past few seasons show Izzo has found that sweet spot of guys with the talent to compete at a college championship level, without the supreme talent and/or ego to leave for the pros early.

Conclusion

There you have it. This review should give us some context from which to look at statistical trends over the last 13 seasons of MSU basketball. For now, I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts on how the roster has evolved during the Izzo era.

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