It was in January that Michigan State hit a lull in their season. They lost at Ohio State and at home to Michigan. The Spartans needed overtime to survive Rutgers. Michigan State looked uninspired in the process. I took to this space at the time and wrote the following: “Their conference hopes are hanging by a thread…if it truly is just a question of an effort gap for a week in January, then now should be when Sparty re-establishes its mojo.” Twelve games later, the mojo is re-established. Michigan State hasn’t lost since and they are the outright champs of the Big Ten.
The available evidence suggests that the January bump on the road was a classic case of college kids losing focus in the bitter cold of winter when March Madness still seems a long way off. In those three shaky games, Michigan State was not rebounding the ball. As we look at the current 12-game winning streak, it’s evident that head coach Tom Izzo got his team’s attention when it came to playing defense and hitting the glass. Here are some relevant numbers…
*Over the last twelve games, Michigan State held their opponent to 43% shooting or below from the floor in eleven of them. Eight times, opponents couldn’t even hit 40 percent.
*The Spartans cleaned up the misses with a vengeance. In the first five games of the win streak, they outrebounded their opponent by double digits. They outrebounded their opponent 11 times over the 12 games as a whole.
*The only opponent to outrebound Michigan State was Indiana. That came on a nationally televised ESPN game on the Saturday night before the Super Bowl when IU’s Freddie McSwain seemed to scarf up every rebound in sight. But Sparty made up for it on defense, holding the Hoosiers to 29% shooting.
*Iowa was the only team to shoot well against Michigan State, going 52% from the floor in a game the Spartans had to win with offense, a 96-93 final. It’s worth noting that this game came 48 hours after the aforementioned Indiana game—as though Sparty just hit another little bump in the road that lasted for three days.
It naturally follows that the individual Michigan State players, especially on the inside, picked up their ow games during this winning stretch. Jaren Jackson, the 6’11” center, who combines good post moves with great defense, blocked 40 shots in the last 12 games. Nick Ward has averaged 7.5 rebounds per game. Miles Bridges, who goes 6’7” and plays all over the floor, has knocked down 20-plus points six times.
Where Sparty will ultimately be seeded for the NCAA Tournament is a subject of some debate. They’ve only risen from a projected 3-seed to a projected 2-seed in the course of this winning streak. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, using the methodology the Selection Committee will use, does not have Michigan State on the top line and that’s something that will draw a lot of ire—particularly if the Spartans at least get to the final of the conference tournament being held in New York City this week.
Seeding is an interesting conversation, but the reality is this—when Michigan State plays defense and rebounds like they have been, there’s no one that’s going to stop them from getting to San Antonio and the 2018 Final Four. Tom Izzo’s only job now is to make sure none of those pesky little bumps in the road, where the effort mysteriously disappears for a night, happens anytime after Sunday, March 11.
This is a year of great expectation for the Michigan State basketball team, even by the standards of a program that has become accustomed, under Tom Izzo, for having high expectations. But after three straight shaky games—two decisive losses and one narrow escape, it’s fair to ask why Sparty is struggling and if it’s a long-term problem.
Michigan State rolled through non-conference play, the only loss being a competitive 88-81 game at Duke. During the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, an event that was otherwise a disaster for the Big Ten, the Spartans stood out. They hammered Notre Dame. This is a win that was more impressive at the time than it will appear as the season wears on, because the Irish had Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell both available in November.
That win was preceded by a pounding of North Carolina. The victories over the Tar Heels and Irish were each by 18-point margins. With the rest of the Big Ten seemingly ready to collapse around them, I took to Twitter to say that if Big Ten basketball were a political campaign, every network could call it for Michigan State. It looks like this may have been just the latest premature calling of a campaign.
Sparty was still cruising in Big Ten play, but then went to Ohio State and lost 80-64. That was followed by an overtime escape at home against Rutgers. At this point, you can still overlook it. Okay, they had their bad game on the road and that didn’t bounce back very well. But this past Saturday, Michigan came into East Lansing and they put a double-digit beatdown on Michigan State. The 82-72 loss wasn’t a blowout, but watching the game, it seemed like the Wolverines were mostly in control through the second half.
What gives? This Spartan team has all the pieces. They have two outstanding forwards in Miles Bridges and Nick Ward. Collectively, the two average 31 points/14 rebounds per game and Bridges is an MVP candidate in the conference. Cassius Winston is a fine playmaker at the point, averaging seven assists. And he’s also the team’s best outside shooter, a surreal 52% from behind the arc.
In a college basketball world that often lacks true centers, Michigan State has one in 6’11” freshman Jaren Jackson and his 11/6 per-game average. Lourawls Nairn provides support to Winston in the backcourt as a senior playmaker. With Tom Izzo orchestrating all this, the Big Ten season looked like a cakewalk.
The reason it hasn’t been, is that the inside play has been lacking. In the losses, they were eaten up by frontcourt players. Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop ate them up and usurped Bridges’ status as frontrunner for Big Ten MVP. Michigan’s Moritz Wagner went for 27. Most alarming are the rebounding numbers. Michigan State had only marginal rebounding edges over Ohio State and Michigan and was actually beaten on the glass by Rutgers. Izzo’s best teams don’t have “marginal” edges on the glass, they dominate. This current team is falling short of that right now.
It’s a good news/bad news scenario for Michigan State right now. The bad news is that they’re two games back in the conference race, trailing both Ohio State and Purdue and packed amidst Michigan and Indiana, whom they play on Friday night. In the world of Big Ten basketball, the regular season title is still a big deal. My grandiose prediction of Sparty clearing the field by three games is long gone now.
The good news is that I see these problems as fixable over the rest of the regular season. I tend to adhere to Bob Knight’s wisdom, which said that rebounding is primarily a function of effort—particularly when you have the obvious size advantages that Michigan State has. If effort is lacking right now, I have zero doubt that Tom Izzo will get it there. This team is still projected as a 3-seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi for the NCAA Tournament, even after the recent slide.
What it all adds up to is that now is the time to pay attention to Michigan State. Their conference hopes are hanging by a thread. And in terms of their long-term prospects, if it truly is just a question of an effort gap for a week in January, then now should be when Sparty re-establishes its mojo
The NCAA Tournament bracket is up and the Madness has begun. But before we dig into the field of 68, how about we first take a look back at the events of the past several days in the college basketball conference tournaments? The first nets were cut down as teams won conference tournaments and in no case was a bigger statement than in Indianapolis, where Michigan State thundered to a tournament crown.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans have been hit with injuries throughout the year, dealing with the temporary losses of Adrien Payne or Branden Dawson and in some spots in the schedule, both. Payne, Dawson and the rest of Sparty are all healthy and clicking now and that spelled bad news for the rest of the Big Ten in Indy.
Michigan State was the 3-seed in this conference and opened up with an easy win over Northwestern. Then the Spartans shot 57 percent from the floor on Saturday, in beating Wisconsin 83-75. This was a game not as close as the score might lead you to believe—Michigan State built up a big lead and while Wisconsin made rumbles at various points in the second half, it never really got tight. The Spartans then closed it out with a win over archrival and regular season champ Michigan this afternoon by a 69-55 count.
That’s three straight wins, the last two against teams that got 2-seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State enjoyed an average rebounding advantage of plus-10 in the Big Ten tournament and their average victory margin was over a dozen points. Izzo knows how to get a team to peak in March and with his kids getting healthy at the right time, it appears to be happening again.
ACC: Virginia—The Cavaliers continue a fantastic story this season. After they won the regular season championship a lot of observers—including me—figured Syracuse or Duke would win the ACC tournament in Greensboro. Instead, Joe Harris got UVA started with a 20-point game that pushed them past Florida State 64-51, a game the Seminoles desperately needed for an NCAA bid they didn’t get.
Virginia then won a physical game with Pitt, 51-48, holding the Panthers to 37 percent shooting. And in a tough emotional title game this afternoon, the Cavaliers pulled away from Duke in the last few minutes to win 72-63, thanks to 23 points from Malcom Brogdon and 15 more from Harris.
After a season that saw Virginia win their first outright conference championship since 1981, they then take their first tournament crown since 1976. I think it’s also worth noting that Duke—who can usually be counted on to at least pick up one of the regular season/tournament combo, has been shut out of both for the past three seasons. Nor have they made the Final Four in any of those years. But Coach K standards, this is a pretty significant drought.
American: Louisville—I share the shock of the ESPN studio crew that Louisville was a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals blasted their way through this field. They beat Rutgers 92-31, forcing 26 turnovers in the process. I know it’s only Rutgers—how many times do you see a score like that?
Louisville then caught a break when Houston upset SMU, although it likely didn’t matter. Russ Smith dropped 42 points and the Cardinals again won easily. They finished the job in the final against UConn with 19 more from Smith and 22 from Montrezl Hazell. Rick Pitino’s team has only lost five games and is coming on strong down the stretch. I don’t think it matters to them what seed line they’re in, but pity poor Wichita State, the 1-seed who’s getting stuck with them in the Sweet 16.
Disappointment was the bigger storyline out of this conference. When Houston hit nine treys and beat SMU, it knocked the Mustangs out of the NCAA Tournament. And on a less drastic note, regular season co-champ Cincinnati didn’t arrest their late-season slide. The Bearcats played poorly in a survival win over Central Florida and then lost to UConn.
Big 12: Iowa State—Melvin Ejim is a terrific basketball player and the Cyclones’ swingman lit it up the first two games in Kansas City. Ejim combined for 43 points as Iowa State beat Kansas State 91-85 and then a Joel Embid-less Kansas team, 94-83. As you can tell by the scores, the Cyclones were shooting the ball well. They continued the pattern in a 74-65 win over Baylor in the final.
Iowa State was the only team in a major conference to shoot at least 50 percent in all three of its tournament games. Does that mean they’re getting hot at the right time? Or does it mean that shots which fell this weekend will roll off the rim next weekend? We’ll start figuring that out tomorrow. For tonight, Cyclones fans, just take the trophy back to Ames and celebrate.
SEC: Florida—Billy Donovan’s Gators locked up the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament with successive wins over Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. The games got progressively closer, going from a rout over Mizzou, to a moderately tense win over the Vols, to a 61-60 nailbiter over the Wildcats.
In all three cases, the opponents couldn’t buy a three-pointer, as Florida’s opposition shot a combined 6-for-37 from behind the arc. If it happens once, it’s some good luck. If it happens twice, it catches your attention. If it happens three days in a row, then your defense has an awful lot to do with it.
Big East: Providence—The Friars came to Madison Square Garden on the NCAA bubble and had a quarterfinal game with St. John’s that might have been a head-up battle for a bid. Providence got four three-pointers and 24 points from Josh Fortune and won 79-74. Then they got a bracket break when top-seeded Villanova lost and Providence beat Seton Hall 80-74, this time getting four treys and 26 points from LaDontae Henton.
Defense told the story in the championship game. Providence let Creighton’s Doug McDermott get his points, 27 in all, but no one else for the Bluejays did anything and Providence won it 65-58. They’re on the 11-seed line in the NCAA Tournament, and St. John’s did end up missing, so it’s pretty fair to say that Providence went right to the edge.
Pac-12: UCLA—UCLA sizzled in Las Vegas, shooting 57 percent in an easy win over Oregon in the quarterfinals, and then 65 percent over Stanford in a blowout win in the semifinals. This tournament is played inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and UCLA coach Steve Alford couldn’t have been blamed if he decided to try his hand at the blackjack tables with how hot his hand seemed to be.
The shooting wasn’t quite as hot in a good game against soon-to-be NCAA #1 seed Arizona in the final, but UCLA’s Kyle Anderson had a big 21 points/15 rebounds night and led the way to a 75-71 win.
Atlantic 10: St. Joe’s—Langton Galloway exploded for 31 points in a crucial 70-67 win over Dayton in the quarterfinals at the Barclays Center. Dayton still got on the field as an 11-seed, but this was another one of those games that a winner-take-all air to it.
St. Joe’s then was able to get 8-seed St. Bonaventure in the semis and cruise to a dominating win. Then they got four starters in double figures and beat a good Virginia Commonwealth team in today’s championship game, 65-61.
The team we have to wonder about is St. Louis. They nearly blew the regular season title and now they lose to an 8-seed in the conference tournament. The Billikens are on the 5-seed line in the NCAA Tournament. If they even survive the first round, it’s Louisville awaiting in the second. This has the feel of a year that’s going to end very ugly for Jim Crews’ team.
MountainWest: New Mexico—The conference that was dominated all year by New Mexico and San Diego State saw a third go-around between the two teams. The Lobos, after losing a winner-take-all battle for the conference championship to the Aztecs last weekend, were able to get a 64-58 win in the tournament final.
While I don’t think the league tournaments are on a par with the regular season championship, it’s still something for New Mexico to take home. And forward Cameron Bairstow was a beast all weekend, going for 20-plus points each game and joining with center Alex Kirk in controlling the glass.
And that’s a wrap on the college basketball conference tournaments. Tomorrow we’ll start previewing March Madness, as the First Four starts up on Tuesday/Wednesday and then the extravaganza kicks in on Thursday.
Let’s start by explaining the title of this article. Arizona might be unbeaten and the consensus #1 team in the polls. Syracuse might be another power conference unbeaten team. Wichita State might be unbeaten and have their 2013 Final Four run to validate themselves with. But the people who vote with their pocketbooks are saying Michigan State basketball is the best in the land. Sparty is a 4-1 favorite to win the national championship and our focus here today is to ask whether or not that’s justified.
I’d like to explain in advance that this article is going to have a skeptical tone, but that’s more because of the narrow focus we’re taking. If we’re going to say that Michigan State is a solid favorite to cut down the nets in Dallas—while Arizona sits at 8-1 and Syracuse at 12-1—then we need to set the highest possible standard.
Michigan State does have the pieces in place to win a national championship. Keith Appling and Gary Harris make for an excellent backcourt and one that combined to average 34 ppg. Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne provide scoring punch down low, combining for 27 ppg more. Appling hits 45 percent from three-point range. There’s no area on the floor that Sparty can’t score from.
Furthermore, any team coached by Tom Izzo is going to rebound the basketball and this year’s edition is no different. Payne averages seven boards a game, Dawson gets nine more, the guards go the glass and in a world where most teams average 35-36 total rebounds per game, Michigan State gets 40.
All of this is enough to say without a doubt that Michigan State is a contender for the national championship. But are they the contender? I’ve got my doubts. For one, Harris takes way too many three-pointers. His 108 attempts are by far the most on the team and he only hits 31 percent. He’s got to become more selective.
Perhaps the biggest concern though is how the Spartans have looked in some select games against quality national competition. Their 78-74 win over Kentucky to open the season saw the Wildcats dominate the glass, with only bad three-points shooting and turnovers costing UK the game. Michigan State deserves credit for forcing that, especially the turnovers, but not rebounding isn’t the way to consistent success.
The Spartans played a solid all-around game at Texas, winning 92-78. Payne had a 33 points/9 rebounds night, while the guards crashed the glass. The Longhorns aren’t a great team, but they’re a pretty good one, and doing this in Austin was impressive.
Then we come to a ballyhooed showdown with Ohio State in East Lansing almost two weeks ago. Michigan State coughed up a 17-point lead in the second half and had to survive in overtime. They were badly outrebounded by a team that has a perimeter orientation with a three-guard offense. Michigan State barely survived at home in spite of shooting 11-for-19 from behind the arc.
After watching this game, it was easy to understand why Izzo said in the press conference that he should have been happier than he was, but being a big-picture guy, he saw too many things he couldn’t ignore.
That’s about where I’m at with this team, and anytime I agree with Coach Izzo I feel like I must be on solid ground. The defense is the big thing that concerns me. We’ve seen good teams consistently get to 45 percent or better from the floor. It doesn’t do a lot of good to have great rebounders if you don’t force misses. And more important, there have been too many cases of these great rebounders disappearing in big games.
Michigan State is in very good shape. Ohio State and Wisconsin have each stumbled out of the gate in Big Ten play, and the Spartans are in early control of the conference race. They’ve got time to figure out their problems.
And even those problems have to be kept in perspective. If you break down every team, you’ll find warts. But what that means is that Michigan State is overpriced in the NCAA basketball championship betting odds right now. We need to see this team as a solid, well-coached unit that will be a threat in March. But that they are a work in progress if they’re to separate themselves from the pack.
The eyes of the Big Ten world might be on the college bowls right now, as January 1 approaches, but there’s another sport this conference is actually excelling it, where league play is at hand. Big Ten basketball has five ranked teams, three in the Top 10 and begins conference games on New Year’s Eve. TheSportsNotebook seeks to concisely break down the Big Ten basketball landscape…
Michigan and Indiana are both ranked in the top five, with Ohio State at #10. And though the national ranking for Michigan State isn’t high, Tom Izzo has earned the benefit of the doubt for his program, so I’m including them in the group of teams the eventual league champion will come out of.
Michigan: They might be #2 in the nation and undefeated, but I’m not sold on the Wolverines as being quite that good. They’ve got some decent-looking wins—N.C. State, Pitt, Arkansas and West Virginia, but nothing that overwhelms you.
Michigan an excellent backcourt in sophomore Trey Burke and junior Tim Hardaway, who combined for 32 ppg in non-conference games, with Burke being a good playmaker. Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III is off to a nice start, although in spite of his famous name—his father was national Player of the Year for Purdue in 1994 and had a good NBA career—there’s nothing to suggest Robinson is the next freshman version of Anthony Davis. In short, what I see is a good team—one of the best 16 in the country and capable of making an NCAA run if they get the right breaks, but nothing overwhelming.
The flip side of this is that the Wolverines are still better than I thought they were in the preseason. I was concerned about their lack of three-point shooting, and freshman Nick Stauskas has stepped up to give some perimeter help. The size is a concern, but Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGrary are hitting the glass. So while I don’t see this is an elite national team, I’m closer to that view today than I was on Thanksgiving.
Indiana: I never did buy into Indiana as the #1 team in the country, but with their overtime loss to Butler a couple weeks ago, the expectations are at least cooled a bit. When you can step back and take a sane look at IU, you still a good team that’s getting better. The little six-foot point guard Jordan Hulls is having a great year and is hitting 55 percent from three-point range. Victor Oladipo is also shooting well from downtown and he’s effective of the dribble. Tom Crean can slot forwards Christian Watford and Will Sheehy into the lineup and get double-digit production. Then we bring it all around to the big man, sophomore center Cody Zeller, who’s averaging 17 points/8 rebounds.
What I want to see from Indiana is a signature win. They blew out North Carolina, but with the Tar Heels rebuilding, that looked better in the media than it was on the basketball court. I have no doubt Indiana is a quality team, likely to be around a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now that they’re out of the top spot nationally, we can get back to seeing what that view for what it is, which is complimentary. Let’s just not get carried away.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes have the best player in the conference in forward DeShaun Thomas. He averages 20 ppg and can do it both on the blocks and behind the arc. Thomas rebounds, to the tune of seven boards per game. If this were the NBA, with its emphasis on having the best player on the floor, Ohio State would be the favorite to win the Big Ten. As it is, they still might if Thad Matta can get the rest of the pieces settled in.
The backcourt is settled with Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, the former being the scrappy playmaker, the other being the scorer with a nice touch from the outside. Matta needs sophomore forward Sam Thompson to give Thomas some more help on the board and for sophomore guard Shannon Scott to improve as both a scoring option and defensively. Ohio State has a narrow loss at Duke, and a loss at Kansas in non-conference play, and within the league I would situate them slightly behind Indiana and narrowly ahead of Michigan.
Michigan State: Izzo has tested his team in non-conference and while he lost games at Miami, and to UConn in the season-opener on the aircraft carrier in Germany, the Spartans have also knocked off Kansas andTexas.
Michigan State is well-balanced, with Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix leading the low-post crew that attacks the boards, and Keith Appling running the show at guard and scoring 15 ppg. Branden Dawson is a decent scorer on the wing and at 6’6” is a tough matchup for smaller backcourts. When it comes to depth and the room for continued improvement, Izzo can turn to sharpshooting freshman Gary Harris and 6’5” frosh Denzell Valentine. I think Harris’ improvement is particularly important, because along with Appling, he’s the one legitimate threat to hit from behind the arc.
All four of these teams looked packed pretty closely together, which makes for an entertaining league race. I’d give Indiana the slight edge to win, with Michigan on the other end in fourth place. Then drop Ohio State and Michigan State, the two consistent contenders in this league in recent years, in between.
THE DARK HORSES
Illinois can make a credible case to be one rung higher in the pecking order. Minnesota & Wisconsin are in this group for opposite reasons—the Gophers through strong play in November and December, the Badgers because of the track record Bo Ryan’s developed in previous seasons.
Illinois: With wins over Butler and Gonzaga, the Illini have beaten top mid-major competition and took a competitive loss to Missouri for their only defeat. Illinois is up to #15 in the national polls and led by exquisite guard Brandon Paul, who averages 19 ppg and can knock down the perimeter jumper. He has able complementary pieces around him, in senior D.J. Richardson and a good sophomore three-point shooter in Tracy Abrams.
My concern over Illinois is their post presence. Tyler Griffey is the best frontcourt player, but he’s at his best when he can step out and hit from behind the arc. There’s no one else who can be relied on to hit the glass, meaning Illinois will lose some games they shouldn’t when the shooting touch goes cold. On a game-by-game basis, they belong in the conference elite. Stretched out over an 18-game league run, they’re not quite a championship contender. But they will be in the NCAA Tournament and be seeded in the top six.
Minnesota: Maybe this is what Tubby Smith needed. After a couple rough years, the Gopher coach who’s solid on the sidelines, but less so in recruiting, has a team woefully thin on depth whose best player is coming back from a bad knee injury and playing limited minutes. Naturally then, Smith is turning them into a winner. At 12-1, Minnesota’s already beaten Memphis and Florida State, and the only loss was to Duke.
The Hollins’ boys, Austin and Andre run a balanced backcourt, along with Joe Coleman, and 6’7” senior Rodney Williams is averaging 13 points/6 rebounds up front. Williams is going to need a lot of help and that’s where Trevor Mbakawe comes in. The program’s best player, he missed last year and while he’s only averaging 18 minutes per game so far, he is getting to the glass, at eight rebounds per game. If he can keep it up, Minnesota will get some signature wins at home and fight their way into the NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin: This is the team I follow, and at 8-4, Wisconsin’s done nothing to suggest it can even make the NCAA Tournament, much less be a factor in a competitive Big Ten. But there are some component pieces starting to develop—Ben Brust has taken over the playmaking duties from Josh Gasser, who was lost for the year. Brust is also a sharp three-point shooter. Ryan Evans is improving his offensive game on the wing, and senior center Jared Berggren is scoring, rebounding and mixing in some three-point shooting to boot.
Bo Ryan has built a winner around shakier foundations than that, but the Gasser injury impacted depth. Ryan needs George Marshall to come along as a three-point shooting spark and Mike Bruesewitz, slowed by a concussion in December, has to provide some rebounding and some fight.
While Wisconsin hasn’t looked good, the losses are to Florida, Creighton, Virginia and Marquette. The first of those teams is talking national championship, the second might be the country’s best midmajor and the latter two are NCAA Tournament programs. In short, while the Badgers have done nothing to distinguish themselves, nor have they embarrassed themselves.
DAMAGED BY INJURIES
Wisconsin might have gotten touched by the injury bug, but what happened to Northwestern and Penn State was positively devastating. The Wildcats lost Drew Crawford, one of the best players on a team that nearly made the NCAAs a year ago. And Penn State lost Tim Frazier, the best guard in the country, even if you never would hear of him. Both players are gone for the year, and took the NCAA Tournament hopes of their teams with them.
Iowa is out strong to an 11-2 start and I suppose you could see them as intriguing, given the wave of players they run in and out. But none of the wave really stands out. Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White make for an entertaining combo of wing players and I can see Iowa harboring NCAA hopes into late February. But I can’t see them getting over the top. As evidence, I submit their losses to Wichita and Virginia Tech, the only notable games they’ve played thus far.
Nebraska ‘s Brandon Ubel can make second or third-team All-Big Ten from his post position, averaging 13 points/7 rebounds a game. And individually, the backcourt of Ray Gallegos and Dylan Talley isn’t bad. But without an outside shooter to loosen up defenses on Ubel, the whole won’t match the same of the parts, and depth is also lacking.
I don’t know what happened to Matt Painter’s program at Purdue. Two years ago, the Boilermakers seemed to be back as a conference contender. Now they’re coming off a down year, have gone 5-6 this year, lost to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan and have no players of consequence.
The Michigan State Spartans were supposed to be in rebuilding mode when they helped tip off the college basketball season back on the aircraft carrier in San Diego on November 11. A loss that night to North Carolina and four nights later to Duke at Madison Square Garden, were nothing to be ashamed of, but nor was there anything to suggest Tom Izzo’s team would become a Big Ten leader and national title contender—particularly when conference favorite Ohio State smoked Duke by 22 points in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. But then things changed.
Izzo’s tough non-conference opening helped his young team mature quickly and his own coaching savvy began to piece together a lineup rotation. Michigan State has only one clear star, power forward Draymond Green, who averages 15 points/11 rebounds/4 assists per game. And the team has only one other double-digit scorer, in sophomore guard Keith Appling, at 12 ppg. But depth and the classic Michigan State formula of attacking the glass has this team sitting on an 11-3 conference record, sole possession of first place and a projected #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
Michigan State only has two other players who average 20-plus minutes a game, forward Branden Dawson and guard Brandon Wood. The latter is a good shooter from the perimeter, but while his three-point range isn’t bad, nor is it a strength. Dawson chips in some rebounding help. Where the Spartans draw their strength is use of the entire lineup and they have four players who give Izzo 18-19 quality minutes a night. Derrick Nix at 6’9” and Adreian Payne at 6’10” provide the height that prevents teams from focusing exclusively on Green below, and the Nix/Payne combo is good for eight extra rebounds a night. In the backcourt Travis Trice and Austin Thornton only score five points apiece, but they both shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc, making them a key X-factor in the one-game shots that are the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans suffered all three of their conference losses in January, all were on the road, all were to good teams (Northwestern, Michigan, Illinois—before the Illini collapsed), and the latter two were by a combined three points. Since Super Bowl Sunday Michigan State has been a roll, and against the best the conference has to offer.
Michigan State beat Michigan by ten shortly before America watched the Patriots-Giants. The Spartans dominance of the glass was stunning, even by their standards, beating the Wolverines 39-15 on the boards, 16 of them by Green. A similar 41-22 edge keyed a pounding of Penn state. Then the game that really opened up eyes was a 58-48 win at Ohio State that moved Sparty into a tie for first, thanks to holding the Buckeyes to 26 percent shooting. The defense stayed in clampdown mode at home against Wisconsin, holding Jordan Taylor to 3-of-13 and the Badgers as a whole to 34 percent. Then on Sunday, Michigan State pulled away from a desperate Purdue team playing on its home floor, thanks to more tough defense—34 percent shooting for the Boilers and a 38-27 rebounding edge for the Spartans.
When you’re playing tough defense, forcing missed shots and rebounding the misses, it stands to reason you’ll win a lot of games. When you have depth it stands to reason you can survive the long haul-be it a 16-game conference schedule, or a 6-game NCAA Tournament. If you have a clear go-to player it stands to reason you can win a one-game shot.
So is this is an endorsement for Michigan State to win a national title? If this were an NBA playoff system, I’d probably lean their way, because I think in a best-of-seven situation their weaknesses behind the three-point line would be minimized and their strengths maximized. In a single-elimination format though, losing a three-point battle can kill you. I suspect if MSU is to win Izzo’s second national championship there will be at least one or two games where Trice or Thornton will have to contribute beyond what they’ve done so far this year, or somebody else will have to show an outside touch they haven’t yet shown. That’s why I’m not quite ready to go national championship. But viable contender? Absolutely. Big Ten champ? Why not. And that’s a heckuva lot more than any of us thought possible on that electric night on the San Diego carrier against North Carolina.
NEW MEXICO PULLS AWAY IN MOUNTAIN WEST
Another team no one expected to be at the top of the conference standings in late February is New Mexico. Yet Steve Alford’s team is not only leading the Mountain West, they’re in complete command, holding a two-game lead on UNLV and San Diego State.
The Lobos didn’t start strong, losing November games to New Mexico State and Santa Clara, and then barely escaping a terrible Arizona State squad. They got respectable wins over Missouri State and Oklahoma State and then a New Year’s Eve win over St. Louis, a victory that looks better with each day the Billikens push closer to the NCAA Tournament. But it’s in conference play that New Mexico has really stood out. They’ve split the four games with their two main rivals, but while Vegas and San Diego State have stumbled in bad spots, New Mexico has not. The Lobos are 3-0 against Colorado State and Wyoming, both still harboring hopes of the NCAAs themselves.
Senior power forward Drew Gordon is the star of this team with a 13/11 nightly average, while 6’7” Tony Snell is a tall perimeter player that can use his height to get his shot, and he hits 42 percent from three-point range. Kendall Williams is a good playmaker, at a solid shooter that teams can’t back off on defensively. There’s not a ton of depth, making the recent legal problems of senior forward A.J. Hardeman an even bigger concern. But if Hardeman is cleared to play after his recent arrest, New Mexico will be a threat in March.
A game tonight against a hungry Colorado State team that has to win is going to be tough, particularly coming off a week where New Mexico beat UNLV and San Diego State in succession. But even with a loss, that still leaves the Lobos with a one-game lead and three easy games to close the schedule.
New Mexico is currently projected as a #6 seed by Lunardi. If you compare them to projected #11s like UConn ,Long Beach State, Xavier and Washington, it’s certainly feasible to win a first-round game—I’d pick them over UConn or Xavier, not against Long Beach or Washington. Getting through the second round would be a war—it’s tough to see them beating 3-seeds like Marquette, Georgetown, Baylor or Michigan. Winning one game in the NCAA Tournament would be a significant deal for Alford’s team and two wins would likely require a big upset in a 3-14 game.
Whatever happens in March though, New Mexico is like Michigan State, in that they’re standing in a position where no one thought they’d be four months ago and for that they deserve all the credit.