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.
Michigan State then lost by double digits at home to North Carolina. The Tar Heels, like Kentucky, shot better than 45 percent from the floor. And let’s keep in mind that this is the same North Carolina team that’s struggled out of the gate in ACC play.
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.