As I sit down to start this post, we're just 36 hours from the 2010-2011 Michigan State basketball season tipping off. And, to date, I've provided very little in the way of preview-like substance on the site. Two reasons/excuses for that. First, FOOTBALL FEVER (obvs). Second, I'm a much better backward-looking analyst than I am a forward-looking prognosticator. I suppose that's true for all humans lacking time-bending powers of observation, but it's even more true for this human. Further, I used up whatever stupendous insights I have about the season-to-be in the big preview piece I wrote for The Magazine. So if you haven't read that article yet, I'll pause for 60 minutes while you drive to your local bookstore, buy the magazine, and read the opening article.
Back? OK, let's plow through a discussion of what we know, what we think, and what we hope regarding the upcoming basketball season. (And that'll be the last shameless plug for the magazine. I think.)
Going into the season, I think the MSU depth chart looks like this:
Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Draymond Green, and Delvon Roe are locks to start--or play starter-level minutes, at least. When Korie Lucious returns from his suspension for the season opener, he should have a leg up on the final starting spot, while also serving as the primary back-up to Lucas at the point. That position could increasingly be under pressure from Keith Appling as the season progresses, though, given the range of abilities Appling brings to the table on the wing. A key factor will be whether Appling's progression on defense continues to be more rapid than Lucious' has been through his first two seasons.
I think that once Izzo settles on a regular rotation, there will be, at most, one spot for Mike Kebler and Austin Thornton. Kebler has the advantage in terms of how he performed when given the opportunity in key spots last season. Thornton has the advantage in terms of size/position; his willingness to shoot the ball with confidence in the two exhibition games weighs in his favor, as well. I continue to worry about his ball-handing under pressure.
Izzo has as much depth in the front court as he's had since at least the 2003 season (when Aloysius Anagonye and Adam Ballinger were seniors and Paul Davis and Erazem Lorbek were freshmen). And this group is even more versatile--with skill (Green), athleticism (Roe/Adreian Payne), and size (Derrick Nix) all available depending on the situation. Garrick Sherman is still developing, but he brings a lot to the table for someone who's arguably only your fifth most talented guy in the paint. Given the depth up front, Alex Gauna redshirting is the working assumption. (Russell Byrd is also very likely to redshirt, but for injury reasons.)
The losses of Chris Allen and Raymar Morgan will be evident at times, but replacing those two with Appling and Payne arguable increases the team's overall ceiling. Payne, in particular, brings a combination of size and athleticism up front that will give opponents fits in a lot of games. The key will be for the returning veterans--Lucious, Summers, and Roe, in particular--to increase their productivity and efficiency enough to offset Allen's and Morgan's departures. Summers is probably the #1 key. Assuming full health, we know what Lucas and Green are going to bring to the table. I'm optimistic about Summers making it a trio of consistent core performers, but given how his career has played out so far, that's not a given.
The key statistical finding/belief of this site in regards to MSU's success under Tom Izzo is that depth matters. Allen's premature exit reduces the margin for error in terms of establishing a reliable 9- or 10-man rotation, but, barring major injury issues, the pieces are all still there to build a traditional Tom Izzo Final Four contender--a team that hustles on defense, runs hard in transition, and attacks the glass with abandon.
The Statistical Keys
The theme of my preview piece in the magazine is that, as great as the results have been over the past two years, MSU has to get significantly more efficient on both ends of the court this season if the team is really going to compete for a national title. In the last two seasons, MSU's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings have been 20, 10, 28, and 30. Those are good, but not great, numbers. Over the last seven seasons, every team that's won the national title has ranked in the top five nationally in either adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency--and five of the seven have ranked in the top five on both offense and defense. (The exceptions to the second statement were Florida in 2007 and North Carolina in 2009--and both those teams feature the most efficient offense in the country.)
To make the leap to a top-five level of efficiency and not have to rely on the very-unlikely-to-be-repeated string of close wins in key games from last season, the team will need to improve in a lot of areas, but there are three areas I think will be particularly important. (For newer readers, a primer on tempo-free stats is here, by the way. It's also linked on the sidebar on the left, for future reference.)
- Turnovers. Always turnovers. If ever there was a team that should be able to beat the traditional MSU turnover bug, it sure seems like this should be the one. Looking at the projected starting lineup above, each of the five players are as comfortable handling the ball as you could expect for a player at his position. (The exception is maybe Summers, who's an averagish ball-handler for a wing player.) On paper, the starters, at least, should be able to make smart, aggressive decisions with the ball against pressure defense and bring down the team's distinctly-mediocre 21.3% turnover rate from last season.
- Three-point shooting. Last year, the team was considerably more efficient converting shots inside the arc (51.6%, 40th in the nation) than they were outside it (34.4%, 157th in the nation). And the one guy who shot the ball with consistency from 3-point range last season--Chris Allen at 39.8%--is gone. Lucas, Lucious, and Summers will need to be more consistent from long range this year to keep defenses honest and allow MSU's playmakers in the lane (Lucas and Summers, as well; plus Green, Roe, and maybe Nix) to not have to work against packed-in defensive schemes. Obviously, there are reasons for optimism with regards to Summers (51.5% in last season's NCAA Tournament) and Lucas (7-11 in the two preseason games, having reportedly focused more on his outside shot while he rehabbed from his Achilles' injury). All indications are that Keith Appling should also be able to fill it up from distance.
- Defensive rebounding. This was by no means a weakness last season. The team ranked 22nd in the nation in preventing opponents from getting second chances off rebounds. But, given the depth and ability in the front court this season, that ranking needs to climb even higher. Hopefully, the team will get a little better at creating turnovers and preventing good perimeter looks, but that'll take some time with the loss of the team's two best perimeter defenders. For the team to become an elite-level defensive team, it's going to need to make sure that, when opponents get a shot off, that shot is the only chance they get to score on that particular trip down the court.
MSU is the consensus #2 team in the country according to the eyeball-based rankings. The numbers-based projections aren't quite as high on the Spartans. KenPom's new preseason projection system has MSU at #6, behind Duke, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Kansas, and Syracuse. This is (presumably--waiting for a hard copy of the prospectus book to read up on the system) a function of the fact MSU wasn't really a Final Four-level team in terms of efficiency last season. Still, the team is right there among a group of 8-12 teams that can reasonably be thinking about ending the season by winning the national title.
In terms of projected record, KenPom has MSU at 21-7 overall and 13-5 in conference play, not accounting for the second and third games in Maui or the Big Ten Tournament. Those aren't very glittery numbers, but that's, to a large degree, a function of the schedule. Knowing what we know right now, a team could not schedule a more difficult game than playing the Blue Devils in Durham. And playing Syracuse in its home state will be a distinct challenge, as well.
The Big Ten is, meanwhile, unusually well-stocked with national contenders. The numbers-based projections really like Ohio State, despite Evan Turner's departure. Illinois is a sleeper at the national level and a clear contender at the conference level. Purdue, despite the loss of Robbie Hummel for the season, remains a credible threat. Wisconsin is Wisconsin; they'll be in the hunt. 14-4 probably gets you the Big Ten title this season.
Long story short, MSU could end up with the unspectacular win-loss results KenPom projects and still be a national title contender. Ideally, though, the team will develop at a more rapid pace than the data project and MSU beats the KenPom projects by a couple games. A record of 27-6 (which would mean getting to the Big Ten Tournament title game) going into the NCAA tournament would be genuinely fantastic.
To repeat something I've now written probably a half dozen times since the loss to Butler in March, a 2011 MSU basketball season that ends short of the program's third national championship will not necessarily be a failure, but it will be a disappointment. There's only one way to beat back-to-back conference championships and Final Four appearances. (One more magazine tease: Not many teams coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances return 9 of their top 11 players.)
The road may be a little bumpy early, with multiple guys working back from injury and two freshmen working their way into the rotation, but it's road filled with as much potential excitement and promise as you could hope for as a college basketball fan in the second week of November.