I may be a little early with this, but the Ohio State game (which I drove 260 miles each way to attend) put many of us in a similar state of mind. MSU has now matched last season's loss total, with three regular season games remaining. And I think it's safe to say that they're unlikely to run the table from now through the NCAA tournament, meaning that this season represents a drop-off from last, in one of the most important statistics, anyway.
Although many of us probably felt that the pre-season expectations for this team were a bit inflated, they were based on the general idea that a very good but not dominant team (+0.13 efficiency margin) returning 69% of its possession minutes* would expect to improve enough on offense to offset an almost certain fall-off in defense (from the losses of Suton and Walton).
*Returning Possession Minutes is a John Gasaway statistic that tries to qualify returning minutes by adjusting for the role that departed players had in the offense. So a team like MSU (Walton) or Illinois (Frazier and Meachem) that lost players who consumed relatively few possessions on offense would have a higher RPM than raw returning minutes. It could really just as well be called returning offensive minutes.
The College Basketball Prospectus Major Conference Preview 2009-10 (buy your copy here) did an impeccable job, as usual, of quantifying what needed to happen for MSU to meet or exceed last season's performance.
Their defense may well slip now that Walton's gone, but there's enough room for improvement on offense that the net result can be about what it was last year. The key numbers here are 48 and 22. Last year in conference play, perimeter-averse MSU made just 48 percent of their twos and gave the ball away on 22 percent of their possessions. If the Spartans can raise that first number and lower the second (while of course maintaining their Tasmanian devil-level offensive rebounding), they can indeed fulfill the towering expectations being placed upon them.
They included a further analysis of MSU's offense last year.
The Spartans transcended their poor shooting in three ways. In order of importance they were: 1) defense; 2) offensive rebounding; and 3) trips to the line. It's a little scary to ponder what this team might do in 2010 if these three factors stay unchanged but MSU improves in the areas of shooting and taking care of the ball. Even a little.
It's easy enough to see how it played out. Here are conference-only statstics, from Statsheet.com.
As you can see, the Spartans improved in their weakest area, shooting the ball, and even shaved a little off the turnover percentage. But, unfortunately, the other factors didn't hold firm, leaving us with the unexpected conclusion that rebounding (along with getting to the line and sinking free throws) is to blame for leaving the offense almost exactly where it was last year (1.062 PPP vs. 1.063).
So, did the defense fall off too? Does Dallas Lauderdale only make dunks? Overall efficiency went from 0.93 to the current 1.00. Here are some basic numbers. (I've included opposition FT%, to show that there's been a little bad luck, too.)
Of course there's no way to say whether this decline is greater than expected. The efficiency number represents a worsening of 7.5%, which would have seemed fairly reasonable to me at the start of the season. (1.0 is where Wisconsin finished last season, believe it or not.) Interestingly enough, a small amount of this can be attributed to bad luck. If opponents in 2009 had shot free throws as well as this year's cold-blooded killers the efficiency would have gone from .930 to .946. It has probably seemed worse than it is since MSU started the conference season with some impressive showings against good offensive teams like Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And in general, although overall efficiency is down and they're giving up more good looks (Waltonlessness), fewer opponents are getting to the line to inflict their deadly accuracy.
In general, then, I think you can say that the defensive fall-off has been within the range of expectations, but has not been offset by the hoped-for offensive improvements. Based on what we knew about this team at the beginning of the season, what they lost and what they were likely to gain, I've come to the paradoxical conclusion that we can lay the blame for the failure to meet expectations, to a significant degree, on the offense.