[Takes a deep breath.]
When the season commenced, Michigan State was the consensus #2 team in the country, with visions of conference and national championships dancing in the players' (and our) heads. Today, MSU is a marginal top-25 team that stands a full three games out of first place in the Big Ten standings.
So what's gone wrong?
Well, let's go back to my assessment of the team's potential before the season started:
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.
(The three areas I went on to cite were turnovers, three-point shooting, and defensive rebounding. More on that below.)
So where do things stand in terms of the big picture numbers now? Here's a comparison to last season's numbers:
|Adjusted Off Efficiency||28||46|
|Adjusted Def Efficiency||30||21|
The season's MSU team isn't really any worse than last season's. It's just not any better. Combine that with a brutal schedule and you get a 12-7 record. Last season's team rode a series of close wins to a share of a Big Ten title and a Final Four appearance. The latter run occurred with an injury-depleted roster but against a relatively weak set of tournament opponents. It was really, really great, but it was not necessarily predictive of basketball eliteness.
Still, MSU returned enough players from what was clearly a top-25 team to put themselves in the discussion as a team with realistic national title hopes this year. The requisite improvement that was needed for that to happen, though, hasn't materialized. The team has improved some on defense (with the losses to the sharpshooting Illini and Boilermakers dragging the team's defensive ranking down a dozen spots in the last week), but has regressed considerably on offense.
Really, it's less "What's gone wrong?" than "What hasn't gone right?" Things that haven't gone right:
- Kalin Lucas hasn't regained the full level of explosiveness to finish scoring opportunities in the lane. We tend to forget, I think, that he's only 6'1". For a player of his size he's been very good throughout his career at drawing contact and finishing tough looks in the lane. It's hard to do those things when you can't explode off one leg the way you're used to.
- Durrell Summers hasn't blossomed into the consistent 15-plus-point-per-game scorer we thought he might after last year's NCAA Tournament performance. He hasn't been all that bad relative to his career baseline; he just hasn't made a big leap forward.
- Korie Lucious hasn't stopped, well, being Korie Lucious.
- Adreian Payne, maybe due to the shoulder injury or or maybe just because he's a freshman, hasn't been the immediate contributor the recruiting types thought he could be.
- Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman haven't become legitimate low post scoring options the way we thought they might.
The only two players to show real improvement from last season have been Draymond Green and Delvon Roe and, in both cases, it's taken some time to adjust to new roles. And Roe's improvement is of the very recent variety, at least statistically.
The team didn't need all things listed above to happen, but it did need two or three of them to happen. Because they haven't, the team's collective efficiency has been stagnant relative to last season. Looking at the three areas I cited in my preseason preview, the three-point shooting has been up and down, the turnover issues were crippling for the first dozen games of the year, and the defensive rebounding has been mediocre. Just as importantly, Lucas' slower recovery and the lack of a true low-post threat has caused MSU's 2-point shooting to fall by 4 percentage points compared to last season.
None of this represents a moral failure on the part of the players or a major strategic error on the part of Tom Izzo. With few exceptions, the team has competed hard throughout the schedule, as evidenced by the generally acceptable defensive performances. And Izzo has slowly but surely been able to correct many of the team's problems--the turnover issues, in particular.
Success requires effort. That does not mean a lack of success is always indicative of a lack of effort. The five players with two Big Ten championship and Final Four rings a piece have not forgotten how to compete. And the thought of Tom Izzo not working to get every ounce of effort from his players is, in a word, laughable.
Sometimes a roster that looks promising on paper just doesn't gel the way one might predict. And having a full roster of productive contributors represents the foundation of success under Izzo. Thad Matta can win a game with six players. Tom Izzo can't. He demands his players work hard on defense, crash the glass with abandon, and get out and run in transition. He needs nine or ten players playing to make that happen. When he's forced to abandon that approach, the results have been adequate but far from stellar (2004, 2006, 2007). Not to mention that, outside of relying on one-and-done-type players, you can't build for long-term success if you're not giving less experienced players a chance to play through their problems.
The lack of contributions from players off the bench is the reason I was pretty pessimistic about the team's outlook when conference play began. The good news is that I think we're starting to see some additional pieces emerge. Keith Appling is becoming a defensive stopper and making some offensive contributions along the way. Adreian Payne is starting to look comfortable enough out there for his athleticism to be a factor. Derrick Nix is showing, in short stretches, the formidable combination of size and skills that made a lot of people pick him to be this year's breakout player; Nix has 19 points and 15 rebounds in his last 39 minutes on the court. Korie Lucious and Garrick Sherman, meanwhile, showed the potential to be major contributors earlier in the season, so you can't rule out a resurgence by one or both players down the stretch (although, yes, it's getting very hard to put any faith in Lucious at this point).
I don't think a third consecutive Big Ten title is in the cards--Ohio State has been winning games by narrow margins, but they seem like the kind of team with enough talent to be able impose their will on opponents late in close games--but MSU can still make some noise in conference play. Four of the seven road games against potential upper division Big Ten opponents are now out of the way.
And, as painful as the past week has been, MSU has managed to score 138 points in 125 possessions against two quality opponents in (to put it mildly) inhospitable surroundings. A week ago, the offense was the main concern. Unless you think the Illinois and Purdue offensive explosions were indicative of a fundamental decline in MSU's defensive ability, there is a reasonable basis for being hopeful going forward.
The jury is still out on MSU's potential to do some damage in March. Certainly, they are not among the half dozen or so teams with solid national title hopes. But I don't think they're going to be an easy out either. If you're #2 or #3 seed, I don't think you'll want to see MSU as a #6 or #7 seed in your section of the bracket. (Delvon Roe: Teams will be afraid to play us come March.")
There are ten games left before the calendar turns over to March. With expectations appropriately lowered, I think it's time to take (another) deep breath, pull behind the team, and see what surprises of the happy variety this season might still hold.