Going in alone

Kevin C. Cox

MSU is posting an abnormally low number of assists so far. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Through two games, Michigan State's statistical profile doesn't yield a lot of surprises for long-term observers of the program*:

  • The rebounding has been very, very good: 42.9% OReb% for the good guys, 24.1% for the bad guys. That's obviously exactly the base Tom Izzo wants to build a team from.
  • The ball-handling has been very, very not good: 24.7% TO%. That's obviously the area Tom Izzo is used to needing to build improvement in.
  • The three-point shooting has been very, very not randomly distributed in our favor: 29.6% for us, 45.5% for them. That's obviously something we'd like to, once again, see regress to the mean.

The one number that jumps off the page as distinctly un-Izzo-esque is assist ratio. Only 40.8% of MSU's made field goals have been assisted. Traditionally, the MSU offense posts an assist ratio around 60%. The team has ranked in the top 50 nationally in this measure in each of the past eight seasons. This, despite the fact that teams that score a lot of points off offensive rebounds will generally rank lower in assist ratio.

Now, assist ratio is not a statistic you necessarily need to rank high on to be successful. As Mr. Gasaway has noted in the past, assists are adverbial. A layup scored directly off a drive to the hoop counts just as much as a layup off a dish from a guy driving to the hoop. Some very successful college programs often rank fairly low in assist ratio--Kentucky and Wisconsin, to cite two prominent examples. (For all those swing passes, the final step in the Badger attack often involves an individual drive to the basket or post move.)

In the past, I've argued that a high assist ratio can actually be a bad thing for the Spartans:

I do wonder if the new heights MSU's assist percentage reached over the last two seasons has been somewhat counterproductive, though. I complained several times last season that the offense had gotten too scripted. Players didn't have the confidence to create offensive opportunities on their own when the situation presented itself--i.e., when defensive pressure took MSU out of its set pieces.

(Here's the chart that goes with that piece, BTW.)

Indeed, MSU was able to get baskets off individual playmaking when they needed them Tuesday night. Gary Harris created off the dribble on several occasions when Kansas looked like it was on the verge of pulling away. And Keith Appling took over with his one-on-one skills to seal the game late. Izzo hasn't often had two guards with as much talent as those two players possess to create scoring opportunities for themselves in the half-court offense.

It's obviously very early, and we shouldn't read too much into the numbers. (Clearly less flattering early-returns number: MSU has had 20% of its two-point attempts blocked in the first two games. We'll chalk that up to the level of the competition and small sample size, thank you very much.) But assist ratio will be an interesting statistic to track as the season goes along. I'm pretty confident MSU's ratio will end up north of 50% by the end of the season, but if it doesn't get all the way back up to 60%, that may actually be a good thing, signalling an offensive attack that can adapt more easily to defenses that take the team out of it standard offensive sets.

*Warning: I'm going to be linking to KenPom.com throughout the basketball season. I humbly submit that subscribing to the site is the absolute best way you can spend $19.95 on the internet.

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