Ode on a Spartan Defense

In recent years it's been a bit of a trial watching Michigan State play defense. Whether it was Adreian Payne deciding too late to hedge on a screen or Korie Lucious getting switched on to Demetri McCamey during a crucial late-game possession, I would find myself tensing up and just hoping for the best. This year it's actually been fun to watch the Spartans play D. They always seem to make the right decision on switching, hedging, fighting over a screen or doubling in the post, lending a pleasing fluidity to their defensive efforts. I never thought I'd enjoy forcing a contested 18-footer by the opposition with under 5 on the shot clock as much as a thunderous dunk by the Spartans at the other end, but, I have to admit, I do.

Michigan State's defense definitely passes the infamous "eye test", but what do the numbers say? MSU currently sits at number 3 in the kenpom.com adjusted efficiency ratings on defense at 84.1, easily their best mark of the tempo-free era (2003 forward). If you look at raw numbers you can go back a few years further. MSU's raw defensive efficiency this season is 88.1. This is the lowest number they've recorded since at least 1996-97. Even the National Championship team was higher at 89.2. Though you'd want to look at these numbers relative to national numbers overall (this year's kenpom.com rank of 3 is their best ever), a strong case could be made that this is the best defensive team of the Tom Izzo era.

Note: Yeah, I know I'm risking bad karma by posting this right before an important road game, but I've been getting a backlog of this stuff and need to get it out sometime. I'm fully prepared to shoulder the blame for a torching at Mackey. That's just the kind of guy I am.
Stats are from kenpom.com and statsheet.com.

Michigan State contesting Jared Sullinger's shot.
No shots come easy.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Terry Gilliam

So what's fueling this defensive success? Shockingly enough, it's keeping the other guys from putting the ball in the basket. The Spartans currently stand first in the conference (conference games only) in 2-pt% defense, 3-pt% defense, overall FG% defense and effective field goal defense (eFG%). Their overall 3-pt% defense of 28.5% is by far their best mark since 2003 and is especially impressive after last year's performance of 36.3%, which ranked 270th in the nation. It reflects how effective their overall defense has been, allowing them to extend aggressive coverage out to the arc. But it also reflects how good the interior defense has been, forcing opponents to try and beat them from outside. Only Penn State has faced a higher percentage of 3-point shots and in their case it makes sense - opponents are shooting 36.2% against them from three. Michigan State is forcing opponents to take nearly as many threes, but only allowing 28.5% of them to go in.

<a class='sbn-auto-link' href='http://www.sbnation.com/ncaa-basketball/players/52346/draymond-green'>Draymond Green</a> seizes a rebound.
Draymond Green seizes a
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Al Goldis

The deadly complement to field goal defense has been rebounding. Opponents are missing a lot of shots and not getting an opportunity to try again. This year's team is allowing opponents to recover only 26.9% of their own misses, again, their lowest number of the tempo-free era. MSU has has had a higher percentage of defensive rebounds than the opposition in all but 4 games this year. In fully half of their games (13 out of 26) MSU has recovered at least 3 out of every 4 of their opponents' missed shots. They have been led in this effort by senior captain Draymond Green. Green has propelled himself into the national player of the year race in no small part due to his amazing dominance on the defensive glass. At this writing Green's defensive rebounding percentage sits at 27.8%, 10th best in the nation and tops in the Big Ten. In conference play only he's at an eye-popping 31.7%, 4th nationally and still tops in the Big Ten. To return to the eye test, I've seldom seen a player, let alone a player of only 6'7", rebound with more confidence and authority than Green. When asked if rebounding is the most important statistic to him Green replied

Yeah, because it's an effort thing. You don't have to be the greatest jumper, it's all about angles and positioning and effort, and who wants the ball. I want to be that guy who goes and gets the ball.
Russell Byrd on defense against Central Connecticut
Russell Byrd goes for the steal.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Al Goldis

This year's edition of the Spartan defense is also standing out in some more unfamiliar statistical ways. With a season defensive turnover percentage of 20.8 MSU is smack in the middle of the conference and the country in that statistic. Izzo teams have traditionally preferred contesting shots to forcing turnovers, so that number might seem unsurprising. But it is the best figure, both in number and national rank (162), that MSU has posted since the 2005 season. In addition, they rank second in the conference in steal percentage (in conference play and overall) thanks to the quick hands and aggressive play of Branden Dawson, Derrick Nix, Travis Trice and Draymond Green, all of whom rank in the top 20 in the conference in steal rate. Though this is undoubtedly a less important factor in MSU's defensive excellence than field goal defense, a glance at the Michigan State game plan($) on kenpom.com reveals a distinct correlation between turnover rate and defensive efficiency.

There are other numbers to look at here. MSU has blocked almost 13% of the two-point shots taken against them this year, led by Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Draymond Green is in the national top ten of sports-reference.com's individual defensive ratings. But the bottom line is that, thanks largely to its defense, MSU is looking like a bona fide contender this year. In last year's Spartan Tip-Off, KJ pointed out that since 2003

Champions and top-ranked teams have, without exception, been among the half-dozen most efficient teams in the country on at least one end of the court.

Connecticut last year did provide the first exception, ranking 16th in offensive efficiency and 14th on defense. However, the trend is still quite striking and not since 2005, when the offense ranked 6th, has Michigan State had a team that fit that profile. This year's defense, ranked 3rd nationally in efficiency, strongly suggests that this Spartan team may be for real.

I tweet about this stuff with more frequency than I have been writing lately. If you'd care to follow along, you may do so here:

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