(Bump and added to preview roundup - Chris)
What comes to your mind when you hear "Michigan State basketball?" If you’re not a Michigan State fan, I’m willing to bet the terms "slow," "plodding," "laborious," "methodical," or "boring" popped up. There’s no reason to deny it. Every year, Tom Izzo squads are widely considered iron-men who pride themselves on defense—guys who would rather lose blood and teeth than get out-rebounded. And it doesn’t help that the Spartans are the grittiest team in the Big Ten, a conference known for smashin’, bashin’, and half-court-action. Some Big Ten teams even go so far as to intentionally stall, simply for the sake of trolling everyone involved (*cough*Wisconsin*cough). But just how slow is Michigan State?
The Spartans scored less than 70-points on 18 different occasions last year, and the ’12-’13 season marked the 8th year in a row that MSU failed to crack the national top-50 in points-per-game. Yet, Michigan State has been in the top-35 all but twice in that same timespan. Again, slow, plodding, methodical, yadda-yadda… Right?
This shouldn’t be surprising to anybody. As already stated, Izzo teams pride themselves on rebounding and defense. Finishing in the top-twenty in both of those categories almost every single year since Izzo took over has founded and bolstered that perception. Besides, how else would these slow, plodding Spartan teams find the success that they have since Izzo took over in ’96?
But maybe… just maybe… these Tom Izzo squads aren’t so slow.
We Spartan fans hear this rhetoric every single year. "[Blank University] is too athletic for Michigan State!" "Our guys are going to run MSU out of the gym!" "MSU is way too slow; they’re gonna get carved up!"
Refutation is futile. It has become an incontrovertible truth. But hearing the same-old nonsense regurgitated from different fan-bases over and over again, just to hear them backtrack after the game, has gotten old. It’s come to the point where we, MSU fans, just roll our eyes when we hear the "slow and plodding!" line. We don’t know where this perception came from, but we know it’s not true—just ask Kemba Walker and his "too-fast-4-u" 2009 Huskies (for the record, MSU ran them off the floor in a 82-73 win).
Sorry, but something miffs me about guys like Keith Applin, and Branden Dawson, and Adreian Payne being considered "slow" or "un-athletic" after plays like this, this, or this (yeah, Memphis fans, don't think I forgot about DJ Stephens' "45-inch vertical" and how he was going to "dunk all over MSU!"). So I decided to do a little homework to figure out the truth about Michigan State basketball: Slow and plodding or not?
Here’s some background information that’ll be helpful for what follows. Transition shot percentage—as measured by the brilliant Jeff Haley at Hoop-Math.com—is the percentage of a team’s total shot attempts that come within ten seconds of acquiring possession, be it through a defensive rebound, an opponent-made-basket, or a forced turnover. Pretty simple.
Last year, the "fastest" team in the nation, in terms of getting a shot-attempt up within ten seconds of acquiring possession, was Northwestern State University—34.2% of their total shot attempts came in transition.
The slowest team was Bucknell, who took just 8.5% of their shots in transition.
The mean percentage of shots taken in transition in Division One basketball was 20.8%; the upper-quartile was 23.4%; the lower-quartile was 18.3%.
Michigan State took 23.9% of their shots in transition. That’s good enough to make Michigan State the 67th fastest team in the nation, putting them inside the top-25% of D-I college basketball. "Slow and plodding?" Hardly. But let’s dig deeper.
Which teams were actually "faster" than Michigan State? Or, at least, what teams were perceived to be faster than Michigan State? I think we can effectively eliminate the Northwestern States of the CBB world, because we all know that’s not where the comparisons are being made. So let’s just look at the power-six conferences: the Big Ten, the PAC-12, the Big Twelve, the Big East, the ACC, and the SEC.
By the raw numbers, teams faster than Michigan State were: Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, UCLA, Colorado, Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, Oklahoma State, St. John’s, Arkansas, and North Carolina. In other words, of the 75-teams that compete in the six power conferences, Michigan State was the 13th fastest team. "Slow and plodding?"
If you break it down by conference, Michigan State—the fourth fastest team in the Big Ten—would be the 2nd fastest team in the Big East, the 2nd fastest team in the Big Twelve, the 3rd fastest team in the ACC, the 4th fastest team in the SEC, and the 3rd fastest team in the PAC-12. "Slow and plodding?"
Here are MSU’s opponents last year, their national transition ranking, and the percentage of shots they took in transition:
Connecticut: #83; 23.7%
Kansas: #108; 22.7%
Texas Southern: #179; 20.6%
Boise State: #183; 20.3%
Oakland: #124; 22.3%
Louisiana-Lafayette: #90; 23.3%
Miami: #282; 17.3%
Nicholls State: #239; 18.9%
Arkansas-Pine Bluff: #123; 22.3%
Loyola-Chicago: #316; 15.5%
Bowling Green State: #112; 22.6%
Texas: #169; 20.8%
Minnesota (x2): #182; 20.4%
Purdue (x2): #249; 18.6%
Iowa (x2): #57; 24.6%
Nebraska (x2): #329; 13.8%
Penn State: #275; 17.6%
Ohio State (x3): #158; 21.0%
Wisconsin (x2): #336; 13.1%
Indiana (x2): #6; 29.0%
Illinois (x2): #57; 24.8%
Michigan (x2): #57; 24.8%
Northwestern: #327; 14.2%
Valparaiso: #156; 21.1%
Memphis: #23; 26.8%
Duke: #289; 16.9%
The average transition ranking among those 36-teams is 176.0; the average percentage of shots taken in transition was 20.65%. In summation, Michigan State’s opponents, as a whole, were right around average nationally in terms of transition rates—meaning Michigan State’s transition numbers don’t benefit at all from their opponents’ style of play.
So next time you tune into a Michigan State-Wisconsin game and the score resembles something you’d see on the MLB Network, remember that you’re watching an outlier, and that the score is not representative of Michigan State’s ability or willingness to run the court.
Next time you mentally prep yourself for your favorite team's meeting against Tom Izzo's Spartans, leave your shoes and your dogma at the door. Very, very few teams are out-running Michigan State, and odds are, your team isn't one of them.