Although no new banners were hung in Breslin this year, and the galling loss to Duke in the tournament is still smarting, this was nonetheless a successful season for Michigan State basketball. Tom Izzo took a team ranked 14th in both preseason polls to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, a team that came within a missed Jordan Morgan layup of sharing a fourth regular season Big Ten title in five years. They had big wins over Kansas, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin (twice) and were competitive in every game on their way to a 27-win season. Izzo probably summed it up best on Senior Day: "We worked our tail off. You should be prouder of this team than almost any team I've had because we went through a lot with this team, and they hung in there. Thirty-one times your team showed up. Thirty-one." And they did it in spite of dealing with injuries and an uncharacteristically short bench.
A basketball season has many features, some measurable and some less so. Here I'm presenting (mostly) a take on the more measurable features of MSU's season: what went well, what needs improvement and what to expect next year. I draw most of my measurements from Ken Pomeroy's (KenPom.com) and Jeff Haley's (hoop-math.com) excellent websites. Those of you unfamiliar with some of the statistics or abbreviations I use here could do a lot worse than review KJ's primer on tempo-free statistics, found here.
MSU's season was remarkable for its consistency and balance. They weren't spectacular at much of anything, but they had few weaknesses as well. In conference play they ranked between 3rd and 6th in the B1G in every one of the offensive and defensive 'four factors' categories (again, see here) except, of course, offensive turnover percentage (8th). And the balanced distribution of the offense among the starters, noted by KJ in midseason, became, if anything, more pronounced by season's end.
|Player||Offensive Rating||Usage Rate|
While Gary Harris and Adreian Payne finished a notch above the rest, there were no possession-dominating big stars and no one with an especially limited role among the five starters. And those starters had the lion's share of the court time, as Tom Izzo gave only 29% of the available minutes to his bench, the smallest share since 2007. Both years the Spartans ranked 212th nationally in that stat.
The offense, though balanced, took a step back this year, which is not surprising considering the departure of Draymond Green, as well as the less-publicized but still significant losses of Austin Thornton and Brandon Wood. MSU was still a good offense, just not quite as good as the previous year in almost every offensive category.
The only area in which this year's Spartans improved, led by Adreian Payne's near-conference-leading mark of 84.8% from the line, was free-throw shooting. In every other area (shooting, offensive rebounding, turnovers, getting to the line) MSU suffered at least a slight regression. This wasn't enough to make them a bad offense, just a merely very good one in a conference that included offensive superpowers Michigan and Indiana.
This drop in performance generally was aggravated by another regression in the area of shot selection. As we know, 2-pt jumpers are the least efficient form of offense and successful offenses generally try to get most of their points from beyond the arc, at the rim, or both. As Luke Winn pointed out last year, one of the keys to Michigan State's improved offense was better shot selection. One consequence of the departures of Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers was that a lot fewer long twos were being taken. Unfortunately, that trend reversed itself to some extent this year. In fact, the last three years worth of data from hoop-math.com provide a nice spectrum of 'meh-better-best' when it comes to Spartan shot selection.
|%Shots at Rim||%2pt Jumpers||%3pt Jumpers|
MSU was a good 3-point shooting team this year at 34% and even better in conference: 36.6%, good enough for 3rd best. But they were one of the most 3-averse teams in the nation with only 28% of shot attempts from distance, same as last year. But this year they basically traded in some dunks and layups for jumpers, with an unsurprising result. One of the main causes of this was the near-disappearance of the take-it-to-the rim version of Keith Appling. Last year Appling took a robust 42% of his shots at the rim and only 27% were 2-point jumpers. That basically reversed itself this year as Appling only went to the rim 26% of the time and took 2-point jump-shots on a sizeable 39% of his attempts. His FG% on those shots was barely higher (34% to 32%) than his 3-point shooting, making those twos a highly inefficient proposition.
The defense took a step back as well, but it was smaller and relative to the best defense Izzo has had at Michigan State. This year's edition had an adjusted defensive efficiency of 86.5, good for 7th best in the nation. Those are terrific numbers and this year's team was definitely driven by defense, but it was still not quite as good as last year's #3 in the nation and 85.8 efficiency mark. Some regression from lofty levels like that is to be expected.
|eFG%||TO%||DReb%||Free Throw Rate|
The relatively small difference in defensive eFG% tends to conceal the major difference between this year's defense and last. This year's edition may actually have been better than its predecessor at guarding the 3-point line. Although Draymond Green and company posted a better defensive 3pt%, the evidence is mounting that this statistic is largely beyond the control of the defense and that a better measure of 3-point defense is the percentage of 3-point attempts allowed. Here is where this year's team has the edge, having allowed opponents to take fewer of their shots from deep (34.3% to 36.1%) and consequently get a smaller share of their points from outside the arc (27.9% to 29.2%).
The problem was that the 2013 Spartans were much worse at defending the two. This problem was especially acute in non-conference play, where the Spartans went from best eFG% defense in the conference last year at 43.1% to 9th at 48.3%. In fact, that ranking was MSU's lowest since Pomeroy began tracking it in 2003 and you have to go back to the 2004 team that ranked 8th in the league at 49.5% to find a comparable number.
Two-point defense alone wasn't enough to completely wreck MSU's defensive performance, but it certainly contributed to the failure to hang another conference championship banner this year. In 6 conference losses, all to tournament teams, MSU opponents averaged 21 successful twos and a healthy 53.4% shooting percentage. When you consider that MSU's defense led the league in in-conference steal percentage without forcing an especially high overall turnover rate, this suggests that gambling for steals at the expense of maintaining defensive assignments may have been a problem.
As Chris has posted, the way-too-early preseason polls are pretty high on MSU, most having them pegged as a top-5 team nationally and possibly the top team in the Big Ten. Dan Hanner has MSU at #2, in large part because (with no attrition) they would be returning 84% of the possessions from a KenPom top-10 team. I would also add that with the 2013 team being a young, freshman-heavy team, there's good reason to expect a significant jump in performance from a number of key players.
It is possible to find reasons to temper optimism, however. Although MSU loses "only" Derrick Nix from this year's team, that may be a more significant loss than it might appear. With some of the Spartans' offensive problems attributable to trading shots at the rim for jumpers, Nix was the most inside-focused player on the roster, taking 66% of his shots there. Adreian Payne, meanwhile, despite being the best finisher on the team with an impressive 80% FG% at the rim, only took 38% of his shots from that range. The development of a post game by Payne, including the ability to establish position, will be critical if MSU's offense is to avoid taking another step back. This, along with a return of Keith Appling's driving game and a renewed focus on contesting shots inside the arc should be keys to watch as MSU looks to capitalize on what could be a special season next year.