One of the interesting sidelights of last year's MSU basketball season was the #FreeMattCostello movement on Twitter. With Izzo having such a short bench, and no true center to back up Derrick Nix, the reluctance to play Costello more than 6 minutes a game was a bit frustrating for some of the Spartan Twitterverse.
Costello came to MSU after a standout high school career at Bay City (MI) Western High School, culminating in the state's Mr. Basketball award in 2012. Costello was well-regarded by the national scouting services but not seen as a big star (RSCI rank of 86th in the country). Those who follow Michigan basketball more closely, however, were more excited about his potential.
Few expected Costello to start or even get extended minutes, but with Nix and PF Adreian Payne expected to see court time together, Costello looked like a natural to eat up some of the minutes available in the post
In the end, Costello only accounted for 184 total minutes, with his longest appearance being 14 minutes in a loss at Michigan. The #FreeMattCostello movement appeared to have gained some momentum by the middle of the conference season. At one point Costello logged double-digit minutes in 4 of 7 games (averaging 8.4 minutes in that stretch) only to see himself play 34 minutes (5.6 minute average) and score two total points the rest of the way. The highlight of his season was the beatdown of Michigan in February, when he scored a season-high 8 points and grabbed 6 boards. Costello’s conventional and tempo-free stats for the season are below.
A lot of the fuel to #FreeMattCostello came from his impressive efficiency and rebounding numbers, especially compared to other options on the Spartan bench. His offensive rating was 109.6, 5th best on the team, and on a per-possession basis he was second only to Adreian Payne in defensive rebounding. He also did a solid job hanging on to the ball, a highly valuable skill on this team, committing only 7 turnovers on the year for a sub-20% turnover rate.
I was somewhat surprised to see, however, that these numbers actually tailed off over the course of the year. (Graphs from StatSheet.com)
And Costello put up his offensive numbers while playing a very small role in the offense, even while he was on the court. Only Alex Gauna used up possessions with less frequency than Costello’s 13.5% usage rate. Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated recently published this year’s edition of his breakout sophomore picks. His formula basically looks for guys who had good offensive ratings AND high usage while playing limited minutes. The usage component of the formula is critical, because, as Winn notes in citing Ken Pomeroy, “players who are not very involved in the offense tend to stay that way.”
Which brings us to the other key statistic for Costello, probably the one that will determine how much of a breakout season he will have in 2013-14: 7.8 fouls committed per 40 minutes played. That number is twice the rate of anyone else on the team and kept him off the court more than his other numbers would suggest was justified. Despite (or perhaps because of) having 5 fouls to distribute over less than 10 minutes or so on the floor he fouled at such a prodigious rate that Izzo wouldn’t keep him out there. He came in with a reputation for tough play and although I do think he was victimized to a certain extent by Big Ten officials (they were “showing him the ropes,” to use an infamous phrase from another Luke Winn article) that’s only a partial explanation. The bottom line is that if you can’t play defense in the post without fouling for Tom Izzo, you’re not going to get much of a chance to show what else you can do.
When he was able to stay out there, Costello put up some numbers suggesting he could be very effective in the post at both ends. Despite playing the fewest minutes of any scholarship player on the team, he recorded 13 blocks, good for 4th on the team in raw numbers and far and away the best block percentage at 8.0%. At the other end Costello showed that he could draw fouls almost as well he could commit them, taking more than 1 foul shot for every 2 field goals he attempted. And when he got to the line he shot 82%.
All of that has to come with a small sample size disclaimer, of course. That being said, there are certainly some positive indicators for Costello going into this season. But the most important number may be 28: That’s how many minutes per game walked out of the gym when Derrick Nix graduated, and nobody is in a better position to pick up a chunk of those minutes than Costello. He’s the closest thing on the roster to a true center who can guard the 5, and there aren’t any clear-cut alternatives. He may not start, but none of Alex Gauna, Gavin Schilling or Kenny Kaminski is an obvious or proven alternative.
And there is that offensive rating. Although Costello’s usage rate is closer to Al Anagonye (15.6%), Adam Ballinger (13.2%), Drew Naymick (9.6%) or Goran Suton (13.9%) than it is to Zach Randolph (26.2%), Paul Davis (26.4%) or Erazem Lorbek (21.3%) among Izzo freshman bigs, that’s not necessarily a negative. In fact, some see Suton, who developed a pick-and-pop game and some defense in the post, as a potential comp for Costello. Finishing with a 116 offensive rating and 24% defensive rebounding, as Suton did as a senior, would be a far more than just respectable upside for Costello.
Things have been pretty quiet in the Spartan camp this summer, which is probably a good thing after recent injury-plagued years. Izzo has indicated that Gauna, Schilling and Costello are all in the mix for minutes at the center position. Given Schilling's apparently impressive showing, and the likelihood that Izzo will frequently go with a 3-guard lineup alongside Payne and Dawson, minutes are not going to come easy for Costello. Obviously defense should be his top offseason priority, as that's the obvious primary need. With his nice touch around the rim and ability hit short jumpers and hook shots, he could prove to be a nice complement to the outside marksmanship of Adreian Payne and Kenny Kaminski.
I like to end these pieces with a video from last season, so I think you all know what's coming here: