The Eighty-Seven Percent Titan

Joe Robbins

Michigan State's line-ups have been in a constant state of flux and why that was probably a good thing (even if it hasn't always seemed like it).

As MSU cruised to another double digit road win without one of its rotational players in uniform, I continued to marvel at the ease with which this Spartan team has plugged its game-to-game roster gaps and, at the same time, wondered just how exceptional this trait was among the top squads in college basketball this year.

As it turns out, after examining time missed by the nine man rotations of Kenpom's top twenty teams, pretty exceptional:

Top 9 players in rotation among the Kenpom top 20
Team % of possible games played Kenpom ranking
Iowa 100.00% 5
Ohio State 99.38% 11
Wichita State 98.83% 10
Virginia 98.77% 15
Florida State 98.69% 18
Pittsburgh 98.15% 6
Creighton 98.15% 13
Duke 98.15% 20
Villanova 97.39% 2
Kentucky 96.08% 16
Kansas 95.42% 8
Louisville 93.57% 7
Michigan 93.46% 14
Iowa State 92.81% 19
Arizona 91.36% 1
Oklahoma State 91.36% 12
Syracuse 91.36% 3
Florida 89.54% 17
Wisconsin 89.51% 9
Michigan State 87.04% 4

The importance of near-perfect availability in elite teams

-8 of the top 20 Kenpom teams have had their top 9 players in minutes per game play in at least 98% of their team's total games. One team, Iowa, has not had a single man in their top 9 rotation miss a single game so far (worth noting that their 10th man in minutes per game, Oglesby, has missed 12 out of 17 games. Also worth noting again that he's the 10th man on the team in minutes per game and has been healthy since B1G play started)

-11 out of the top 20 have had their top 9 play in 95% of their total games

-17 out of 20 have had their top nine play in at least 90% of total games.

-Even the worst-off of these elite teams don't fall much further than 10% of games missed by the totality of these rotations.

But if it's so important, what are three top 4 teams, and four top 10 teams, doing among the least healthy (or unsuspended) elite teams? In other words, what explains the success of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Syracuse near the bottom of this metric?

Well, that's where a bit of obfuscation is coming from the nine man cut-off point. Let's look at the players who've missed the most time for each of the teams who've fallen below that 95% health mark:

Most absent player on absence prone elite teams
Team Player % of total team's games missed MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG TOPG FG% FT% 3P% Gone for year?
UF Scottie Wilbekin 31.25% 33.8 12.7 2.8 3.6 1.8 0 1.8 40.00% 66.70% 40.80% No
UM Mitch McGary 90.00% 24.6 9.5 8.3 1.5 1.9 0.8 1.6 54.50% 66.70% 0.00% Yes
Ok St Michael Cobbins 45.45% 19.6 4.5 4.3 0.4 0.6 1.5 0.8 50.00% 47.10% 0.00% Yes
L'Ville Chane Behanan 63.64% 18.6 7.6 6.3 1 0.9 0.3 1.3 63.60% 44.70% 0.00% Yes
WIS George Marshall 94.12% 12.5 2 0 0.5 0 0 0.5 25.00% 100.00% 0.00% Yes
MSU Kenny Kaminski 33.33% 10.5 5.6 1.2 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.1 54.10% 62.50% 58.60% No
SU Tyler Roberson 57.14% 9.6 2.8 2.6 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.4 26.70% 75.00% 0.00% No
ISU Daniel Edozie 54.55% 7.4 1.6 2.5 0.2 0.1 0.7 0.2 77.80% 57.10% 0.00% No
UA Elliott Pitts 78.57% 5.4 2 0.3 0.6 0.3 0 0.3 57.10% 37.50% 50.00% No

Syracuse's Roberson is the 9th man in an 8 man rotation, having only played 16 minutes in 5 ACC games. Arizona's Pitts is the 9th man in what appears to be a 7 man rotation, who's only played 3 minutes in 5 Pac-12 games. Both those players are responsible for the majority of their team's absences, but unlike Payne, Harris, Kaminski and Costello, those two have sat mostly due to ineffective play and the short benchs of their coaches. Iowa State's Edozie also seems to fit this category. So that's two of those top ten outliers explained.

The other outlier up there is Wisconsin, where guard George Marshall played 22 minutes in the Badgers opener, then 3 minutes in their second game, and then abruptly transferred out, Kearney style, after just two games.

McGary, and to a lesser extent, Cobbins and Behanan, are three key rotational absences who shouldn't be returning to their squads until next year, making up a separate category of their own.

Which leaves Florida's Wilbekin and to a much lesser extent MSU's Kaminski as impact players who are currently re-assimilating into their team's rotations.

And that isn't surprising that Florida and Michigan State are paired up in that analysis as they also closely mirror each other's overall profiles, having each had many different players miss decent chunks of court and practice time:

# of top 9 rotational players who played in X% of games

Team

100.00%

90.00%

80.00%

Iowa

9

9

9

Ohio State

8

9

9

Virginia

8

8

9

Florida State

8

8

9

Creighton

8

8

9

Villanova

8

8

8

Wichita State

7

9

9

Pittsburgh

7

8

9

Kentucky

7

8

8

Kansas

7

8

8

Michigan

7

8

8

Wisconsin

7

8

8

Duke

6

9

9

Louisville

6

7

8

Iowa State

6

6

8

Arizona

6

7

8

Syracuse

6

7

7

Oklahoma State

5

6

7

Florida

3

4

7

Michigan State

2

4

7


17 of these 20 elite teams have been able to run out at least 6 of their rotational players in every single one of their games. For MSU, that number is just 2 players. And it doesn't get much better working your way backwards either, as significant members of the Spartan team have missed at least 2-3 games over the first half of the season.

The silver lining

The unlikely thing is that, despite all the changing lineups and lost time, MSU has still played like a top 10 team basically the entire year, a sign of the luxury of being able to surround four potential NBA players with a cast of specialized role players. If Payne is out, well, Appling, Harris, and Dawson, all make strong arguments as the best player at their positions in the Big Ten. Kaminski shoots threes. Valentine distributes and rebounds. Costello blocks shots. Trice creates steals. If Payne is in and say Harris is out, well, Payne is also arguably the best player in the Big Ten at his position the rest of above still applies.

And the missing players have given some of those back-ups, who importantly will also be taking on much bigger roles next year, a surplus of extra minutes with which to develop. Valentine has been able to use the temporary losses of Trice and Harris to find extra court time. When not out themselves, Costello and Kaminski have found more opportunities in the absence of Payne (and occasionally each other), as has Guana.

It would've been easy for the Spartans to lose focus and drop a game here or there with all the changing lineups and I guess it can be argued that they nearly did in the Minnesota and Ohio State contests. But instead of being say, a 14-4 team telling everyone, "Just wait til we get healthy!" they're off to the best start in school history with great adjusted efficiency numbers against a tough schedule... and also telling everyone, "Just wait til we get healthy!"

If an MSU team operating at about 8/9ths of its full strength is already this good, what might the return of a healthy Payne alongside a run of good health from his teammates mean?
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