ESPN's John Gasaway wrote recently($) about who's been helped and hurt by this year's NCAA rule changes regarding how fouls are called. He was enlarging on an earlier article by Dan Hanner that looked at this issue in terms of coaches, rather than teams. Although neither article mentioned Michigan State or Tom Izzo, a look at the numbers shows that the changes do not seem to have done the Spartans much good.
Sunday's loss in Madison, where Wisconsin shot 20 free-throws to MSU's 9, was the fifth straight game with a disadvantage for the Spartans. In four of those game, opponents made more free-throws than MSU attempted, a comparison often used to measure dominance at the line. After finishing 4th (offensive) and 6th (defensive) in conference-only free-throw rate in 2013 (stats from kenpom.com, MSU has fallen off considerably in both categories. In fact, if you look at the difference between the two in the Big Ten this year, a free-throw rate margin if you will, you see the following numbers.
Only cellar-dwelling Illinois has been at more of a cumulative disadvantage than the Spartans at the line in conference play this year. In fact, the current rankings for MSU are the lowest in either category since 2005, when the Spartans had the most foul-happy defense in the conference (though that team had other advantages, you may recall).
How big a problem is this? Maybe not as much as it might seem. Partially because they are sending their conference opponents to the line so much, MSU has taken 68 more shots from the field than the opposition, resulting in a startling 134 excess points on field goal attempts. Essentially, MSU's aggressive, physical defense, which leads the conference in opposition 2PT%, block rate and steal rate, is making conference opponents get many of their points one at a time. And even though they're hitting them at a scorching 74.8% (which would be a decent mark for an NBA team), it hasn't been enough to make up the difference in shooting from the field. The difference at the foul line is only 40 points to the bad for the Spartans.
Meanwhile, MSU's offense is taking 35% of its shots in conference from 3PT range and getting 29% of their field goal attempts in transition situations (per hoop-math.com), resulting in their low offensive free-throw rate. But by putting up a 51.6 Effective FG% thanks to hitting nearly 40% of their threes, it hasn't hurt them as much as it might. (For an example of how this approach can go horribly, horribly wrong with the wrong personnel, see the Northwestern offensive stat line.)
Which is not to say there's not room for improvement. Some of that should be helped by the return of Branden Dawson. One of Dawson's most unheralded assets is his ability to play actively and with aggression without committing fouls. Until Dawson broke his hand on a table while listening to Dan Dakich he had what is currently the 7th lowest foul rate in the conference (all games) at under 2 whistles per 40 minutes. Unlike some of the names ahead of him on that list, he's also an aggressive defender, currently sitting at 13th in both blocks and steals and 5th in defensive rebounding percentage. The site teamrankings.com tracks a statistic called defensive plays per foul, which is blocks + steals / fouls. For the season Dawson is at 1.56, tops in the Big Ten and 29th in the entire country. By contrast, Dawson's minutes have since been distributed among Kenny Kaminski (4.0 fouls/40 min), Matt Costello (4.8), Russell Byrd (6.3), Alex Gauna (7.3) and Gavin Schilling (8.9).
On offense the Spartans could probably stand to be a little less perimeter-oriented in the halfcourt. While the season numbers for shot distribution are still fairly solid - 42% of FGA at the rim (DI avg. 38%), 35% 3PT shots (DI avg. 32%) and only 23.5% coming on the least efficient 2PT jumpers (DI avg. 29%) - the numbers have been slipping lately. In each of the last four games MSU has been at or under 30% of attempts at the rim and in 3 of those has taken at least 29% of its shots as jumpers inside the arc.
That seems unlikely to improve in the near term with Keith Appling, easily the Spartans most aggressive offensive player and team leader in fouls drawn and free-throw rate, out at least a couple of weeks with a wrist injury. Many of his minutes are going to Travis Trice, who is not the finisher Appling is and takes fewer shots at the rim than any rotation regular besides 3-point specialist Kenny Kaminski.
This means that the Spartans could probably use more aggressive play from offensive workhorse Gary Harris. Harris' free-throw rate has slipped to 34 attempts per 100 shots, and well below that in the last 3 games. His problems came to a head against Wisconsin, a game in which he missed 17 jumpshots without getting to the line once. He's been as good a finisher (57% at the rim) as Appling when he does decide to drive, but he only does so about half as often.
None of this has prevented MSU from posting the best in-conference efficiency margin in the Big Ten. However, the Spartans mark of +0.12, while strong, is not the kind of number that loudly proclaims "National Championship Contender". To get closer to that kind of performance, Izzo and company will need to address issues in areas like free throws and fouling.