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MSU's defensive tendencies during the Tom Izzo era

A couple weeks ago, I promised you some long-term analysis of MSU's defensive tempo-free numbers.  (I'm sure you've been jumping out of bed every morning and running to the computer to see if this post has been published yet.)  As it turns out, there's a good reason I haven't yet spent the time to microanalyze the season-to-season stats on the defensive end of the floor: They're not that interesting.

To start with, there's the statistical problem noted by the Wonk so many years ago (What, it was only 4 years ago?  Really?):

Applying numbers to basketball aids and abets this widespread DAD--and I'm certainly not immune. Look at this blog: I post individual stats for every player in the Big Ten in four different offensive categories. But what about D? While we can record how many blocks and steals an individual records, individual defensive excellence largely eludes our efforts to make sense of it through numbers. The box score doesn't really do justice to defense--you have to see it.

To compound matters, the two individual defense stats that are available measure things that Tom Izzo has never emphasized:

  • Since the 1996-97 season, MSU has ranked in the top 100 nationally in steal percentage just once (1998-99).  In 9 of the 13 season, MSU ranked below #150 nationally.
  • Over the same period, MSU has ranked in the top 50 nationally in block percentage just once (2006-07, when Drew Naymick played stater-level minutes and Idong Ibok got 10 minutes/game).  In 8 of the 13 seasons, MSU ranked below #150 

Perhaps the team-level defensive stats have been more analysis-friendly.  Graphical display of defensive four-factor numbers after the jump:

No dice.  Other than free throw rate (which always tends to be the least consistent of the four factors from game to game or season to season), there's surprisingly little volatility in those lines:

  • Effective field goal percentage is below 47.5% in all years outside the 3-year period of 2004-2006 (when MSU had a fairly thin/inexperienced group of interior players).
  • Opponents' defensive rebound percentage is never higher than 32% and more often than not below 30%.
  • Opponents' turnover percentage is higher than 22.5% in only one year (the steal-heavy 1998-99 season).

Generally speaking, my analysis of the defensive tendencies of last year's team holds true through the Izzo era:

  • By placing in emphasis on preventing dribble penetration by hedging off shooters, the team forced a lot of perimeter shots from its opponents (the primary benefit of a zone defense).
  • But the fact the team was fundamentally playing man-to-man defense, particularly on the interior, meant the team didn’t sacrifice anything in terms of defensive rebounding (generally the main weakness of a zone defense).
  • . . .

    Playing physical man-to-man defense resulted in a relatively higher number of fouls that created additional free throw opportunities for our opponents.  At the same time, the fact that our perimeter defenders were more focused on preventing penetration than with disrupting our opponents’ offensive rhythm meant we didn’t create a lot of turnovers.

Expressed more succinctly, Tom Izzo wants his players to stay in front of the ball, force a tough perimeter look, grab the rebound, and head to the other end of the court.  While short-term circumstances may result in some tweaks to that approach (e.g., playing a zone because of depth issues or foul trouble), there's been little deviation from the basic defensive game plan from season to season.

Looking ahead to to this season, the graduations of Travis Walton and Goran Suton (who, by the way, appears to be making a good impression with his new head coach) weight somewhat more heavily on the defensive end of the court than on the offensive end.  Here are the individual defensive stats for last season (including defensive rebounding percentage as a defensive stat), with departing players bolded:

Min% DReb% Blk% Stl%
Lucas 79.8 5.2 0.6 1.9
Walton 69.4 6.7 0.1 3.2
Suton 56.3 23.9 2.2 2.6
Summers 53.4 11.2 1.9 1.8
Morgan 51.8 17.9 1.0 1.7
Allen 47.6 9.2 0.0 1.1
Roe 44.9 20.4 5.0 1.4
Green 27.8 23.0 2.5 3.0
Gray 23.8 22.3 3.9 0.7
Lucious 22.6 9.5 0.7 1.7
Ibok 10.9 11.3 5.0 0.0

Bullet point observations:

  • As on the offensive end, the hope is that Delvon Roe and Draymond Green can maintain their lofty rebounding percentages even as the number of minutes they play per game increases, helping to offset the loss of Suton's preeminent work on the boards.  A full season of a healthy Raymar Morgan should help here, too.  The ability of Nix/Sherman/Herzog to clean the glass defensively is a question mark.  MSU's improvement on defense last year was driven almost entirely by its stellar work on the defensive glass; continuing to limit opponents to one shot per offensive possession will be key again this season.
  • With more minutes played and two healthy knees, Roe's apparent proficiency at blocking shots could become more of a factor--although the fact he was generally guarding the opposition's weaker post player last year may have helped boost his block percentage.
  • Walton and Suton ranked first and third on the team in steal percentage, so we shouldn't expect an increase in defensive turnover percentage this season.  The good news?  Draymond Green ranked second.

What doesn't show up in the numbers is the effect that losing Walton and Suton may have on our opponents' effective field goal percentage.  Walton's ability to shut down opponents' top perimeter scorers is something that won't be matched by any of our returning guards.  And Suton had developed a knack for frustrating opposing post players in establishing position and getting good looks at the basket.

While the experience of our core group of perimeter players (Lucas, Allen, Summers, Morgan) should help some with cohesion in playing Izzo's man-to-man scheme with an emphasis on help defense, I'd have to put my money on a slight regression by the team on the defensive end.  An offsetting increase in offensive efficiency may be needed to match last season's win-loss results.

Finally, my intention had been to do a "putting it all together" post that looked at MSU's offensive and defensive efficiency in relations to each other over the last 13 years.  But the Big Ten Geeks beat me to the punch today, producing this graph:

Regarding last year's team, they note the following:

Those wide splits around the 2000 timeframe indicate just how dominant the Flintstones teams were. And the 04-05 showing - where the offense jumped while the defense tighted up - shows another healthy split. But last year's team had roughly the same gap as the previous two incarnations. And yet, the Spartans ran the table in the Big Ten, taking the conference title by an impressive four games. Sure, it was an odd season, but we could also say it was Izzo's finest coaching job. He got everything he could out of that team. And as much as we love efficiency numbers, we don't lose sight of the fact that scoreboards are what matter the most. And Izzo's scoreboard still says that every 4-year player he's ever coached has been to a Final Four.

You can't beat that last sentence.  So I'll leave it at that.