Well, yeah, kind of:
In 7 of the past 8 seasons, the pollsters have deemed MSU to be a top-15 team entering the season. On almost every occasion, the team has gone on to disappoint in the pre-conference season, losing to at least two KenPom top-100 teams in 5 of the 7 years. The 2005-06 season only saw one loss, but there were no top-20 teams on the schedule (MSU beat #21 Arizona and #24 Boston College). The 2007-08 season was the only really major-error-free pre-conference run: a 5-point loss to #3 UCLA but a win over #9 Texas. (These are all end-of-season KenPom ranks.)
Ironically, neither of the one-loss pre-conference runs led to great success further down the road: a .500 Big Ten record plus a first-round loss, and a 4th-place Big Ten finish plus a (blowout) loss in the third round of the tournament.
Meanwhile, 3 of the 4 seasons that ended in at least an Elite Eight appearance involved some combination of multiple bad pre-conference losses and/or a lack of quality pre-conference wins. The exception was the 2008-09 season--but that's a bit misleading. A blowout loss to #54 Maryland cost the team a chance to play a highly-ranked team in Orlando and there was, of course, the disaster vs. UNC at Ford Field.
What's left is the post-Lorbek implosion against the murderer's row 2003-04 pre-conference slate.
[Warning: This thing is going to start rambling after the jump. I mean it. Get out now if you can't take another dozen non-coherent paragraphs on the state of the 2010-11 Michigan State basketball team.]
So I guess there's some comfort there. Bad starts have actually been a pre-condition to March success over the last 8 MSU basketball campaigns. I wouldn't necessarily imply causation, but at least the direction of the correlation doesn't spell DOOM.
Here's the thing, though: You really need to have a lot of faith in Tom Izzo's NCAA Tournament coaching skills. In only one season (2008-09) has MSU been able to rebound from a slow start with sufficient force to earn a favorable seed in the Big Dance. In every other case, MSU has had to overcome larger obstacles than they might as a top seed to advance in the tournament (or seen a major obstacle drop out of the way before they got to it, in the case of last season's tournament run).
Further, this season's pre-conference struggles feel a little different than previous season's. MSU has now played 8 games against Division I opponents and turned the ball over at 23%+ clip in each and every game. Last season, the team only hit that threshold in 4 of its first 9 games. The season prior, it was 3 of the first 7. (I'm using December 8 as the cut-off date.) And it's an almost teamwide phenomenon: 8 of MSU's 11 players have individual turnover percentages of 24% or higher.
Previous Spartan squads have taken some time to gel against top competition. This year's team is struggling to find offensive cohesiveness against any kind of competition. (And, despite the multiple defensive breakdowns inside against Syracuse, the bulk of the problems are on offense. KenPom's hybrid projections/ratings now have MSU at #27 on offense vs. #9 on defense, despite the defensive numbers suffering due the easy baskets resulting from the plethora of turnovers on offense.)
I generally play the voice of reason when it comes to assessing the team's performance level. I'm having a little harder time sticking to that role this season. By my reasoned-stathead standards, I've been pretty up and down in terms of evaluating things over the last couple weeks. Down after the Chaminade/UConn games. Back up a little after the Washington win. Concerned but looking at the half-full part of the glass after the Duke loss.
I'm back at "down." My main concern is that the signs we've seen of a solid 8- or 9-man rotation coming together to play Tom Izzo's brand of basketball have been fleeting. The two freshmen have shown glimpses but looked absolutely overmatched last night. The two walk-ons have done about as much as can be expected-- particularly Austin Thornton, who actually has the 2nd highest offensive rating on the team--but simply aren't legitimate offensive options against quality opposition. Garrick Sherman remains the most promising of the underclassmen in terms of becoming a reliable 20+ minute contributor, but still has a ways to go in terms of outfoxing bigger/stronger opponents. Derrick Nix provided a nice spark last night, but it's hard to put your faith in a guy who's scored a total of 4 points this season.
The team's core group will be fine. Kalin Lucas will reach 100% health at some point. Draymond Green will keep doing, well, everything (he ranks in the top 400 nationally in 11 of 13 KenPom offensive categories). Durrell Summers is, more often than not, playing the roles he needs to--knocking down jumpshots and grabbing rebounds. Korie Lucious is an increasingly key playmaker and decreasingly a liability in terms of his decision making. Delvon Roe isn't blossoming into a major low-post scoring threat, but he'll eventually find his footing and provide a solid defensive and rebounding presence inside.
Unfortunately, the losses of Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen are hurting more than we might have expected. Allen's departure means that Thornton and/or Keith Appling have to play significant minutes, regardless of form or match-ups. The absence of Morgan's versatility means that Draymond's versatility is being stretched that much further. He's being asked to initiate offense on the perimeter while also remaining a factor in the paint as MSU's other post players struggle to play consistently.
To get to even an 8-player rotation with the baseline athletic ability to play with other national contenders, Izzo needs two of the Appling/Payne/Nix group to emerge as reliable options over the next month or two. It could well happen. But it may not.
And it's not quite that simple in terms of finding more balance offensively. Unless one or two of the non-Draymond big men find a consistent scoring touch, this team will need to play a perimeter-based game very efficiently. That means continuing to shoot the ball well from the outside while dramatically reducing the number of turnovers committed in the course of creating those shots. (I'm less worried about the rebounding issues; if there's one problem Tom Izzo knows how to fix, it's that one.)
Time to wrap up: I'm not sure this exercise has done anything to crystalize the situation. In fact, I'm sure it hasn't. The positive spin is that MSU has lost to three top-ten teams--all in games played away from East Lansing--while multiple players round back into form after dealing with offseason injuries. (Note that KenPom isn't buying UConn and Syracuse as top-ten performers quite yet, though--although his numbers do like Washington, slotting them in at #5. Thank goodness MSU pulled that one out. It keeps a top-3 NCAA seed at least theoretically in play.)
The negative spin is that the struggles against lesser opponents portend problems against teams ranked below #10 but above, say, #100. We'll know a little more after Saturday (KenPom has Oakland at #87). Then the team will regroup during finals week before playing one more patsie going into this year's final pre-conference test (#25 Texas).