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Tournament Eve Thoughts

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I have to confess that I'm struggling with what to say about this team going into NCAA Tournament action.  I think Friday's night loss has left an analytical fog hanging over me.  But that was just one game--and one game that, despite the major issues with the playing rotation, Michigan State would have won with just a 60% free throw shooting performance.

Bigger picture, it still doesn't feel like MSU has put together many (if any) games this season in which it's played 40 minutes of high-quality basketball.  Still, this season hasn't exactly been a complete disappointment, with another Big Ten championship banner now hanging from the Breslin Center rafters.  This, despite the injury and other personnel issues that have cropped over the course of the season.

(Notice how every sentence in that paragraph has a direction-shifting word like "still" in it?  I think that's a clear symptom of blogger ambivalence.)

Since the beginning of Big Ten play, MSU has a record of 14-2 in games in which the full contingent of major contributors has been available and (mostly) healthy.  (Exclusions: Loss at Illinois without Lucas, loss to Purdue with a gimpy Lucas, loss to Minnesota in BTT without Allen.)

This is a team that, for all the flaws it's displayed, knows how to battle.  Everyone but the two limited-minute freshmen has played on the sport's biggest stage.  And collectively speaking, this team is not intimidated by high-pressure situations.  Proof:

Michigan St.    +0.07    +0.10    +0.03
New Mexico +0.11 +0.10 -0.01
Kansas St. +0.09 +0.08 -0.01
Florida St. +0.03 +0.02 -0.01
UNLV +0.16 +0.13 -0.03
Vanderbilt +0.07 +0.04 -0.03
Syracuse +0.13 +0.10 -0.03
West Virginia +0.14 +0.10 -0.04
Richmond +0.15 +0.10 -0.05

The first column of numbers is average efficiency margin at home; the second is average efficiency margin on the road; the third column is the difference (all conference-only numbers).  MSU is the only major-conference team in the country that performed more efficiently on the road than at home in conference play this year.  Mr. Gasaway expounds:

You are reading that correctly. Michigan State was better on the road in Big Ten play than they were at home this year--thanks in no small measure to their schedule. The Spartans got to play Indiana just once, on the road. Meanwhile MSU played Ohio State just once, at home. Not to mention Tom Izzo's team faced Purdue both with Robbie Hummel (in East Lansing, MSU lost) and without him (in West Lafayette, the Spartans won). As strange as it may sound, the wind was at Michigan State's back, relatively speaking, when they were on the road this season.

Still, the home/road splits on some of MSU's offensive stats are pretty eye-popping, even considering the competition. And keep in mind we're talking about a program that's 15-3 on the road in the Big Ten the past two seasons. Maybe Izzo's tournament success relative-to-seed over the course of his career is in part a function of the rest of the field coming back to him every March. When we admire non-Michigan State teams in February, to some extent we're admiring home-floor prowess that will be rendered a moot point come tournament time. Meanwhile Izzo's team is perfecting tournament-applicable away-from-home skills.

I'm not aware of any definitive research indicating that balanced home/away performance during the regular season is a predictor of NCAA Tournament success, but it's a pretty intuitive conclusion.  If our Spartans can somehow find sustained intensity and cohesiveness in the coming days, they remain a formidable foe.

The question is whether enough pieces are there to cohere to one another.  A core of three go-to players is in place: Raymar Morgan (77 points and 35 rebounds in his last 4 games), Draymond Green (double digit scoring in 5 of the last 6 games and 9+ rebounds in 3 of the last 4 games), and Kalin Lucas (in a shooting slump, but always a threat to put the team on his back).

Beyond that trio, things get dicey.  Chris Allen's been steady down the stretch, but it remains to be seen how the suspension will affect him.  Delvon Roe can't go more than about 15 minutes on his bad knee.  Durrell Summers' confidence has to be pretty shot after Friday night.  Korie Lucious looks like he's regained some of his offensive mojo, but still has turnover and defensive issues.  Derrick Nix has become a force early in games, but doesn't have the conditioning to go more than 10 minutes or so.  Beyond that list, Mike Kebler is probably next in line, and we've talked about that already.

The other limiting factor on Spartan optimism is the reality that, even if enough players step up to give this team the depth that would be needed to make a deep tournament run, the one team in the country without any notable chinks in its armor would await them in just the third round.  (Seriously, check out Kansas' KenPom profile,  The numbers are awash in green.  Not a trace of pink to be found.)

The two wins needed to confront the enormous obstacle that is the Kansas Jayhawks would result in the 9th MSU Sweet Sixteen appearance in the last 13 seasons.   But perhaps more importantly, they would set the stage for one giant crack at beating the only team that was ranked ahead of MSU by the experts when the season began.  Sounds like a lot of fun to me--and no doubt to Tom Izzo.  (As bad as the draw was for MSU, Kansas fans can't be thrilled with possibly having to play a team with as much experience and potential as the Spartans have in the round of 16.)

Well, the fog cleared enough for me to get two steps ahead of myself, eh?

What are the rest of you thinking/feeling about the team's propsects over the next week or two?

Programming notes:

  • New Mexico State preview will be up tomorrow night, although LVS has already covered most of the details.
  • Pete will be posting open threads starting tomorrow for chatting about all the tournament madness.
  • Don't forget to get your bracket contest entries in for both the traditional and nontraditional contests.