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Chief Concerns: Illinois Preview

ESPN (O'Brien/Dakich/Montgomery)
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Big Picture Prefacing

On the eve of conference play commencing, I said this:

It's painfully clear at this point that Michigan State is not a top-tier national title contender. It remains an open question, though, whether the Spartans are, or can become, a second-tier team that, while not a heavy favorite to do so, has the potential to make a Final Four run. In other words, are they at least as good this season as they've been the last two seasons?

The way the conference schedule sets up, I think we'll learn quite a bit about the team pretty quickly. The first four Big Ten games are comprised of two home games vs. ranked opponents (Minnesota, Wisconsin) and two away games vs. less-formidable-but-still-pretty-darn-dangerous foes (Northwestern, Penn State). I can easily envision MSU being 4-0 after those games are played, and I can easily envision them being 1-3.

From that perspective, a record of 4-1 five games into conference play is quite acceptable.  Of course, the way MSU has gotten to that 4-1 mark leaves something to be desired in terms of predictive value.  The Geeks explain it quite neatly:

One wonders if the Spartans are going to thumb their nose at efficiency margin again this season. Last year, MSU was actually fourth in the conference by the metric universally adored by tempo-free enthusiasts, but Tom Izzo nonetheless guided the team to a conference championship. With two overtime wins and another close victory in Evanston to go along with them, Michigan State appears to be re-using last year's script. Certainly, there's a certain amount of skill and talent that helps win close games, but one should have respect for the random--whether MSU can continue to win close games more than they lose them has more to do with bounces of the ball than anything Izzo can draw up. To that end, the Spartans would be wise to kickstart the offense.

Note, by the way, that it really is all about the offense.  MSU now ranks 9th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, having held 6 of its last 7 opponents below the 100 offensive efficiency mark.  With the emergence of Delvon Roe as a defensive stopper in the front court and Keith Appling as a go-to defender on the perimeter, Tom Izzo has a starting five he can really trust to avoid giving up many easy looks from the field.  The next step is to get the team's defensive rebounding ranking back up; the team ranks just 88th in the country in that department at the moment.  Anyway, by the numbers, the MSU defense ranks as highly as any Spartan team of the last nine years (the 2003 and 2009 teams both finished 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency), despite dealing with the easy baskets that turnovers by the offensive have led to so frequently.

So kickstarting the offense is, indeed, where it's at.  The team has fallen to just 59th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (one spot behind the Wolverines, believe it or not).  While the turnover issues have subsided somewhat, the team's excellent shooting numbers from the nonconference schedule have also gone missing.  MSU has hit the 50-percent eFG% mark in just 1 of its last 6 games.  (Positive spin: Put the earlier shooting performances together with a less turnover-prone attack and then you've got something.)  The offensive rebounding hasn't been spectacular, but it has been steady, with the team's OffReb% falling between 34 and 39 in all 7 of the games leading up to Saturday's game.

Appling's emergence is also a positive sign on offense, albeit a sign based on just one game.  If he can continue to shoot open jumpers with confidence and create the occasional scoring opportunity off the dribble, he gives the team a fourth potential double-digit scorer to go with Green, Lucas, and Summers.  On the flip side, of course, Summers' disappearance on offense the last two games (7 points in two games) is disconcerting.  I've stuck to the story that, as much as we'd like Summers to be the second coming of Morris Peterson, he is what he is: a player who's explosive in transition and can hit jumpshots in bunches, but not a creative playmaker.  So, while playing with confidence is of course a key, getting him open shots is, too.  For his part, Tom Izzo doesn't sound too down on Summers:

"He's worked his tail off and I have absolutely zero, zero argument with any of his work ethic," Izzo said. "He's in the gym after games and he's been in the gym in the morning, he's spent a lot of time in there. But it's realizing, too, that because of his performance last year, people are going to guard him differently. He has to go harder off screens and use the screen and go shoulder to shoulder. His attention to detail he hasn't done as good a job with."

. . .

"Sometimes that's the struggle that Durrell has," Izzo said. "But I wouldn't read too much into him not going in. It wasn't like last year where we thought he wasn't playing hard enough. He was not having a good game and he does get bummed out. Sometimes he can be his own worst enemy. But we'll get him back on track, I do believe."

This team is still working on a very fine margin offensively.  There's no traditional low-post presence.  Kalin Lucas still hasn't recovered his full level of explosiveness (and you can't necessarily assume he will any time soon).  Draymond Green has been a beast in key spots, but it's easy to forget that his individual game is also balanced on a pretty fine margin; as good as he is, when an undersized power forward tries to initiate the offense, things aren't always going to go smoothly.  (I've seen some complaints about Green not turning it on until the end of games.  I think if we went back and looked at tape, we'd find Green has asserted himself early in most games but it's often led to turnovers or tough shots.)  And the other two obvious scoring options (Summers and Appling) are largely jumpshooters, not creators.  Korie Lucious, meanwhile, continues to defy rational analysis.

The potential is still there, but it will take the team gelling together in a way that makes the whole bigger than the current sum of the parts.  The coach implied today that getting those parts to fit together neatly has been a struggle:

. . . We're doing it the same way we've always done it. There's different personalities on every team every year. There are some things that we should control, and I don't think we've a good enough job with turnovers early. ... There's some things you can't control, injuries and factors that play into that."

"This year has been probably my toughest year as far as trying to get everybody on the same page because of factors that you don't have. I want to run, I'd like to pressure a little bit more, can't do that. I wanted to play Draymond at the 3, well you can't do that and do those things."

Unfortunately, the next week doesn't offer an ideal arrangement for getting a team to gel offensively, with trips to Champaign and West Lafayette on the schedule--which brings us to, like, the actual purpose of this post: previewing the Illini.

Illinois Overview

The Illini come in with an overall record of 14-5.  They've beaten Maryland, North Carolina, Gonzaga, and Wisconsin.  Their only really bad loss was to UIC in a game played in Chicago.  They've dropped their last two games, both on the road (Penn State, Wisconsin), to bring their conference record down to 3-2.  (By the way, Penn State: remarkably competitive.  Since beating MSU, PSU has gone on to beat Illinois and hang with now-#1 Ohio State, on the road, into the final minute.  That's looking like less and less of a bad loss for MSU.)

KenPom currently rates Illinois as the 20th best team in the country, 3 spots ahead of MSU.  This is a key week for the team, as they host both MSU and Ohio State.  Win both games and they can think about contending for a Big Ten title.

Bruce Weber is utilizing a 9-man rotation, although the minutes are highly concentrated among 7 players averaging 20+ minutes/gameDemetri McCamey is the team's unquestioned leader, averaging 16.2 points/game.  Beyond that, the scoring is very well balanced, with Mike Davis, D.J. Richardson, and Mike Tisdale all right around 10 points/game.

When Illinois Has the Ball

No need for fancy four factor analysis here.  Illinois' clear strength on offense is simply making shots.  The team is making 50.2% of its 2-point attempts and an astounding 42.5% of its 3-point attempts this season.  Those numbers are enough to propel Illinois to a national ranking of #19 in adjusted offensive efficiency, despite underwhelming numbers elsewhere on the team's profile.

Correspondingly, the key to stopping the Illinois offense is starkly evident: get them to stop making shots.  The team is winless when its eFG% is below 50 and unbeaten when the figure is above that mark.

HTTO chalks up the recent two-game losing streak to a lack of scoring depth:

For one thing, too many players' production has sank through the basement this past week; the until recently resurgent Mike Davis and the usually productive and reliable D.J. Richardson have vanished from the box scores. D.J. has scored all of three points in the losses to Penn State and Wisconsin, and hasn't made a field goal since Northwestern. Davis was way up the week before but has come down steadily since. This team is not going to win any games with defense, and two starters going ice cold means this team is losing most of whatever advantage is has over the opposition.

The Illini aren't going to stay near the top of the conference standings for very long if they don't get something out of their bench too. Brandon Paul has made strides these past two weeks, and was the second leading scorer against the Badgers, but Weber needs more than just one player to come in and have production. Meyers Leonard could be a great player for the Illini, but it doesn't look like he is going to be making any major strides this year. He is strong and is a good answer to muscle players down low, but he made some critical defensive errors against Wisconsin in his extended minutes, which included Nankovil getting three second half three pointers.

(Note: It's gotta be "Leonard Meyers," right?  "Meyers" is a last name.  "Leonard" is a first name.  No?  OK.)

Hopefully, MSU's recent prowess in the field goal defense department translates in this game.  Delvon Roe and Draymond Green are mobile enough to keep up with the midrange games of Davis and Tisdale.  Adreian Payne may be able to pester those two guys with his length, as well.

Containing McCamey will be a tougher task.  McCamey's game has really taken a step forward this year, as he's learned to limit bad shots.  Until going 0-2 from deep vs. Wisconsin, McCamey had gone 17 straight games making at least 33% of his 3-point attempts.  For the season, he's made 52.6% of his 3-point attempts.  And if you force him to drive, he's like to either get to the free throw line (45.8 FT) or, more likely, find an open teammate along the way (40.2 assist rate).  He'll be an extremely tough match-up for MSU's generally undersized backcourt defenders.

And Illinois has got length on the wings, too, with the 6'3" Richardson, 6'4" Paul, and 6'8" Jereme Richmond (who will reportedly be back on the court tomorrow night, after missing the Wisconsin game for personal reasons).  By the numbers, Richardson is the most dangerous (.430 from 3-point range) but all three players appear to be capable of scoring with alacrity (TM, Bill Raftery).

I'd guess that the most likely path to victory for MSU is for McCamey to get his, but for several of his teammates  to struggle to get good looks at the basket.  (One other guy to keep an eye in terms of denying open looks: 6'9" senior forward Bill Cole, who ranks 4th in the entire country with an offensive rating of 141.1 but who has to be pretty wide open to actually take a shot, as evidenced by his miniscule usage rate of 12.0.)

Beyond that, this would be a great time to lock things down on the defensive glass.  Illinois' only two real offensive rebounding threats are Tisdale and Richmond. Despite his scoring struggles, Durrell Summers has 9 defensive rebounds in the last two games, so he can be a real factor here.

When MSU Has the Ball

Illinois is somewhat less imposing on defense, ranking 35th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.  Again, though, the team's strength lies almost entirely in the area of field goal shooting.  And, despite the presence of two veteran big men, that strength is really on the perimeter, as they've held opponents to 29.6% shooting from 3-point range.  For a team that plays man-to-man defense exclusively, the Illini force a lot of 3-point attempts (as MSU has historically), with opponents taking 36.3% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc.

On offense, then, recent statistical trends are much less encouraging for MSU.  They've got to start hitting jumpshots more quickly.  Working to get shot attempts closer to the basket will be part of the equation, too, but they'll need to be clean looks, as the Illini (led by Tisdale) do block a health share of shots around the basket.  That fact runs counter to the team's 2pt/3pt numbers, so there is some susceptibility to giving up clean looks around the basket in transition or off set plays.

Consistent with the last several seasons, the Illinois defense isn't creating a lot of turnovers, but MSU always seem to struggle against their man-to-man pressure.  Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious will need to shift gears quickly from facing the Northwestern 1-3-1 and attack off the dribble if the Ilini guards overextend on the perimeter.  Outside of that, Draymond Green is the only MSU player a blogger can reliably call on as a key offensive factor going into a game at the moment.  Hopefully, he can take advantage of the quickness advantage he should have over Davis and/or Tisdale.

Perhaps the most likely route to offensive success, or at least offensive respectability, for MSU would be to maximize the number of shot opportunities the team gets by limited turnovers and crashing the offensive glass (Illinois ranks just 173rd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage).  Give MSU enough shots and maybe 2 or 3 guys eventually get hot from distance.

The Bottom Line

KenPom predicts a 69-65 loss for MSU, basically spotting Illinois the homecourt advantage.  A win would almost certainly represent the most encouraging Spartan datapoint of the season.  Even a narrow loss in a closely-contested game would be fairly encouraging in terms of the team's long-term improvement, although it would also mean the team would be staring at the strong likelihood of a 4-3 conference record a week from now.