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It's Apt to Confuse Me*

[Hey, remember me? I had a thought that didn't fit in 140 characters.]

The script has been performed for so many years, it seems almost inevitable: high preseason expectations turn to a disappointing string of nonconference results, only to be followed by a resilient (if uneven) Big Ten performance and then, more often than not, a deep tournament run.

This Michigan State basketball campaign deviated from the script right from the start. For only the second time in 14 years, MSU entered the season unranked by the pollsters. This was to be a rebuilding year. Like the 2006-07 season, just making the NCAA Tournament would be, if not fully satisfactory, at least acceptable. With only two starters returning and six scholarship players taking the court for MSU for the first time, I, for one, was hoping to just scrape out one quality nonconference win and see if a stable rotation could emerge in time for conference play.

It's gone quite a bit better than that now, hasn't it? The losses against North Carolina and Duke on opposite coasts to start the season were frustrating--but mainly because MSU actually looked capable of pulling out the upset for substantial portions of each game. From there, a series of 20-plus point wins ensued, and the last two weeks have brought a pair of fairly comfortable wins against quality opponents--the most recent of which was earned in front of one of the more raucous crowds college basketball has to offer.

To see just how unusual these results have been, I've compiled data on MSU's pre-conference results over the last 10 seasons ("the KenPom era"), sorted by KenPom rank:

Record vs. Average Record vs. Average Record vs. Average Record vs. Average
Season Top 15 Margin 16-60 Margin 61-150 Margin 150+ Margin
2002-03 1-1 1.0 0-2 (5.5) 3-1 9.3 4-0 22.5
2003-04 0-3 (11.3) 1-2 (2.7) 1-1 9.5 3-0 10.7
2004-05 0-1 (7.0) 0-1 (13.0) 3-0 14.3 5-0 37.4
2005-06 0-0 -- 3-1 6.5 1-1 (10.0) 8-0 19.1
2006-07 0-1 (2.0) 2-1 3.3 5-0 19.6 6-0 21.0
2007-08 1-1 0.5 2-0 5.0 4-0 10.0 5-0 28.4
2008-09 0-1 (35.0) 2-1 0.3 3-0 13.3 4-0 30.3
2009-10 0-0 -- 1-3 (4.3) 2-0 21.5 7-0 23.4
2010-11 0-4 (8.5) 1-0 5.0 2-0 5.0 5-0 26.0
2011-12 0-2 (8.5) 2-0 11.5 1-0 13.0 5-0 28.2

Technical notes: Cutoff points for the categories were chosen based on my rock solid subjective judgment of what constitutes (1) scares-the-pants-off-you-, (2) frightening-but-not-keeping-you-up-at-night-, (3) friendly-but-still-quite-losable-, and (4) totally-cupcake-level opponents. Apologies for not using tempo-free numbers, but raw margin of victory is more intuitive and I don't think variation in pace is skewing things much here.

Bulleting through the four categories:

  • MSU has only beaten two top-15 nonconference opponents over the last decade: Kentucky in 2002 and Texas in 2007. So the losses to UNC and Duke didn't set this team back relative to its predecessors.
  • The wins against Florida State and Gonzaga, meanwhile, represent the best collective performance against the 16-60 category since at least 2005.
  • Only one game played against the 61-150 group to date (Lehigh will be a second shot next Thursday), but the team beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee comfortably.
  • The five wins against the bottom half of the nation have been as thorough as you could ask for (outside of the first half vs. Central Connecticut). No final margin below 20 points.

Put it all together, and I think it's hard to argue this nonconference performance isn't as good as, if not better than any by a Tom Izzo team since the 2000-01 season, when the team went unbeaten, defeating UNC, Florida, and Seton Hall along the way. (Interestingly, one of the couple of seasons--the other being the 2007-08 season--that matches up well is the 2006-07 season, when the team was similarly unheralded at the start of the year.)

Given all this failure to stick to the script, I hesitate to make any predictions about the rest of the season. But the forecast has definitely improved since the ball was tossed into the air at midcourt on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. The team ranks 12th in the nation by KenPom's calculations, despite the numbers still partially accounting for the team's lower preseason ranking.

The team's defense is ranked a lofty #8--displaying some un-Izzo-esque top-40 rankings ($) in steal and block percentages. The roster's combination of athleticism and aggressiveness has helped compensate for its relative inexperience--although the team has been pretty darn good across the board defensively, limiting opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 42.5% and an offensive rebounding percentage of 24.5%.

The team's offensive ranking stands at #44. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of MSU's success to date has been that, to the naked eye, the offensive attack has been just as disjointed as you would have expected. Turnovers have, per usual, been a bugaboo, as the team has posted a 21.6% turnover percentage (only one 25%-plus implosion, though: 28.6% vs. UNC). Eight players have scored in double digits at least once, but only one (Green) has done it in more than half of the team's games (Appling's right at 50%, with 5 in 10 games). Increased team cohesiveness and individual consistency are real possibilities as the calendar turns heading into conference play.

The old script has worked pretty well for Tom Izzo over the last 10 years, but the opening act of this new script has been startlingly enjoyable. Stay tuned to see how the remaining acts play out.

*Context, for those of you who didn't grow up listening to cassette tapes of music from the 1960's and 70's on family road trips.