(Bump. -- Ed.)
Before last season started, the premise of this question would have seemed preposterous. Even a few short months ago, it would have been fairly laughable. After all, MSU entered last season ranked #2 in the country and was coming off back-to-back conference titles and Final Four runs. Respected writers were comparing the team to the best Izzo has ever had and saying that anything short of a national championship would be "a disappointment". A major source of optimism was the depth at the guard position. Seniors/BFFs Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers were preparing for a year that would showcase their talents for the NBA. And junior Korie Lucious, he of The Greatest NCAA Tournament Shot in MSU History fame, was going to anchor the point guard spot as the third core member of the backcourt. The guards were experienced, battle-tested, and talented.
By the time the 2011-12 season started, Lucas, Summers, and Mike Kebler had graduated, Lucious had been kicked off the team, incoming freshman Dwaun Anderson decided not to enroll at MSU, and Brandon Wood transferred from Valpo for his senior season. All of this left MSU with a core backcourt of Appling, Wood, and Travis Trice. A true freshman, a guy who had never played at MSU and wasn't a point guard, and a sophomore shooting guard/scorer being converted into the starting point guard. In other words, one gigantic question mark.
Well, we now have a sample size of 17 games for this year's team, so I thought it would be interesting to compare the stats on the two trios using the first 17 games of last year (especially given some recent debate about last year's team and Izzo's comments about Lucious after the Iowa game last night). I think there's enough to go on for a fair comparison at this point.
Note: I realize it's not a 100% apples-to-apples comparison, as Summers was more of a guard/small forward combo, but it's pretty darn close, as Summers played the "2nd guard" quite a bit.
Let's do this by category:
Summary: Lucas/Summers/Lucious (LSL) played more overall minutes, accounting for 41.9% of the team's total minutes played. Appling/Wood/Trice (AWT) have accounted for 36.8% of the team's total minutes. Not a huge difference, but not insignificant either. Last year's guards simply played more than this year's. This is interesting to keep in mind in relation to the other stats.
Assists and Turnovers
Summary: The total assists are amazingly similar, with AWT actually tallying 3 more than LSL despite playing fewer minutes. The turnovers, though, are where we see our first big difference. Through 17 games, LSL committed 30 more turnovers than AWT has committed this year. How is this impacted by adjusting for the difference in minutes played? LSL averaged 1 turnover for every 12.9 minutes played. AWT is averaging 1 turnover for every 15.6 minutes played. So the turnover rate has gone down by a decent margin. Some other things that stood out to me: (1) that Appling has exceeded Kalin's assist numbers AND cut the turnovers down; (2) that Summers registered only NINE assists in 509 minutes (by comparison, even Russell Byrd, who has played only 94 minutes this year, has 10 assists); and (3) that Wood has been excellent taking care of the ball (of the 8-man playing group, he's 3rd in minutes played and has 2nd fewest turnovers).
Summary: The one clear advantage for LSL is points scored. Lucas and Summers scored a lot more than Appling and Wood, while Lucious and Trice actually come pretty close to each other. But this advantage is mitigated by a couple factors. First, accounting for the difference in minutes by using a "per 40 minutes" number, LSL scored at a rate of 49.1 points per 40 minutes while AWT has scored at a rate of 45.3 points per 40 minutes. So the difference isn't quite as big as the raw numbers suggest. Second, it took LSL a lot more shots to get those points, as illustrated next.
Breaking it down a little further:
Summary: AWT has better overall field goal percentage, better shooting percentage from inside the arc, slightly better 3-point shooting percentage, and a better effective field goal percentage. Translation: this year's guards have been much more efficient in getting their points (1.35 points per FGA, compared to 1.18 last year).
Free Throw Shooting
Summary: Similar numbers here, but again, advantage to AWT in terms of percentage and the rate at which they get to the line.
Rebounding, Blocks, Steals
Summary: Similar numbers again, with steals being equal, LSL getting a few more rebounds, and AWT getting more blocks. One big difference is that Summers pulled up the rebounding numbers for Lucas and Lucious, while this year's guards have less disparity.
I think the stats bear out that this year's guards have indeed performed better than last year's over the first 17 games of the season. Many of the categories (assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks) are remarkably similar. However, this year's guards have done a few things that give them a clear advantage in my mind: they've cut down turnovers and shot attempts dramatically and they've increased their efficiency from the field.
And this, along with other tangible and intangible improvements, is why Spartan fans are being treated to the most enjoyable start to a basketball season in years.