The MSU Basketball Fan's Guide to Panicking About Turnovers

After back-to-back games in which MSU committed 20 turnovers, the annual hand-wringing about not taking care of the ball is officially underway. This is nothing new for Spartan fans. You may remember such points of frustration as "Stop throwing the ball out of bounds, Korie Lucious!" and "Why does Raymar travel every time he catches it?!?!" The narrative that has developed is basically that as a Spartan fan, you have to accept that Izzo's teams just tend to turn it over a lot, for better or worse. But even if you accept that as true, what constitutes "better" and "worse" for an Izzo team? Over the last 14 seasons, we've won a national championship, gone to the national title game, and been to 6 Final Fours, the Elite 8, and the Sweet Sixteen twice. We've also been bounced from the Tourney in the first weekend 5 times. So, in trying to figure out the question of what we can generally expect from our team, I also wanted to figure out if there were any trends or connections between the turnover numbers and the overall result of the season.

In doing so, I used the available data on turnovers (Statsheet goes back to the 2000-01 season and MSU's website goes back to 1998-99). Statsheet gives info on Turnover %, which I used in addition to the raw numbers of turnovers.

Issue 1: The Baseline Expectations

Here's what an average year looks like for an Izzo team:


Again, the TO% numbers reflect the last 12 seasons, while the TO/Gm numbers reflect the last 14 seasons. So, on average, expect MSU to turn the ball over a little more than 14 times per game and at a rate of just over 21% of possessions. So yeah, the narrative of "Izzo teams turn it over a lot" is true, because 21.3 is typically going to place you around the bottom third of all teams in the nation, based on turnover rates for the last 5 years. Meanwhile, expect the opponents to turn the ball over a fair amount less than MSU. Only twice (1999 and 2005) has MSU averaged fewer turnovers per game than its opponents.

Here are the 3 best years:


And the 3 worst years:


Based on this, it's pretty obvious that anything around 20% (about 13/game) is very good for MSU, while anything over 22% (approaching 15/game) is very bad. As far as correlation to success, we'll get to that below, but it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn how the teams in the "worst" category finished.

For reference, MSU through 6 games is coughing up the ball at a clip of 24.7% and 16.5 per game. Yikes. This is when you repeat things like "it's a small sample, it will get better" over and over again to make yourself feel better.

(on the flip side, the opponent numbers - 20.7% and 13.8/game - are quite good for an Izzo team, so, you know, keep that up)

Issue 2: Turnovers and Success

Now that we know what the good, average, and bad years look like for turnovers, it's time to see if there are any useful connections we can make to the overall finish on the season. With that in mind, I offer the "When to Panic About Turnovers" Flowchart:


The Three Turnover Trends:

  1. Izzo teams almost always commit more turnovers than they force (12 of the 14 years looked at here), and in the only 2 years they didn't, they went to the Final 4. So don't be alarmed when this happens.
  2. Averaging 14.6 TO/per game or having a TO% of over 22.0 seem to be the big red flags. The two genuine "rebuilding" years under Izzo ('02 and '07) fall into this category, having posted the highest turnover rates of all the years included here. The other time it happened, 2004, was a year that was roundly disappointing, culminating in a 7-seed and first round exit in the Tourney.
  3. Forcing 13.5 TO/game or having an Opponent TO% of 20.0 is a great sign IF AND ONLY IF we are not committing turnovers at the rate identified in Trend #2. The 3 teams to pull that off made long runs in the Tourney, including the "Big Ten Elite" 2000 team (that team actually committed 14.57 TO/game, but forced 13.74).

After those trends, there really isn't a correlation between turnovers and the end result for the year. For example, the 2009-10 team committed a relatively high amount of turnovers (13.89/game and a 21.0 TO%), forced relatively few turnovers (12.41/game and an 18.8 Opponent TO%), and made it to the Final 4. The 2010-11 team committed relatively few turnovers (13.35/game and a 20.0 TO%) and lost in the 1st round.

So, the moral of the story is that right now, MSU's turnovers are very bad (even by our standards), and if they don't get significantly better as the year goes on, you should probably go ahead and panic. That said, I would be shocked if they don't start getting much better once the guards are healthy and we continue to get more games in. Because they have to get better, right?

This is a FanPost, written by a member of the TOC community. It does not represent the official positions of The Only Colors, Inc.--largely because we have no official positions.