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Opportunity Lost and Appreciating the Big Things

A frustrating finish to an action-packed season

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

There's a certain mercy to watching your team lose a game in a familiar way.  It's getting punched on the shoulder of the arm already in a sling instead of receiving a new bone break to your other shoulder. It's not going to feel good, but at least you aren't wearing two slings afterwards.

So, of course turnovers and free throws contributed to do Michigan State in once again this season, because of course they did. That an unpleasantly even fight on the glass sealed the deal and erased MSU's sizable shooting advantage is just the bitter finish.


At the end of the game, Izzo mentioned in the post-game interview that turnovers were a huge deal in the outcome (true!) and that it was especially bad because we kept getting 'pick-sixed' (as it turns out, not as true!).

On possessions following a steal, the two teams accomplished this:

Off of steals
Team Possessions FGM FGA FTM FTA TO Pts
Uconn 7 1 3 4 4 2 6
MSU 5 3 3 0 0 1 8

That's like, pretty great for MSU, actually! Despite 2 fewer chances, MSU actually scored 2 more points than UConn off of steals including beating them in 'pick-sixes' 3 to 1. (or, if you want to count two made free throws as a pick-six, at least 3 to 3)

How about unforced turnovers?

Off unforced turnovers
Team Possessions FGM FGA FTM FTA TO Pts
Uconn 9 3 6 2 2 2 8
MSU 3 2 3 0 0 0 6

Still really good for MSU! In six fewer opportunities, they gave up just two more points to the Huskies off of turnovers leading to an in-bound play. In total terms of 'points off of turnovers' the two teams tied, each scoring 14 points, despite MSU committing twice as many turnovers as Connecticut.

But turnovers were still a key factor? For sure, just not where Izzo and I first thought.

The real stab of these 16 turnovers wasn't felt on the defensive end, but instead on the offensive end where MSU could muster just 46 field goal attempts, 3 less than Connecticut despite shooting 14 fewer free throws. Every time the ball bounced out of bounds off an MSU hand or was pick-pocketed by a Husky, the starving MSU offense went one more possession without an attempt on the basket. You can't eat if you can't shoot.

Speaking of free throws...

Free throws


*sighs again*

*lets out one of those breaths that you exhale out of the corners of your mouth*

Look, I'm not surprised by it any more. I certainly don't think refs are out to 'get MSU', they're just reffing the game the way they've been instructed to. But just like shifts towards the offense in officiating emphasis meant that the Final Four teams of the late 2000s couldn't play the same type of bruising defense the late nineties and early 2000s guys could, our teams of the mid 2010s probably aren't going to be able to play like the still bruising defenses of the late 2000s guys. Not only can you not body up on people in the post like you used to a couple years ago, or fight for rebounding position like you used to, or impede cutters, refs also seem to be much more willing to call fouls on jump shooters, even in the final minute, as we saw yesterday. This isn't new stuff, it's been like this all season, yet MSU was still playing overly physical, was still contesting shots too late, and ultimately paid for it.

You can't let the other team take two or three times as many free throws than you game after game after game and not get bit by it eventually. At some point they're going to hit 85-95% of their 20-30 FTAs and you're going to have to play amazingly to dig out of that free throw hole.

The near elimination of the charge call and the resulting massive, massive, decrease in rewarded flops has been absolutely wonderful to see, and is to MSU's competitive benefit. But now, either officials have to ease off and allow some more physical play, or the Spartans need to do some additional adjustments on how they D up and hit the boards, because not many MSU teams are going to be able to regularly shoot so much better from the field than their opponents in order to make up for the free throw gap.

A 2015 team starting Trice, Valentine, and probably Kaminski and/or Ellis will still take plenty of 3s, but the other side of this is that probably next year MSU can reap the rewards of this new emphasis better than this particular transition/perimeter oriented iteration of Spartan basketball.

Speaking of perimeter oriented...

Did MSU take too many threes yesterday?


I don't think so.

MSU value per shot

dunks or layups: 2/2, 4 points, 2 points per shot.

2 point jumpers: 5/15, 10 points, .667 points per shot

3 point jumpers (minus Chapman's): 10/28,  1.07 per shot.

Here's what I saw yesterday: 3 players stationed in or around the paint beating on Dawson and Payne with brass knuckles and baseball bats (UConn's top four front-court players were charged with eight combined fouls. Low for my biased tastes, but not outrageously so) and 2 players harassing the shorts off of our guards on the perimeter (UConn's top four guards were charged with four combined fouls, this is kind of outrageously low, except in this case I was really impressed with their hand and foot speed and didn't think they were mugging our guards Chris Kramer-style).

Factor in UConn's height and shot-blocking ability and this meant the shots the Huskies were 'giving us' were threes and mid-range twos. Personally, I find a little under a 1.1 points per 3PA attempt to be a fine output against a tough defense, and MSU had more open looks than they did contested looks from that range, they just didn't sink them. About twice as many threes as mid-range twos is a split I can live with.

The distribution of 2 point jumpers to 2 point dunks or lay-ups was clearly the real issue. Was UConn simply too tall for the Spartans to get looks at the rim? Too quick with double teams to facilitate interior passing between Payne and Dawson until it was too late? Was MSU just too willing to pull up for an open, but unsatisfying, mid-range shot, after pump faking a block attempt, or getting near the free throw line?

A share of all of that, it seems. This feels like the Xth year in a row (ever since the game against Butler, so, five years now?) where a harrying perimeter defense manages to muck up Izzo's sets early in the shot clock and then the team crumbles or otherwise looks frazzled as the clock ticks down from 15 seconds or so.

In that situation, the Spartans really needed Harris and Payne to take over, those two tried (they took 60% of MSU's field goal attempts), but while Harris managed 22 points on his 14 attempts, Payne mustered just  13 on his 14, not quite enough.

A tie is a loss

The biggest shock, and disappointment, was the Spartan's inability to press their advantage on the offensive and defensive boards. They won the OReb% battle (barely), but that was as good as losing it on this day when they desperately needed to rack up extra looks at the basket somewhere, given their turnover issues. I don't quite know how UConn so quickly and effectively outnumbered us in the paint in rebounding situations, but sure enough, every time the ball went up off a Spartan hand, a wall of Connecticut bodies sealed off the ensuing rebound. I was promised the 346th best defensive rebounding team in the country. I did not receive it.

Pursuant to this, MSU got murdered in second chance points. Peep this:

After Offensive rebounds
Team Possessions FGM FGA FTM FTA TO Pts
Uconn 7 3 5 0 0 2 8
MSU 6 0 4 2 2 1 2

8-2 UConn in 2nd chance points, huh? How many points did we lose by again?

(Argh Arghhh Arghhhhhh)

Props to the Huskies, they weren't supposed to be able to fight us to a draw on the boards but they did, and what they did after those rebounds seemed to make a pretty big difference in the outcome of the game. I'm sure Schilling and Costello, two of MSU's best OReb guys, combining to play just 5 minutes had something to do with this unexpected, result but I can't particularly fault Izzo for rolling with Payne, Dawson, and Valentine for 35, 34, and 37 minutes, I probably would've done the same.


I'll probably have more to say about the 2 to 4 players graduating/declaring when we know everyone's status (for the record, I think Harris and Dawson are both gone, and they both should go. Each has room to improve, but they might as well get paid while doing so), but for now as we still digest a sour loss and a season that failed to meet expectations, I remember that there was still so much to like about this team and how they played the sport.

In short, Michigan State's fatal flaw (the free throw line) was the type of flaw that still allows an enormously entertaining basketball team.

These Spartans, even the starting center, could bomb threes in such a way as to immediately erase a three possession deficit or extend a two possession lead into double digits. Everyone, even the back-up point guard, could and would dunk a basketball. The passing and ball movement were often beautiful, and the team was nearly free of soulless iso basketball (MSU was 4th among power conference teams in '% of assisted baskets', 14th nationally). The defense, particularly on the perimeter, could be downright ferocious.

The things we love most about basketball: tip-dunks; blocks; twisting, acrobatic, drives to the hoop; opponents being forced into another play with half the shot-clock gone; zippy outlet passes; alley-oops; jumped passes and run-outs; swished three pointers; no look assists; forced shot-clock violations; and going up and snatching rebounds with authority. This Spartan team delivered all that, nearly every single game, for an entire season. Whatever an opponent's team did best, there was a real chance MSU could do that same thing just as well. They were visually impressive, on both sides of the ball, in a more complete way than any Spartan team has been in some time.

They didn't do all the little things: they didn't always hit their free throws, or not foul the jump shooter, they didn't always box out, or get away with the hand check, or make perfect switches on pick-and-pops.

But they did basically all the big things, they did them often, and, with the exceptions of a couple three game stretches, they were fun to watch. If my team can't win, I only ask that they entertain me. And there are no 'what if?'s about that.