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Michigan State Spartan Basketball's Big 3: "We stepped it up"

MSU's Big 3 have helped the Spartans get to the Elite 8

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

"I just want to say, when you're in a battle, your seniors gotta step up. Trice, you stepped up baby. Dawson, you stepped up."

-Earvin Magic Johnson after MSU’s victory over Virginia

As Michigan State basketball fans in the 2014-15 season, we’ve come to acknowledge the existence of the Spartans’ Big 3. I am talking of course about upperclassmen Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Branden Dawson. While others have had big impacts in games, these three have consistently been relied upon the most and have had much higher expectations than other players on the team. Mavin Costelling and Bryn Forbes have certainly had big games, but if they have an off-night they don’t get nearly the same amount of scrutiny. Of the 27 times an MSU player was awarded a KenPom MVP in their games this year, 25 of those went to one of the Big 3 (the other two were Marvin Clark and Bryn Forbes). Together they combine for 56.5% of the team’s points, 46.5% of rebounds, and 66.1% of assists.

History of MSU’s Big 3s

Let’s get some perspective about how good these three have been relative to other Spartan big 3’s. Using KJ and SpartanDan’s PORPAG metric (essentially "marginal offensive points contributed per game, accounting for a team’s average pace"), I looked at their offensive contributions compared to previous years’. (62 possessions was used)

1 2004 Chris Hill/Paul Davis/Kelvin Torbert 9.921
2 2006 Paul Davis/Shannon Brown/Maurice Ager 9.740
3 2005 Alan Anderson/Maurice Ager/Chris Hill 8.565
4 2015 Travis Trice/Denzel Valentine/Branden Dawson 8.328
5 2008 Drew Neitzel/Raymar Morgan/Goran Suton 7.821
6 2014 Gary Harris/Adreian Payne/Branden Dawson 7.693
7 2007 Drew Neitzel/Travis Walton/Goran Suton 6.834
8 2013 Gary Harris/Adreian Payne/Keith Appling 6.559
9 2012 Draymond Green/Keith Appling/Brandon Wood 6.533
10 2010 Kalin Lucas/Draymond Green/Raymar Morgan 6.489
11 2009 Kalin Lucas/Goran Suton/Raymar Morgan
12 2011 Kalin Lucas/Draymond Green/Delvon Roe 5.794
13 2003 Chris Hill/Alan Anderson/Aloysius Anagonye 5.546

They have the highest combined PORPAG in 9 years and they did that without any one of them being top 2 in PORPAG on the team the previous year. They’ve made fantastic leaps and that’s clearly shown in the way they’ve carried the team at times.

How they got here

Dawson was a 5 star top 25 recruit,Valentine was a 4 star top 100 recruit, and Trice was a 3 star that was noticed mostly because he was on the same AAU team as Dawson. Here they are today leading the team with no completely clear alpha dog among them. Last year all three of them were good complimentary pieces on a championship-caliber team. None of them had a usage rate of over 20% and the three offensive leaders of that team were thought to be Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, and Keith Appling. This year the big 3 have taken enormous strides getting to where they are as players today.

(Circle size is minutes% played)

Valentine has remarkably increased his efficiency while increasing usage by from 18.2% to 24.1%. The biggest thing for him was developing as a shooting threat and the work he put into that over the summer has really paid off. He’s shooting over 41%, and also he and Trice have combined for the most 3 pointers made in a season by a pair of teammates in MSU history (H/T to DuckingDelvon). Trice’s efficiency has fallen slightly because he’s taken on a much larger role but he’s been great bailing out the Spartans at the end of the shot clock situations. In pick-and-roll situations, he takes what the defense gives him whether it’s a floater in the lane or a step-back 3 if his man goes under the screen. Dawson has struggled a little offensively this year taking on a larger role but his ORtg has been improving almost all season and he’s averaged an ORtg of 115.5 since the start of the B1G Tournament (6 games). He’s developed somewhat of a go-to move where he posts up on the left block, works his way into the middle, and shoots a fadeaway jumper that’s become pretty reliable due to his high release point.

The other part of the game that doesn’t get talked about as much is defense. Dawson was a member of the All-B1G defensive team, while Valentine and Trice are definitely plus defenders. They all top 3 on the team in steals accounting for 57.2% of all of the team’s steals. If you want MSU’s best offensive lineup on the court, these three are out there. If you want MSU’s best defensive lineup on the court, these three are out there. When both Trice and Valentine are sitting out, you worry about MSU’s offense. When Dawson is sitting out, you worry if they can get defensive rebounds. They play unselfishly and that aspect has helped everyone on the team know and play their roles offensively.

What’s Next

Frankly, I didn’t think this Spartan team would get this far. It was talked about in all the season previews that this team’s ceiling seemed to be the Sweet 16 and I agreed with them. However, there’s now a very realistic shot at getting to the Final 4 and that would probably be the case even if MSU was facing 1 seed Villanova instead of Louisville. This team has been playing extremely well since the start of the B1G tournament and this particular MSU seems better equipped to handle Louisville’s style of defense than previous years’ teams. Despite all the ups and downs this team has had, I’ve enjoyed watching this team more than any other year. They play together, put the effort in every night, and have been in every game except the road games against Maryland and Wisconsin. They’re way past where almost everyone thought they should be in the tournament and I really don’t want to see Dawson and Trice’s careers end tomorrow. Why. Not. Us.