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Izzo's March

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A statistical look back at MSU's amazing 10-game stretch to close the season--and a look ahead to what it could mean for next season.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

On March 1, the Michigan State basketball team's record stood at 19-10.  The team had pulled itself up off the bubble , but their resume was hardly awe-inspiring: Only two wins over (current) KenPom top 50 teams as compared to four losses to teams ranked worse than #50--three of them at home, including the infamous Texas Southern loss--plus two home overtime wins vs. such teams.

Over the next month, MSU would proceed to go 8-2 against ten teams all ranked 53rd or better in the final KenPom rankings, including four teams ranked in the top 25.  One of the two losses was a neutral court overtime loss to a team that would go on to defeat a 38-0 juggernaut and then come within 5 minutes of winning the national championship.

Not bad.

Needless to say, on top of resolidifying Tom Izzo's month-of-March wizard credentials, this run, along with Friday night's Caleb Swanigan commitment, has created a serious level of optimism for next season and beyond.  The team loses two senior starters but adds two potential instant impact freshmen and a potential all-conference-level scorer through transfer and, overall, will have as much depth as any Izzo-era Spartan team.  We know what Tom Izzo does with depth.

So, with an eye on next season, let's look at what the rotation looked like during the 10-game run to close this season.  Data dump:

march per game avg

march per 40 avg

(Note: All players shown played in all 10 games, except Dawson, who missed one game and only played 9 minutes in another at the beginning of the run, and Wollenman, who appeared in 7 of the 10 games.)

Basically, Izzo was able to finally to establish a nine-man rotation down the stretch, with Colby Wollenman available for emergency minutes when needed.  MSU's big three were supported by six players playing specific roles.  The depth ratio over this stretch is right around 3.0, which is a good number considering 9 of the 10 games were close ones.

The biggest positive that jumps out across the board is turnovers.  No player averaged more than 2.6 turnovers per 40 minutes.  The team held its turnover rate below 21% in all 10 games and below 15% in 6 of the 10 games.  While the program has built its reputation on rebounding, this is how Izzo teams win in March: protecting the ball on offense while playing excellent team defense.  In each of the four NCAA tournament wins, MSU held its opponent to an effective field goal percentage of 40% or below.

Running through the individual contributors, seniors first:

  • Travis Trice: What more can we say?  A guy who was a 2-star recruit when he committed to MSU played at an All-American level down the stretch against some of the best defenses in the country. Trice scored or assisted 44% of MSU's points in the NCAA tournament. His senior season enters the pantheon of great offensive campaigns by Spartan guards.
  • Branden Dawson: Came back from the head injury vs. Purdue to dominate the Big Ten Tournament again. Continued that strong play into the NCAA tournament, but was overmatched against the athleticism of Louisville and Duke.  He and Trice finish their careers tied for the second most total wins of any graduating class in MSU history (112, 11 of them in the NCAA tournament) and a Final Four banner to cap their careers.  Few have accomplished more.
  • Denzel Valentine: Nearly as good as Trice. Scores efficiently from almost anywhere on the court while also setting up teammates for easy looks. Still commits a bad turnover or two per game, but that's it: he turned the ball over more than twice in just 2 of the final 10 games.  For the season, he raised his offensive rating 7 points from last season while also bumping the percentage of possessions he consumed by 6 points.  A major factor on the defensive glass and the team's most reliable defender, as well.  Going into next season, this is his team.  He'll need to continue to find ways to initiate offense despite not having a great first step or leaping ability.  (I bet we see him more of him in the post next season.)  Getting to the line more frequently would also be a good thing.
  • Bryn Forbes: He's just a shooter. But that's fine.  The numbers above are pulled down by a cold stretch at the end of conference play, but he shot 45% from behind the arc in the tournament with several of the makes coming at high leverage moments.  His defense improved markedly over the course of the season as he adjusted to Izzo's system.  Could lose a few minutes to Eron Harris next year, who appears to have more ability to create his own shot.
  • Matt Costello: While the arrival of Swanigan and Deyonta Davis will perhaps squeeze Costello's minutes and offensive touches next year, I still think he's primed for a big senior season.  Izzo loves his senior big men (see: Suton, Goran) and Costello is checking all the right boxes: solid rebounder, crafty defender, reliable ball-handler (less than 1 turnover per 40 minutes above) who showed flashes of post scoring ability late in the year (the 1-8 clunker against Georgia not withstanding).
  • Tum Tum Nairn: So . . . let's talk eye test.  Nairn's insertion into the starting lineup and the associated emphasis on pushing the ball in transition sure seemed to pay dividends for the team as a whole.  But the shooting numbers above are U-G-L-Y.  16% on two-pointers (32% for the full season) doesn't work.  Nairn has to get up to, say, 40% on two-point attempts and 65% from the line or he's just too big a liability on offense.  Hopefully, an offseason working on his shot in the Breslin auxiliary gym will go a long ways there.  He did show moments of confidence in his jumpshot.  Obviously, a plus-defender and a prototypical Izzo intangibles guy.
  • Gavin Schilling: Still very much a mixed bag of performances.  Flashed NBA athleticism at moments. But looked completely unprepared at others. (I am now forced to raise the topic of the overtime period in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.)  Fouls are still an issue (9.4 per 40 above).  Offensive rebounding is his main asset at this point (4.4 per 40 above).  It probably won't happen, but a mid-career redshirt season, ala David Thomas in 1999, could make some sense.  Schilling was young for his class, but MSU didn't have the depth to redshirt him then.  He could work on his game in practice and have a clearer shot at stater-level playing time once Costello graduates. Who knows, maybe he puts it together over the offseason and creates PT problems for the freshmen bigs.
  • Marvin Clark: He's a natural scorer, as evidenced by 13 points per 40 minutes on 78% two-point shooting above.  No two-pointer was bigger than the one late vs. Louisville to give MSU the lead with both centers fouled out.  Reduced the turnovers caused by his undersized-ness from early in the season, too.  Perhaps the biggest swing in potential playing time next season: could get squeezed out by Davis/Swanigan and a healthy Javon Bess, could be good enough to start.
  • Alvin Ellis: So the good first--he reduced his turnover and fouling problems to become a reliable enough option for Izzo to use to give the other guards a breather once per half.  The bad--he's still almost a complete non-factor on offense outside of transition opportunities.  Had the 16 points outburst vs. Indiana (who wasn't so much with the defense), but didn't score a field goal in the team's final seven games. Finished his sophomore season with an offensive rating of 78% (12 points below Nairn).  Feels like he's the 11th man in a 10-man rotation next season, and that's assuming neither of the incoming freshmen guards leapfrogs him.
  • Colby Wollenman: What more can you ask for from your walk-on big?  Reliable on both ends when called upon.  Posted the second highest defensive rebounding percentage on the team over the full season.  He'll be hard-pressed to get any minutes at all next season playing behind four legit scholarship bigs, but I'd sure love to see him push medical school off for a year.
So, subtract Trice and Dawson and add Bess--who looked like an ideal glue guy in the limited minutes he got between injuries this year--and the five new players next season, and you've got 13 legitimate scholarship players next year plus Kenny Goins and maybe Wollenman.  Izzo could build two legitimate platoons. Premature guess on minutes distribution:

minutes distribution

That distribution implies a lot of big lineups.  Practically, Izzo will probably be forced to go small at times so someone out of the Swanigan/Davis/Schilling/Clark/Bess group could have their minutes squeezed. One positive in favor of big lineups is that Swanigan should be able to consistently post up smaller opposing fours to make up for any defensive liability on the other end.

Basically, no player other than Valentine is a lock to average more than 20 minutes per game next season.  (Harris is the next best bet but will have the transition period to Izzo's system, perhaps eased by the transfer year.)  They could charge admission to the practices.

The caveat is that seven of the likely top ten players will be in their first or second seasons playing for Izzo--and the team will be replacing its primary playmaker again.  There will be some bumps early in the season.  But the pieces should all be there for Izzo to work his magic in March again--if not into April.