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Early Season MSU Basketball Observations

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Nick Ward can still get to the line, and is MSU an up tempo team?

NCAA Basketball: Florida Gulf Coast at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

We are just a week into the MSU basketball season, and only two games down, so obviously it is hard to draw any conclusions from such a small sample size. Still it is worth taking a look at the first two games to see if anything sticks out. The Spartans played the number one team in the country, and then a lesser opponent in more of a tune up type game.

The Spartans play two more lower-tier teams this week, both sub-200 level in the Kenpom rankings, before things pick up big time. After that they have five straight games against either top level non-conference or solid conference foes. So they don’t have a lot of time to find themselves in the early going. There are quality resume building wins to be had, but they are bunched together, and coming soon.

So on with the way too early observations…

Nick Ward

Through two games Nick Ward continues to do what he has done through his first two seasons at MSU, draw fouls and get to the line. His first two seasons he averaged over eight fouls drawn per 40 minutes. So far this year he is drawing 14.1 fouls per 40 minutes. And it wasn’t all just against Florida Gulf Coast.

Ward has attempted 27 free throws already in just two games, reaching double digit attempts in both games. He went to the line 10 times against Kansas and 17 times against Florida Gulf Coast.

The bad news on this front so far is that Ward is connecting on just 59.3% of those free throw attempts. While Ward has never been a great free throw shooter, this is a number you would really like to see north of 65% this year. Word is that he has been working on this a lot in practice but as of yet we have not seen the results in a game.

What is good to see so far is the increase in minutes. Ward’s minutes have always been a question mark, and without Bridges and Jackson around, he is going to need to stay on the court more. Through two games he is averaging 24.5 minutes per game, close to a five minute bump from where he had been through his first two seasons.

Josh Langford Shot Selection

We all know that Josh Langford loves the mid-range jumper. For some this is an issue, for others, not so much. For me I think it is an important part of his game that he feels comfortable with, and when you are running him off those screen and curl plays to get him mid-range looks of the catch and shoot variety, he is very good and tough to defend.

NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Kansas at Michigan State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

What made some people a little crazy last year was it seemed that he was often passing up catch and shoot threes to dribble into a tougher, contested mid-range shot. Certainly the numbers bear that out to some extent. Last year Langford took more than twice as many two point shots (245), as three point shots (109). This was after taking 100 two pointers to 89 threes as a freshman.

This was especially true in conference play where Langford took 130 two-pointers and only 46 threes. That is more than three times as many twos as threes.

This year the balance seems to be back, at least through two games. Langford has tried 14 two-pointers and 12 threes. Perhaps more importantly, he has been aggressive when inside the arc. Instead of just settling for jumpers he has gotten to the basket and drawn some fouls. He has seven free throw attempts so far, already close to a tenth of the way to his total from last year.

MSU is going to need Langford to be a scorer for them on a nightly basis this season. He has put up 18 in each of the first two games. If he can keep that up, the Spartans will be in good shape.

Tempo

I know it is just through two games but the Spartans have been playing a really quick brand of basketball so far. Kenpom currently has their adjusted tempt (AdjT) at 73.9 possessions per 40 minutes, which ranks 61st in college basketball. In the Kenpom era (since 2002) not a single MSU team finished higher than 112th in tempo.

What is really amazing is that the Spartans are ranked 10th in average offensive possession length. That is not something that you expect to see from MSU. For reference, the Spartans were 115th in average offensive possession length last year and 202nd the year before that.

This one is almost certainly a small sample size issue that will likely even out as the season moves along. But one does wonder if this group is best served by playing quickly, getting a lot of transition opportunities, and maximizing their scoring chances. There aren’t a lot of guys on this team that can create on their own and get their own shots. As a result of this, things can bog down on the offensive end in the half court at times. But in transition there are easy baskets and open looks.

As long as they abide by the old John Wooden rule, “be quick, but don’t hurry,” MSU might be well served to play at a higher tempo than we are accustomed to.