We have reached finals week, which is high stress for the students, but pretty boring for us sports fans who have already gotten our diplomas. Although that hasn’t stopped me from having semi-regular nightmares about discovering I forgot I was taking a certain class and suddenly have to show up for the final.
With the week off, it is time to take stock of where the MSU basketball team is and what lies ahead, what needs to be cleaned up, and what is working well. So let’s get to it.
The MSU resume is actually in pretty good shape right now. The Spartans are the ninth ranked team in the polls, they are number eight in KenPom, and ninth in the new NCAA Net rankings (RPI’s replacement).
They have Tier A wins over UCLA, Texas, and at Florida, as well as Tier B wins against Iowa and at Rutgers. Their losses are both against Tier A opponents. They are 8-2 through ten games, with only four of those games played at home, with three true road games mixed in as well.
As I said in last week’s piece and repeated on twitter, MSU ended up going through a very tough six game stretch with a 5-1 mark, and that will do just fine. The loss at Louisville stings for sure, but it’s not a resume killer, and I will take it over dropping either of the conference games. Plus MSU still got the true road non-conference win at Florida.
Up next the Spartans have three games against teams below 150 in the KenPom rankings, all at home. These should be relatively easy wins, although that Oakland game is always tough. That takes us into the New Year and full time conference play.
With the solid resume come a lot of positives for MSU through the first ten games. The overall numbers are pretty solid. They are fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency per KenPom.
Looking at the four factors, the Spartans are in good shape there as well. They are 21st in eFG% and 18th in offensive rebounding percentage. They are also 10th in defensive eFG%, in large part to holding teams to just 40.4% shooting on two-pointers, the fifth best percentage nationally.
MSU is also slightly better than the D-1 average when it comes to turnovers and getting to the free throw line, although they rank 135th and 119th in those areas respectively.
MSU is 24th in three-point shooting at 39.5% and four points better than the D-1 average on two-pointers as well. They have been a solid, if not great free throw shooting team at 71.6 percent.
From an individual standpoint Cassius Winston is averaging 16.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. His assist rate is sixth in the nation and he has reduced his turnover rate significantly from last season.
Joshua Langford has stepped up the scoring, leading the team with an average of 16.7 points per game, a five point improvement over last year. Langford’s three-point shooting has improved as well, up 4.2 points from last year.
Kenny Goins has been spectacular doing all of the little things, and rebounding at a tremendous rate. He’s right at 10 rebounds per game and has the 34th best defensive rebounding percentage of anyone in the country. He’s been pretty solid on the offensive glass as well.
And of course there is Nick Ward, who is third on the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game. His minutes are up, although maybe not as much as you would have hoped at this point in the year. He’s up to 21.3 minutes per game, the first time he has averaged 20 minutes or more per game. He continues to draw fouls at a high rate, second highest in the country actually, and he’s among the top 200 players in field goal percentage, block rate, and offensive rebounding rate.
Also want to give a shout to Xavier Tillman, who has done a real solid job across the board. He’s shooting almost 72% on twos and he’s top-100 in block rate and offensive rebounding percentage, as well as being the team’s second leading rebounder. Really good stuff from X this year, and I expect it to get even better.
Looking at the four factors, MSU is among the worst in the country at forcing turnovers on defense. This has actually been a pretty steady trend for Michigan State over the last five years. While it has never been a strength for the Spartans, they have gone from a middle of the pack team to consistently one of the worst in this area. It’s kind of random but MSU has remained a really good defensive team over this stretch. They don’t take chances, and that’s probably why they don’t get a lot of steals/turnovers.
Another area where MSU is below average is in allowing teams to get to the free throw line. Now this is a little bit of a new issue, as MSU currently has their worst opponent free throw rate since the 2004 season. Some of this likely has to do with the opponents, as Iowa and Louisville are two of the top-four teams in the country in getting to the free throw line. But Minnesota and Ohio State are up there as well so we will have to see how it goes once conference play resumes.
From an individual standpoint, there are some trends that aren’t great as well. Nothing that can’t be fixed, but just some things that have stood out.
We talked about it last week, but Cassius Winston’s minutes need to be put in check. He played 36 minutes against Florida despite McQuaid’s return. He hasn’t played less than 30 minutes in a game since the UCLA game, back on Thanksgiving. As a result, his three-point shooting has suffered as he is just one for his last eight from beyond the arc. Tired legs are not favorable for long range shooting.
Speaking of three-point shooting, Josh Langford needs to do it more. Earlier I mentioned how he has improved his three-point accuracy, but he’s not shooting enough of them, at least by comparison.
On a per-game basis, Langford is hoisting 2.5 more threes per game than he did last year. The problem is he is also taking the same, if not more two-point shots per game as last season. In the pre-season piece I said Langford’s shot selection needed to be back where it was freshman year, where he took 1.12 twos/threes. Last year that number was 2.25, basically double. This year he’s at 1.28, which is way better, and yet I still think that number needs to be closer to an even amount of twos to threes. And if it’s not, then I want fewer long twos and more drives to the basket that have a chance to get you to the free throw line.
I brought this up early in the year and said we would have to come back and revisit it later, but MSU is playing their highest tempo of the KenPom era (since 2002). They are at 71.1 possessions per 40 minutes, and an average possession length of 16.3 seconds. Since MSU is the fifth best team in offensive efficiency, the higher tempo game suits them.
As I said before though, I do expect this to come down once full time conference play starts. I just have a hard time seeing that kind of tempo against some of the defenses in the Big Ten. But make no mistake, when this team is clicking on offense, it’s probably because they are getting points in transition on a regular basis.