The Spartans have been busy on the hardwood since leaving for Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving holiday. This has been one of the toughest stretches for the MSU basketball team over the last few seasons, based upon the travel and how many games were stuffed into such a tight window.
This was a stretch I highlighted before the season started as one that would really test a group that would be much different than last year’s squad. We are now through five of the six games before things lighten up a bit, and it has gone pretty well for the Spartans.
On Kenpom, this stretch of six games were ranked as Tier A or B games, with four of them being in Tier A. The tiers basically break down to Top 50 (Tier A) and Top 100 (Tier B) opponents while adjusting for location. That is a pretty tough stretch for a lengthy period of time in the non-conference schedule. In addition to that, only one of the six games was played at home, Tuesday’s win over Iowa. The others are either road games (Louisville, Rutgers, Florida) or neutral sites (UCLA, Texas).
If the Spartans can finish this stretch off by beating Florida on the road on Saturday, they will really have done well. This should also serve them well as the season moves on, having already played in some really tough environments against some good teams. It also pads the resume nicely come tournament time.
The Big Ten is going to be really tough this year, and the conference champ isn’t going to waltz through the schedule with just a couple of losses. Once the conference season picks back up after the new year, every game MSU has except two (Rutgers and Minnesota at home) are currently considered Tier A or B games, with the majority of those in Tier A. It is going to be a grind through conference play.
But before we get to all that, here are some things that have stood out lately.
Look, I will admit it, I was wrong. I dogged Goins right out of the gate this season in the opening minutes of the Kansas game and he has been throwing it in my face ever since. Unlike some people, I am willing to admit when I am wrong, and I was wrong about Goins. He has been phenomenal as a typical Tom Izzo glue guy, doing all the little things.
First of all the numbers are just good. He’s averaging 7 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. On a pretty good rebounding team, he’s leading the team in both defensive and offensive boards per game. His defensive rebounding percentage is 25th best in the country. Goins has posted double digit rebounds in five of the nine games this year.
He is also playing some really good defense. I thought Goins was going to be out of position defensively for most of the season either being undersized and guarding power forwards, or not quick enough to handle small forwards. Instead what he has done is really do a good job against the other team’s power forwards, while giving them some issues guarding him as he steps out to take some jump shots.
Now I don’t love Goins shooting threes, he tried eight against Kansas in the season opener, making three of them, but he’s made just one of 11 since then. But he does have the ability to knock down the mid-range jumper, and if he’s wide open, I’m fine with him putting up the occasional three as well.
Overall, Goins has been a huge factor for this team and I expect him to continue to do so as we move forward. This isn’t just him feasting against bad teams. He had 11 rebounds against Kansas, 13 against UCLA, 17 boards at Louisville, and 14 against Iowa. He’s been doing it against everyone.
Early season turnover issues are nothing new for Michigan State. This is often a problem area for the Spartans that usually works itself out, but sometimes it never really goes away. The last two years, MSU was never really able to shake the turnover bug, averaging about a 20% turnover rate, and the two worst turnover rate rankings for an MSU team since 2007.
This year, despite some early blips, the turnover rate is actually back in the range it had been the three years before the last two, around 17 percent.
The problem has been the lack of consistency. MSU is averaging 12.4 turnovers per game, which is probably a little high but it is a number you can live with. However, the Spartans have had four games where they turned it over at least 15 times, and four games where they have turned it over no more than eight times. The other game they were right on pace with 12 turnovers.
The good news is that the last two games have been low turnover games, and the one before that was a 15 turnover game, but that was an overtime game so it probably was a little higher than it would have been if it had ended after 40 minutes.
Hopefully MSU can continue to limit the turnovers this weekend at Florida, against a Gator squad that is currently 10th in the country in forcing turnovers on defense.
We all knew coming into this season that Winston was going to be the straw that stirred the drink for MSU. Not only was he going to be needed to produce points, but also to facilitate the offense that lost two of its key weapons. The added struggle was going to be that the Spartans lacked an obvious backup point guard, so Winston was going to be even that much more important.
Nine games into the season and Winston is doing just about everything you could ask of him. He is averaging 16.8 points per game, up from 12.6 a year ago. His assists are up to 7.7 from 6.9, and he’s also doubled his steals per game from 0.7 to 1.4.
Winston’s assist rate remains elite. He was second in the country and first in the Big Ten each of his first two seasons at MSU, and he is currently sixth nationally and tops in the conference this year. This for an MSU team that is currently eighth in the country in assist rate overall.
This also comes with a reduced turnover rate. Winston has slightly reduced his turnover per game total so far but the turnover rate has dropped from 22.6 last year to 15.8 currently. That is a big improvement considering he is being asked to even more on offense.
The one issue is the minutes. Winston is currently averaging 31 minutes per game, about a three minute increase from last year. He is playing 76.4% of the team’s minutes overall, and has logged 30+ minutes in each of the last four games, and more than 34 minutes in three of the last four.
Winston figures to have another heavy minutes game this weekend at Florida, as the status of Matt McQuaid remains up in the air. Hopefully after that, when MSU’s schedule lightens up for a couple weeks, he can get some breaks and rest his legs a little. The Spartans are going to need him throughout the conference schedule, and certainly want him to still have his legs under him come March.
Several MSU players are moving up the career lists this season, so we will keep track of some of those as we go.
Earlier this year Nick Ward went over the 1,000 point mark, becoming the 50th Spartan to do so. Since then he has passed several notable Spartans, including former teammate Miles Bridges, and MSU legends Magic Johnson and Johnny Green on the all-time scoring list.
Ward also accomplished another feat on Monday when he went 10-for-10 from the floor in the win over Iowa. Nick became the fifth MSU player to have a perfect shooting night with at least 10 field goal attempts, and the first since Alan Anderson went 10-for-10 against Wisconsin in February of 2005.
Ward has also moved into sixth on MSU’s all-time blocks list, passing Delvon Roe and former teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. this season. He needs five more to tie Draymond Green for fifth place. If he maintains his average from his first two seasons, he will be the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots by the end of the season.
Cassius Winston is also moving up in the record books. Winston started the season just outside the top-10 in career assists but has since moved into ninth place, passing Keith Appling and Magic Johnson. He needs eight more assists to become the ninth MSU player with 500 career assists.
If Winston continues to average seven assists per game or better, he will move into second place on MSU’s all-time assists list by the end of the regular season.