From mid-November through the start of the new year, Michigan State had been cruising. They ripped off 14 straight wins, most of them in blowout fashion. After destroying Maryland by 30 points on January 4th, it looked like this team was only getting better.
But, conference play can be the great equalizer, and things got much tougher in a hurry for the Spartans. They were beaten soundly in Columbus by the Buckeyes, squeaked out an overtime win at home over Rutgers, and lost by ten at home to their rivals from Ann Arbor, all in the span of a week.
Since then MSU has bounced back to win their last six games, but it has been anything but smooth. Comebacks were needed against Maryland and Penn State, while the Spartans were forced to hang on for dear life against Indiana and Illinois.
So what changed? Well one of the things that changed is that teams started focusing on taking away Nick Ward.
Through the first 16 games of the season, Ward scored in double figures in all but three of them, and had five 20 point games. In the last nine games, Ward has just three double digit scoring games, nothing higher than 18 points. In MSU’s two recent losses, Ward was held to three and four points.
This comes as he is actually playing more minutes on average than he did earlier in the season. Over the last nine games Ward is averaging close to 23 minutes a game. He was at just under 19 minutes through the first 16 games of the year. So the efficiency is down as well as the totals. Three of his five worst kenpom Offensive Rating games for the year have come during this stretch.
Despite this, he has had two kenpom game MVP performances during this span. The big one was in the overtime game against Rutgers, where Ward scored 17 points to lead the Spartans in scoring.
None of this is surprising when you watch the games. Teams have started to double Ward, and are trying to force him to catch the ball farther away from the basket. MSU was so used to dumping it into Ward and playing inside out, that once teams starting taking that away, things bogged down offensively.
It took a few games, but one of the adjustments that MSU made was for Miles Bridges to assert himself more on the offensive end. The results have been mostly pretty positive. Following the Michigan loss, Bridges next five games featured four 20+ point games, matching his total over the previous 18 games.
He was also getting to the line more, a sign of increased aggressiveness. Bridges averaged 4.2 free throws over that five game stretch, after being at 2.7 attempts per game previously.
Bridges picked up kenpom MVP’s in three of those five games, after just two the rest of the season.
Of course, the last game for Bridges was one of his worst of the season. Going by his ORtg, it was the worst of the year by quite a bit. It was also the first time he failed to score in double digits since the UConn game, when he played a season low 17 minutes after missing the previous game with an ankle injury.
I am willing to chalk that one up as an anomaly, especially considering how poorly almost everyone played offensively in that game.
All this brings up an interesting question, when MSU is at its best, is the offense going through Ward, or through Bridges? I think that ideally, when MSU is getting the ball inside to Ward, it opens up the entire rest of the floor. But, if teams are going to focus on taking away Ward, there is still plenty of talent left on this roster to make teams pay. Bridges has been doing some of that, and Jackson has had some big games of late as well. But everyone needs to be better if teams are going to concentrate on taking away Ward.
Which leads me perfectly into Josh Langford
While some of the other Spartan players have had some off games mixed in, one player that really needs to get things turned around is Josh Langford.
After struggling with nagging injuries last season, a healthy Langford was off to a very solid start this season. Through the first 18 games of the year Langford was averaging 13.8 points per game while shooting 48.5% from the floor. His shooting was solid both inside the arc (49.2%) and outside (46.9%).
He was the Kenpom MVP of the North Carolina win, when he scored a career high 23 points to lead the Spartans to the PK80 Title. Langford had double digit points in 13 of the first 18 games.
But the last seven games have seen Langford regress pretty hard. His scoring average is down to 10.7 per game, while logging double digit point totals in only three of those games.
What is really concerning though is the shooting numbers. Langford is at just 35.1% over the last seven games, a 13.4% drop overall. He is at 38.2% on two-pointers and a miserable 26.3% on three’s over that stretch. That is an 11% drop in two-pointers and an astounding 20.6% drop from behind the arc.
When your starting shooting guard is shooting that poorly, it can cause problems, especially in the half-court offense.
One thing Langford has been doing well is cashing in at the free throw line. He is 19-20 from the line over that same seven game stretch, accounting for slightly more than a quarter of his total points.
Still, the shooting numbers are a concern. It becomes harder to space the floor and open things up for the big guys if guys like Langford are unable to knock down open shots.