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Basketball Roundup: MSU Starting to Look Elite

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The Spartans are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the conference in the advanced rankings.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

We are in the midst of a busy week for the MSU hoops squad, with three games on the docket, the latter two on the road. The Spartans passed the first test of the week easily by taking care of red hot Maryland at home. Next up is a road test against another red hot team followed by a trip to Mackey and a re-match with the Boilers.

Next Up

Going to get into the schedule this week a little bit to start off. First off we need to talk about the Maryland game.

While this was a home game and holding serve at home is easier, this was a really good win for MSU. The Terps had come in winners of seven straight and nine of ten overall. They had won all three of their road games by double digits, including a beat down of the Buckeyes in Columbus just a few days earlier.

Maryland is currently 18 in the kenpom ranks, and MSU beat them by 14 points without Josh Langford and without a single point from Nick Ward. That will get it done.

MSU is in the midst of seven straight Tier A games, and they have won the first five. They are now 7-2 in Tier A games this year and 4-0 in Tier B games.

Up next is Iowa in Iowa City Thursday night. The Hawkeyes have won five in a row, and 10 of the last 11, with only a road loss at Purdue. They are 5-3 in conference after starting out 0-3, but their best win is a home victory over Nebraska. They are looking for a signature win, and MSU would be exactly that.

The Spartans have done ok in Iowa recently, with a few notable exceptions. They have won 6-of-8 at Carver Hawkeye going back to the 2009 season. It was a pretty ugly stretch before that though where they lost five of six. The last two MSU losses there were both by double digits, including their first loss of the season in 2015 when they were ranked number one.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

MSU crushed Iowa back in December in a game that featured Kenny Goins with 19 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists. Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman dominated, combining for 40 points on 15-of-16 shooting, with Ward going 10-for-10 from the field.

That game also had 63 free throw attempts, pretty evenly distributed (32 for MSU, 30 for Iowa). Getting to the line is a big part of the Hawkeyes game, as they get 25% of their points at the charity stripe, third highest percentage in the country. Ward spent the entire Maryland game in foul trouble, he’s going to need to keep himself out of foul trouble in Iowa.

After Iowa, the Spartans travel to West Lafayette to take on the Boilermakers. MSU has lost the last two games they have played at Mackey Arena, but had won three straight there before that. Purdue is currently unranked (barely), which bodes well historically for MSU. The Spartans are 1-6 in their last seven games at Mackey against a ranked Purdue squad, but 5-1 in the last six against an unranked Purdue team. A ranked MSU team hasn’t lost at Purdue to an unranked Boilers team since February of 2000, when MSU was ranked…sixth.

Breaking Away

While MSU currently leads the Big Ten on their own, the standings aren’t the only area where the Spartans are alone on top. In the kenpom efficiency standings, the Spartans are the clear cut number one team in the conference. They are 5.57 points ahead of the number two team, Michigan. That is more than the difference between Michigan and Maryland, the second and sixth place teams.

There are only three teams nationally who are +30 or more in the Adjusted Efficiency Margin, which is the basis of the kenpom ranks. MSU is the third of these three at +31.52, then it drops off to Gonzaga at 29.10. It is also not surprising that the same three teams at the top of the ranks are the only three teams to be top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Spartans are fifth in offense and now sixth in defense.

These three teams have also started to separate themselves from the pack according to ESPN’s resident bracketologist.

While we are still early, not yet into February, the Spartans have put themselves into a very good position nationally. Kenpom now projects them to go 26-5 overall and 17-3 in conference play. That is the best projection of any Big Ten team, which would have to set them up for a high seed. Lots of basketball to go, but things are looking good as of now.

Record Chase

Welcome to the top six Cassius Winston. The Spartan point guard passed Travis Walton and Kalin Lucas on the MSU all-time assist list last game, and is currently tied with Mark Montgomery for sixth place. His first assist of the Iowa game moves him into sixth alone, and within 20 of Drew Neitzel for fifth place.

Winston is currently averaging 18 points and 7.3 assists per game. I tweeted earlier this week about the rare company that puts him in. There have been three players at MSU to average 15 points and seven assists per game. They are Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves, and Denzel Valentine.

Winston also recently passed the 1,000 point plateau, which put him into more rare company. He joined the 1,000 point/500 assist club, making him the sixth member in MSU history. The other five are Mateen Cleaves, Scott Skiles, Denzel Valentine, Drew Neitzel, and Kalin Lucas. Before the season is over he will be in the 1000/600 club which includes only Cleaves, Skiles, and Valentine.

Nick Ward was held without a point for the first time in his MSU career in MSU’s Monday night win over Maryland. It was his 89th game for the Spartans. Prior to that he had scored double digits in 12 straight games, the longest such streak of his career.

Kenny Goins however, had a big game with Ward out. He recorded his third double-double of the year with 14 points and 12 rebounds. It was the fourth straight double digit rebounding performance in a row for Goins and his fifth in the last six games. He is now averaging 9.6 rebounds per game, which would be the most in a season since Draymond averaged 10.6 boards per game in 2011-12 and the second highest since the 1996-97 season.