The MSU basketball team started off 2019 with a convincing home win over Northwestern Wednesday night as they re-entered the conference portion of the schedule. It’s all Big Ten from here on out for the Spartans until the NCAA Tournament.
It will be tough sledding for the Spartans this conference season, with the Big Ten looking very strong and deeper than it has been in years. Of the 17 remaining games on the schedule, 13 of them are ranked as tier A games on kenpom and two more are tier B games.
Luckily for MSU, the Spartans are playing their best basketball heading into conference play, having dispatched their last three opponents all by 20+ points.
This has the Spartans up to number four overall in the kenpom rankings, the highest rated Big Ten team, one spot ahead of those other guys in state.
According to kenpom, the Spartans are currently the number three team in offensive efficiency in the country, behind only Duke and Gonzaga. Defensively MSU checks in at number sixteen.
This got me thinking as to how this team compared with other recent MSU teams in the kenpom rankings. So let’s take a look at see if we can find some similar comps.
A quick look at the offensive numbers from this year first. The Spartans are third in efficiency (AdjO), seventh in eFG%, and eighth in three-point shooting. They are also 33rd in two-point shooting percentage and 28th in offensive rebounding percentage.
The last MSU team to have a top five ranking in AdjO was also the only MSU team to do so. And that team would be the 2016 team featuring Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris, and Deyonta Davis. That team finished the season second in offensive efficiency, leading the nation in three point shooting and ranking seventh in eFG percentage.
They also lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a two-seed to Middle Tennessee State after winning the Big Ten Tournament the week before.
The next best AdjO was the 2005 MSU team, which finished sixth in offensive efficiency and 18th in eFG%, but was 126th in three-point shooting. The 2005 squad went to the Final Four knocking off Duke and Kentucky in the second weekend before falling to eventual champs UNC.
The senior trio of Alan Anderson, Chris Hill, and Kelvin Torbert was complimented by Paul Davis, Mo Ager, Shannon Brown, and freshman point guard Drew Neitzel. That team was pretty damn good and like this one, a veteran bunch.
The 2004 squad, featuring most of the same players, finished 11th in AdjO, seventh in eFG% and eighth in three-point shooting. They lost a first round NCAA game to Nevada, but they weren’t nearly as good defensively.
A similar fate fell the 2006 team that was 10th in AdjO, but poor defensively. They lost to future Cinderella George Mason in the first round, the final game at MSU for Paul Davis, Mo Ager, and Shannon Brown.
First the overall defensive numbers. The Spartans are 16th in efficiency (AdjD), eighth in opponent eFG% and third in opponent two-point percentage. They are a good defensive rebounding team, but not great (47th), and they hold teams below average from the three-point line, but only by 1.5 percentage points.
The closest comp by rank and numbers is the 2007 team. That team finished 12th in AdjD, 15th in opponent eFG% and eighth in opponent two-point percentage. They weren’t quite as good a rebounding team, but similar. They also were a little better shot blockers.
The makeup of the team was Neitzel, Goran Suton, Raymar Morgan, Travis Walton, Marquise Gray, and Drew Naymick. They lost a second round game to UNC after a 22-11 regular season.
The 2003 team also finished 12th in AdjD. That group was 33rd in eFG% and 24th in two point shooting defense, but was the second best defensive rebounding team in the country.
It was a young group, mostly made up of the players that would go to the Final Four in 2005, but with seniors Al Anagonye and Adam Ballinger. They were able to make a surprise run to the Elite Eight that year as a seven seed.
There isn’t really one MSU team that has similar rankings to this year’s one, but there are a few where the raw numbers match up pretty well. First this year’s team numbers.
And now some recent team’s and how they compare overall.
AdjO: 119.2 (+0.8)
AdjD: 93.8 (-1.7)
Despite the loss of the two lottery picks, this year’s team stacks up pretty close to last year’s team, which shouldn’t be all that shocking as a lot of the same players are still around. Despite last year’s early exit, the team did win the Big Ten regular season title.
AdjO: 118.6 (+0.2)
AdjD: 94.7 (-2.6)
This team was almost identical offensively and not quite as good defensively. It was also a veteran squad with some younger pieces playing key roles. This was the Appling, Payne, Harris, Dawson, Valentine team that lost to UConn in the Elite Eight.
AdjO: 119.7 (+1.3)
AdjD: 94 (-1.9)
This one came up earlier when talking about the offenses. Despite the total differences being the most of these three teams, it’s actually the one I think matches up the closest. They were about the same better offensively and the current team is defensively, so it’s basically a wash. They were also a top-ten offense and 28th in AdjD, which isn’t that far off from where MSU has been until recently. The fact that this team went to the Final Four is also encouraging.
I will throw in one more just to compare. Here is where the 2009 team that lost to UNC in the title game stacks up:
AdjO: 114.3 (-4.1) ranked 26th
AdjD: 89.9 (+2.2) ranked sixth
This team was a top-10 defense with basically a top 25 offense, which is sort of the opposite of this year’s team. In fact when you look at eFG% and the other shooting numbers, this year’s team is way better. But the 2009 team was a top-10 rebounding team on both ends and defended the arc pretty well.
The good news in all this is that the current makeup of this team is very well balanced, and the other team’s that have been similarly balanced have done very well for themselves. The two teams I think this one compares to the most so far are the 2014 and the 2005 teams which both made deep tournament runs.
The next couple months will obviously give us more clarity on that, but at about the halfway point of the year, we have enough to get some idea of where this team is headed.
One final note. We have talked about MSU playing a high tempo game this year, and keep checking in to see if that will course correct. Well so far it has not. The Spartans are 70th in tempo, which is unheard of for a Tom Izzo team. They are 43rd in average offensive possession length at just 15.8 seconds. Both of those numbers would be records for MSU in the kenpom era (since 2002).
Again, I expect some correction of this in the Big Ten schedule, but then again, MSU forced Northwestern into a pretty high tempo game, which is not something the Wildcats usually allow.