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Michigan State men’s basketball team is finding its stride — but still has work to do

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

The Michigan State Spartans made quick work of a solid Illinois team at the Breslin Center on Thursday night, defeating the Fighting Illini by a final score of 76-56. The Spartans improved to 11-3 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten — MSU remains the only undefeated team in conference play.

Now the team gears up to face its biggest rival, the Michigan Wolverines on Sunday afternoon. Following the win over Illinois, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said he doesn’t think the team is “close” to where it should be right now. Perhaps that is just coach-speak, as the team seems to be much improved from the early season, but we should trust Izzo’s judgement.

Quickly recapping the season, Michigan State was of course ranked as the preseason No. 1 team. The Spartans followed that up by dropping their first game of the season against a very good Kentucky Wildcats team that was then ranked No. 2 in the country. MSU then went on to win its next three games, including an impressive road victory over No. 12 Seton Hall. After that, Michigan State was upset by Virginia Tech in the first round of the Maui Invitational. The Spartans then went on to win its next two games in Maui before being embarrassed on its home court by Duke. MSU started out with just a 5-3 record — a major disappointment to the team and fans alike.

Of course there were a lot of unforeseen circumstances that contributed to the slow start — the Joshua Langford injury, a hobbled Rocket Watts, Joey Hauser being denied eligibility and of course the tragic passing of Cassius Winston’s younger brother, Zachary, that obviously took a huge toll on Winston and the entire team. But something has changed since the loss to Duke. The team has taken a turn for the better. Since then? The Spartans have won six games in a row, including three victories over Big Ten foes.

During MSU’s six-game winning streak, the Spartans are averaging 83 points per game while giving up just about 58.67 points per game defensively — a difference of plus-24.33 per contest. The Spartans are also plus-87 on the glass in those six games, which means the squad has out-rebounded opponents by an average of 14.5 boards per game in that stretch. Distributing the basketball has also been key, as MSU has averaged about 21.67 assists per game in those contests.

The team’s long-range shooting has also improved. In the first eight games of the season, MSU was shooting a miserable 33 percent from three-point range. In the past six games, Michigan State has improved its three-point shooting to over 36 percent — still not where the team wants to be, but a definite improvement. In the four games since defeating Oakland — where MSU shot a putrid 21.2 percent from deep — the Spartans are shooting about 40.43 percent from behind the arc. Another key factor here is that the NCAA extended the three-point line to the International distance this season at 22 feet and 1 ¾ inches (it was previously 20 feet, 9 inches). So there was/still is an adjustment period for the players.

Looking at the season as a whole, Michigan State is currently fourth overall in the Kenpom rankings, second in adjusted offensive efficiency (115.2) and 30th adjusted defensive efficiency (89.8). The Spartans lead the Big Ten in points per game (81), rebounds per game (43.2), assists per game (20), assists/turnover ratio (1.6) and defensive rebounds per game (31). The team ranks second in the conference in scoring margin (plus-17.6), field goal percentage defense (.369) and rebounding margin (plus-10.6).

Michigan State has started to find its stride at exactly the right time and is starting to build more and more confidence as the Big Ten schedule gets thicker. With that said, Izzo has a point that this team still has plenty of work to do in order to compete for another Big Ten title and deep postseason run — namely continuing to improve from three-point range and cutting down on turnovers — but the Spartans seem to be on the right track.

Sunday’s game at home against Michigan with be another tough test, followed by the rest of the brutal Big Ten slate.