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Michigan State Basketball — The Dwindling Defense

Tom Izzo’s team is in serious trouble, mostly because of their uncharacteristically bad defense.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Minnesota
Life in the lane has been surprisingly pleasant for MSU’s opponents.
Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t long ago that Tom Izzo talked about this year’s Michigan State basketball team being potentially one of his best defensive teams ever. It’s safe to say that after living up early to that promise the 2020-2021 Spartans have come crashing down to earth in a way nobody would have ever expected. While Michigan State is dealing with a handful of offensive problems as well — like the Spartans’ last game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers showed — it has been the defense that has left the most people wondering what’s going on. Yes, it has been this bad.

The head coach himself is baffled by the sudden disastrous performances on the defensive end, knowing too well that this has been historically the end even his most undermanned teams earned their laurels. His entire program is build on the basis of defending your own basket. Now MSU is missing basically everything — most importantly answers. Just ask Tom Izzo himself who said after the Minnesota game that the Spartans did everything they wanted to do on defense. Yet not only did it end in a monumental blowout (in which MSU’s abysmal field goal percentage of 25.7 did nothing to help the cause), the Gophers also shot 47.6 percent from the field and looked anything but intimidated by their opponent’s last lines.

Green light for opposing guards

The Minnesota game is just the latest in a long list of subpar defensive performances to put it mildly. MSU dominated early season games against Duke and Notre Dame, showing the kind of defensive intensity not many teams in college basketball can muster. While it is certainly a reason for optimism that the Spartans showed that they can reach a high defensive level, the bigger picture and the numbers over the course of the year will rise just as much if not more concern. Opposing guards have lit MSU up almost on a nightly basis. The list includes Detroit’s Antoine Davis (24 points), Western Michigan’s B. Artis White (19 points), Oakland’s Rashad Williams (36 points) and Jalen Moore (26 points), Northwestern’s Boo Buie (30 points), Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice (29 points) and also Minnesota’s Marcus Carr (19 points, even though you could consider that keeping him in check). With all due respect to most of these players, the majority of them would have never sniffed numbers like that against Spartan teams of the past. And quite frankly, they have no business putting them up against a team with MSU’s identity and aspirations.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Michigan State
Tom Izzo is left wondering what’s wrong with his usually proud defense.
Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NETWORK

Even if the fires are burning especially bright in the backcourt, the entire Michigan State defense is struggling mightily. Currently Michigan State ranks 13th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense and 198th nationally. Read that again. And again. The Spartans’ three-point defense ranks 11th in the conference and 238th nationally. Read that again as well please. They are a bad rebounding team by MSU standards on top of that (a problem slowly simmering beneath the surface for years), don’t force a lot of turnovers, they foul way too much and they don’t really block a lot of shots. The Spartans are also missing some of the patented reasons why the program was spoiled with elite after elite defense over the years, most notably toughness, iron will and a seemingly never-ending desire to suffocate the opponent. In short, the current Michigan State defense is light years behind where it wants to be and more importantly, light years away from where it needs to be in order for this team to reach its potential.

Limited athleticism is showing

One reason has certainly been that quite a few players haven’t lived up to their defensive potential attributed to them in preseason. Rocket Watts was tremendous for a freshman last season defensively and so was Josh Langford the last time he saw the court almost two years ago. While in Langford’s case you might not be as surprised that he isn’t really doing his job, Watts‘ struggles are more mind-boggling. Langford clearly has lost a step or two, especially in regard to his lateral quickness. At times he is tentative out there and considering his huge health problems in recent years, he probably is lucky to still be playing on this level at all (a tremendous feat in itself if you consider the long hard road he had to take coming back from severe foot injuries). With Watts the issue seems to be mostly mental which doesn’t excuse any of his subpar performances lately. Recently there was talk about him struggling with his point guard position on offense and it was always one of the big questions of the season how he would handle his new and increased role. With so much on his plate to learn offensively, basically totally adjusting the way he went about his business last season, he seems to have totally forgotten his defensive priorities. There is also some speculation of a health problem that lingers, kind of like during his freshman year.

Oakland v Michigan State
Foster Loyer does what he can on defense, yet his physical shortcomings remain a liability.
Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

While Watts and Langford deserve quite a bit of blame for their defensive struggles, there are numerous other culprits throughout the roster who have just flat out been bad. Foster Loyer, even though he looks like a more comfortable player offensively in his junior year, is a physical liability whenever he sets foot onto the floor. So far he is almost playing 20 minutes per game (18.7) thanks to Watts‘ struggles, way too many for a player that just does not possess a Big Ten level body, at least not for a team with MSU’s aspirations. The same could be said for Thomas Kithier, who is pressed into playing out of position at the five. Standing at 6-foot-8-inches tall without any significant athleticism, he is doing all he can yet often times it is not enough. People regularly score over him with ease, he can’t erase other people’s mistakes ever and because he has to work extra hard for position against bigger players he fouls way too much. Fouls aren’t a problem with Joey Hauser but almost everything else that could be said about Kithier is true for the former Marquette player as well. Hauser allows his opponent to back him down, gets buried under the basket too much and doesn’t move well enough to make up for his lack of vertical.

A kingdom for the X-man

Loyer, Langford, Hauser and Kithier are all getting heavy minutes right now and from a flat out physical standpoint that leaves Michigan State at an athletic disadvantage against plenty of Big Ten teams to begin with. Even Wisconsin, notorious for playing a rather methodical, flat footed and slow kind of game looked like the more athletic, more powerful crew during their win at the Breslin Center on Christmas Day. Now of course you can’t have elite jump and run athletes at every position and MSU never had those in the past. Yet there is a fine line between physical disadvantages you can overcome as a single player and as a team and right now Michigan State finds itself on the wrong side of that line too often. If you aren’t bigger, stronger and faster than you opponent, you have to be even more perfect with your fundamentals and the Spartans just aren’t right now which often leaves them backpedaling. Marcus Bingham Jr. is basically the only front-court player over 6-foot-8 to get regular minutes and his minutes are already plummeting. That means with length alone, which can be a great equalizer for other issues, MSU won’t be able to solve the problem.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 25 Wisconsin at Michigan State
The Spartans guards have been a step slow plenty of times this season.
Getty Images

It is obvious how much the Spartans are missing Xavier Tillman, who left for the NBA after last year’s shortened season. He was Izzo’s quarterback of the defense, shouting out rotations and erasing countless mistakes of his teammates. Vocally nobody has filled his role and nobody is doing the things he did individually either. There was a lot of hope for Bingham as a shot blocker and rim protector, but he has been struggling mightily this year. It seems he can’t get a hold of consistent minutes and just hasn’t developed physically as much as he needed to over the summer. He showed plenty of times in the past that he could be a player that gives MSU an entire new dimension with his length, shot blocking and agility but at some point the team cannot wait anymore for the light to switch on.

Now some people may look to the special circumstances this year for somehow impacting the Spartans‘ defensive fortunes in a bad way. While I would agree that MSU is maybe hurt a bit more by the different offseason (including Izzo’s own COVID-19 infection) due to the team’s complicated and demanding schemes, in the end it is the same for everybody and the Spartans have plenty of experience to make up for whatever problems they might have faced. That is one of the most frustrating aspects of the current defensive state of MSU: Many of MSU’s players have had tremendous success already, are championship-level players and have proven that they can be strong defenders in the Big Ten Conference. Aaron Henry for example has been phenomenal at times and has the potential to be one of the best defenders in the entire nation. Yet even he joined the parade lately and hasn’t looked himself either.

Some soul searching lies ahead

Which brings us back to the mental aspect of the entire story. It not only looks like the Spartans are lacking a defensive leader like they had in Tillman, it also seems as if the team let its offense dictate its defensive intensity and confidence. Watts has often shot the ball poorly in recent games and has struggled with the mental challenge of playing the point. Meanwhile, Henry, after good start to the season, is back to his in between, indecisive ways he has shown in the past. With those two headliners in a funk there is nobody to pull up the other role players on the roster. Hauser is a tremendous offensive talent yet it means nothing in the end when he can’t guard his direct counterpart. While the offensive pairing with Malik Hall could become a potentially lethal combination, on defense these two are just not physical or big enough together to hold up against physically imposing teams. And most of that falls on Hauser, unfortunately.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Minnesota
Aaron Henry is potentially one of the best defenders in the nation, yet hasn’t shown it in recent weeks.
Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

With everything looking this bleak right now you have to wonder where the solutions should come from. This of course is the million dollar question. First of all every single player has to start focusing more on defense and on doing his own job adequately. Remember what this program is built on which is defense, toughness and rebounding, not thinking about position switches in midseason. When too many individuals are struggling there is a trickle down effect and the entire defense breaks down. Even Izzo’s gap system can’t make up for that if too many parts are failing, not without a shot blocker. Lineup changes will certainly be a prominent way to find success for the coaching staff in the next couple of weeks and there certainly are things that need to be tried (like giving Mady Sissoko longer stretches to add physicality inside or A.J. Hoggard providing serious size and length in the backcourt). You have to wonder, though, if not other ways are favored to begin with, like moving Watts to the two-guard spot. It might help him in the short term and offensively but this opens up plenty of other problems.

Other than that you just have to look at the guys who have the most experience to lead the way. Henry in recent weeks has been a major disappointment again and was even benched lately. This just cannot happen. Langford has to find ways to contribute in some vocal ways and maybe focus a bit more on helping others. That of course is extremely hard when you’re dealing with so many issues on your own. That most likely only leaves one man to figure all of this out and that is the big man himself, Tom Izzo. He has done it so many times before and I’m sure he will try everything in the book and beyond to right this defensive ship. In the end though he is the first to admit that a player-led team is better than a coach-led team and so Michigan State has to hope that one of the players takes it upon himself to march ahead.

And in the end, I’m sure the Spartans don’t want their father figure having to eat his words from the preseason about their defensive potential…