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Inside the Numbers: Michigan State men’s basketball’s recent slump

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Comparing Michigan State’s first 21 games of the season (17-4 record) versus the past six games (1-5 record).

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Nick King / USA TODAY NETWORK

Earlier this week, the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball team was dominated on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes. MSU was blown out by 26 points, losing to Iowa 86-60.

The Spartans have lost three games in a row, and five of the last six contests. After starting the season 17-4 through 21 games, Michigan State now sits at 18-9 overall, and has slipped to seventh place in the Big Ten standings with a conference record of 9-7.

MSU’s lone win since Feb. 2 came against Indiana on Feb. 12 (76-61). The Spartans’ only other win in the month of February was a 65-63 victory over the Maryland Terrapins on Feb. 1, thanks to a Malik Hall buzzer-beating layup.

Michigan State’s recent slump has fans worried, and for good reason, but what exactly is going on with the Spartans? Of course, Michigan State does have a back-loaded schedule, so the competition has collectively gotten tougher as the end of the season nears. But is there more to it than that?

From a statistical standpoint — because I was curious and apparently I have nothing better to do with my time than spend multiple hours on this project — I’ve compared Michigan State’s first 21 games of the season (ending with the victory over Maryland) versus the last six games (starting with the blowout loss to Rutgers) to look at any noticeable trends during MSU’s recent stretch of poor play.

Assuming my math is correct (I’ll be honest, it’s not my strong suit), the numbers are very telling.

Michigan State’s first 21 games of 2021-2022 season (17-4)

  • Field goal percentage: 46.47% (553-for-1,190)
  • Field goal percentage defense (allowed): 39.45% (505-for-1280)
  • 3-point field goal percentage: 38.94% (155-for-398)
  • 3-point field goal percentage defense (allowed): 29.22% (140-for-479)
  • Free-throw percentage: 75.25% (298-for-396)
  • Points per game: 74.2 (1,559 total)
  • Points per game allowed: 65.5 (1,376 total)
  • Point differential: +8.7 per game
  • Rebounds per game: 39.1 (823 total)
  • Rebounds allowed per game: 31.8 (669 total)
  • Rebound margin: +7.3 per game
  • Assists per game: 16.1 (340 total)
  • Blocks per game: 6.1 (129 total)
  • Turnovers per game: 14.0 (295 total)
  • Opponent turnovers per game: 11.0 (231 total)
  • Turnover margin: -3.0 per game

Michigan State’s last six games of the 2021-2022 season (1-5):

  • Field goal percentage: 41.86% (144-for-344)
  • Field goal percentage defense (allowed): 44.63% (154-for-345)
  • 3-point field goal percentage: 34.71% (42-for-121)
  • 3-point field goal percentage defense (allowed): 35.97% (50-f0r-139)
  • Free-throw percentage: 80.77% (63-for-78)
  • Points per game: 65.5 (393 total)
  • Points per game allowed: 73.7 (442 total)
  • Point differential: -8.2 per game
  • Rebounds per game: 34.1 (205 total)
  • Rebounds allowed per game: 35.5 (213 total)
  • Rebound margin: -1.4 per game
  • Assists per game: 15.3 (92 total)
  • Blocks per game: 3.0 (18 total)
  • Turnovers per game: 12.6 (76 total)
  • Opponent turnovers per game: 9.0 (54 total)
  • Turnover margin: -3.6 per game

Trends — Difference in MSU’s first 21 games versus last six games:

  • Field goal percentage: -4.61% (46.47%-41.8%)
  • Field goal percentage defense (allowed): -5.18% (39.45%-44.63%)
  • 3-point field goal percentage: -4.23% (38.94%-34.71%)
  • 3-point field goal percentage defense (allowed): -6.75% (29.2%-35.97%)
  • Free-throw percentage: +5.52% (75.25%-80.77%)
  • Points per game: -8.7 (74.2-65.5)
  • Points per game allowed: -8.2 (65.5-73.7)
  • Point differential margin: -15.5 per game (+7.3 vs. -8.2)
  • Rebounds per game: -5.0 (39.1-34.1)
  • Rebounds allowed per game: -3.7 (31.8-35.5)
  • Rebound margin: -8.7 (+7.3 vs. -1.4)
  • Assists per game: -0.8 (16.1-15.3)
  • Blocks per game: -3.1 (6.1-3.0)
  • Turnovers per game: +1.4 (14-12.6)
  • Opponent turnovers per game: -2.0 (11.0-9.0)
  • Turnover margin: -0.6 (-3.0 vs. -3.6)

Summary:

For those who have watched, it isn’t surprising to see how poorly Michigan State’s metrics look in past six games. However, it is quite striking to see just how bad the Spartans are performing currently relative to how the team was playing in the first 21 games of the season when MSU looked like a legitimate Big Ten contender.

Michigan State has regressed in just about every statistical category examined in this exercise except for free-throw shooting (in which MSU upped its percentage by 5.52 points in the past six games compared to the first 21 contests) and turnovers per game (the Spartans have turned it over 12.6 times per game in the past six games versus 14 times per game in the first 21).

However, giveaways have been an issue for Tom Izzo’s squad all season long, and Michigan State is forcing less turnovers during the six-game stretch (opponents have only been turning it over nine times per game, versus 11 times per game in the first 21 contests) and the turnover margin has actually worsened (Michigan State is at a minus-3.6 turnover margin per game in the last six tilts versus minus-3.0 in the first 21 games).

In comparison to the first 21 games of the 2021-2022 campaign, over the past six games, Michigan State has had a decrease, and quite dramatically is some metrics, in the following categories: points scored per game, points allowed per game, field goal percentage, field goal percentage allowed, three-point field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage allowed, rebounds per game, rebounds allowed per game, rebound margin, assists per game and blocks per game.

So what exactly is wrong with the Michigan State men’s basketball team right now?

Well, the answer is all of the above. But the metrics that really stand out are percentages — both offensively and defensively — points and rebounds.

Through the first 21 games, Michigan State shot close to 46.5 percent overall from the floor and just about 39 percent from three-point range, while stifling opponents defensively, holding foes to less than 39.5 percent shooting overall, and a mere 29.2 percent from deep. Those numbers dropped dramatically in the past six games, as MSU has shot under 41.9 percent from the field, and has dropped more than four percentage points from behind the arc at 34.7 percent.

Michigan State is (obviously) not scoring as well during this six-game struggle-fest either, and is allowing its opponents to score seemingly at will. The Spartans were scoring 74.2 points per game, which was quite respectable, but over the past six games, that number has decreased 8.7 points per game, and MSU is putting up just 65.5 points per contest. Defensively, the Spartans went from allowing a mere 65.5 points per game to now allowing 73.7 in the last six matchups. That is 8.2 more points per game the opposition is now scoring, and a 15.5-point swing in the opposite direction in terms of point differential margin.

Perhaps the rebounding margin wasn’t quite as bad as I anticipated over the past six games (opponents have a plus-1.4 advantage on the glass), however, Michigan State’s own rebounding total has substantially gone down, as has the margin overall. MSU was dominating its first 21 opponents on the boards, with a per game metric of 39.1-31.8, or a margin of plus-7.3 per game. In the past six contests, Michigan State has only been grabbing 31.8 rebounds per game while opposing teams have secured 35.5. The rebound margin comparison has a metric of negative-8.7 between the two data sets.

Also, freshman wing Max Christie and senior wing Gabe Brown — two of the team’s most talented shooters — have really struggled with their shot over the past six games. Christie has gone just 15-for-54 (about 27.8 percent) overall and 3-for-19 from three-point range (about 15.8 percent). Christie has scored in double-digits just once in that stretch (exactly 10 points at Penn State).

Brown, meanwhile, has made just 13 of his last 41 shots (31.7 percent) — and seven of those 13 baskets came in a single game against Rutgers. Also in the past six games, Brown has made just nine of his 28 three-point attempts (32.1 percent) — with six of those coming versus Rutgers. He has failed to score double-digit points in each of the past five games and scored zero points twice in that span. If Michigan State wants to have any success to close out the season, it is paramount that both Brown and Christie shoot the ball better.

Simply put, basketball teams won’t win a lot of games with these types of performance metrics, so there is no mystery as to why five of the past six games have ended in the loss column for Michigan State.

The Spartans look to get back on track on Saturday, but face strong competition as No. 4 Purdue rolls into the Breslin Center. The game tips off at noon Eastern Time and will be broadcast on ESPN.