It’s February. And that means that the college basketball season is now closer to the end than the beginning. For our Michigan State Spartans, ten regular season games remain before we head into the Big Ten tournament and then March Madness. At the moment, MSU has a 5-5 record in conference play, which puts them in a four-way tie for fifth place with Nebraska, Indiana, and Maryland (Nebraska is hosting Wisconsin as this is being written). The top four spots in the Big Ten will earn the advantageous double-bye in the BTT; those spots currently belong to Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, and Northwestern.
Michigan State has ten games remaining to try and climb into that top four. Their schedule looks like this:
@ Penn State
Of those ten games, four are against teams we have already defeated - Maryland, Minnesota, Penn State, and um. Two are against teams that have already defeated MSU this season - Illinois and Northwestern. And the other four - Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue, and Indiana - are teams we have not faced yet.
MSU still plays three games against teams currently in the top four - Purdue, Illinois, and Northwestern; Wisconsin already swept the season series. There are two games against teams that are currently tied with the Spartans - Indiana and Maryland. That leaves five games against teams currently lower in the standings - Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa, and um.
Overall, the order of the schedule is advantageous to MSU. They have a chance to go on a little run right now before the toughest portion, which is the final three games (@ Purdue, Northwestern, @ Indiana). The only remaining instance of having consecutive road games will be against a tandem (Penn St. and um) that is vastly inferior to the other two pairs they had to visit in consecutive games this year (Northwestern and Illinois, Maryland and Wisconsin). The toughest remaining home tilt is versus Illinois, who are currently ranked 14th, and who edged out the Spartans on their home court a few weeks ago.
Michigan State will have a statistical advantage in every game they still have to play. At present, MSU is giving up the second fewest points per game among Big Ten teams at 65.8 PPG; this ties them at #42 nationally. The only team giving up fewer points per game is the Spartans’ very next opponent, Maryland. Fortunately, MSU is averaging close to six points per game more offensively than Maryland. As a result, MSU’s per-game point differential is over three points better than the Terrapins’. So yeah, the Spartans have a better defense than all but one of their remaining opponents, and in that game they have the better offense. Since you were wondering, MSU has a higher PPG than five of their remaining opponents.
Speaking of stats, MSU is a top-four conference team in a number of categories: FG made/game, three-point percentage, assists/game, steals/game, and turnovers. They are also near the top in not allowing their opponents to get steals or blocked shots, and they defend the three-point shot at the second most effective rate in the conference. Conversely, MSU is a bottom-four Big Ten team in three-pointers made and attempted/game, FTs made and attempted per game, FT percentage, total rebounds, and offensive rebounds.
At this point in the season, the statistics that I am mentioning are certainly not coming as a surprise to any of you. We have discussed the strengths and weaknesses of this team ad nauseam. What is not captured in statistics, at least not the ones on ESPN.com, is variance. By variance I mean capturing fluctuations in statistics from game to game. One of the things that has been most perplexing about this year’s team (and certainly about some of the upperclassmen over their careers) is their tendency to have games where their performance differs largely from their averages.
Easily, the two greatest models of consistency on this year’s team have been Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard. We know Tyson is going to score between 15 and the low-20s each game, and Hoggard is going to get in the low-teens. But Malik Hall and Jaden Akins are just as likely to produce a career high as they are to have a game where they score zero or one field goal. And in the middle, Mady Sissoko is arguably the most inconsistent. This year, he has had one game where he recorded a double-double and then he had one game with two points and one rebound. In fact, he has had more games with four or fewer rebounds (6) than games with ten or more rebounds (5). And he has been held scoreless just as often as he has reached ten points, with two games each this season.
If there is one objective I would like Tom Izzo and Michigan State to work on as this season moves toward the postseason, it would be to work on creating a consistent product. I’d like to see a team where we continue to get what we’ve come to expect from Hoggard and Walker. But then, I want to see repeat performances of Hall getting ten, Akins getting seven or eight, Sissoko getting six to eight points and rebounds. And if the bench can continue to contribute 17-20 per contest, as their season average is, that would be a recipe for sustained success.
The talent on this team is there. They have a great opportunity, with the way the schedule sets up this month, to really start to settle into their roles and create that elusive consistency. Their next two games are against teams looking to avenge earlier losses, so that should give MSU some confidence going into those matchups. This team did not shy away from the talks of a national championship back in November. The best version of this team, in my opinion, was the one that ran Baylor out the gym. That day, they played with confidence, dare I say even with swag. I’d like to see some of that belief come back. Hopefully getting above .500 in conference play for the first time this year (yeah, that’s a thing) with a win over Maryland this Sunday will go a long way in helping accomplish that.
Winning the Big Ten regular season championship is unlikely, but getting hot down the stretch and getting a banner from the BTT feels possible. And after that, well, we still have Tom as our coach.