Even if, like most people, you don't have the Big Ten Network and thus didn't actually see the game, by now you've probably heard that on Saturday night Michigan State lost at Iowa by the decidedly old-school score of 43-36.
Wow. Losing to a team that lost at home to Louisiana-Monroe. Here's my very sophisticated analysis: scoring just 36 points in a 57-possession game is really bad. (That's 0.63 points per possession, if you must know the gory details.) How could this happen?
First, give some credit to the Hawkeyes. Too often "defense" is thought of as what players do when they move their feet and keep their hands up. On Saturday night, the Hawkeyes showed that defense is something more. For one thing, the Hawkeyes didn't turn the ball over; that was a crucial element of their D. Making the game into a half-court slugfest was essential if the Hawkeyes were going to have any hope of an upset, and they committed just ten turnovers. What's more, they didn't foul: the Spartans shot just four free throws. Lastly, facing one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, Iowa was strong on their defensive glass. Todd Lickliter, take a bow.
Still, Iowa had a lot of help. The Michigan State offense was frighteningly inept in all measurable facets of the game, particularly in the turnover department. Tom Izzo's team gave the ball away 18 times in a very slow game. It's true that their shooting was just as bad, but the Spartans don't usually struggle to get the ball in the basket. Turnovers are another matter, though not so long ago this team had shown signs of improvement in that area.
Keep in mind MSU beat Texas in large part because they committed just seven turnovers in a 66-possession game. Right now, Izzo is getting a lot of I-told-you-so mileage out of saying that he knew all along his team was receiving more praise than it merited, but the truth is the Spartans deserved the attention. A Michigan State team that doesn't turn the ball over is a force to be reckoned with: they play D, they make their twos and they dominate the offensive glass.
Regular readers of Basketball Prospectus will be familiar with the turnover rate statistic posted for every D-I player. A Ken Pomeroy statistic, turnover rate tells us how well a player has held on to the ball per individual possession used. In other words, if Drew Neitzel and Drew Naymick took the same number of shots, handled the ball the same number of times and accounted for the same number of offensive possessions used, they would turn the ball over X times. I know from personal experience, however, that the "if" there is a big one. When I commented on some Spartan players earlier this season based on their TO rates, I heard from several readers saying that my comments didn't gibe with what they were seeing with their eyes.
Fair enough. Let's talk about what has actually happened within this particular offense. Let's talk about turnovers per individual possession played. If every Michigan State player on the team were sent onto the floor for 100 offensive possessions and if the Spartans ran their usual offense (heavy on Raymar Morgan and Drew Neitzel), you would see them turn the ball over this many times:
Michigan State, 2007-08
Turnovers per 100 possessions played
Min Pct. 100 poss.
Drew Neitzel 76.3 2.1
Raymar Morgan 70.3 5.5
Goran Suton 65.6 4.2
Kalin Lucas 59.8 5.2
Travis Walton 54.5 4.8
Drew Naymick 46.9 2.8
Marquise Gray 42.7 6.9
Durrell Summers 35.2 5.4
Chris Allen 24.1 3.5
The first thing that comes out of these figures is obvious: Neitzel is a freak. He never turns the ball over. Tom Izzo should thank his lucky stars every day that he has Neitzel on his team. It's true the senior from Grand Rapids isn't scoring as much as he did last year, but Morgan's dramatic improvement this season has meant he doesn't need to score. All things being equal, the talk about Neitzel needing to "score more" is misplaced: he'll score more if his teammates turn the ball over less.
Morgan's number here looks a little high, but keep in mind he has the ball in his hands more often than any other Spartan, more often even than Neitzel. Sure, Morgan could cut down on his turnovers a little, but the real problem is everyone else. That expressly includes Naymick, whose miniscule number for TOs per 100 possessions played masks a crucial fact: he never touches the ball in this offense, yet he still accounts for turnovers (being called for moving screens, for instance) and his TO rate is in fact quite high.
Or take Marquise Gray. It'd be easy to highlight his outrageously high turnover rate and, make no mistake, it is indeed outrageously high. The thing is, Gray plays just 17 minutes a game. He could turn into a regular Drew Neitzel tomorrow, but that alone won't cure what ails this offense. The fix needs to be across-the-board: veterans, freshmen...everyone not named "Neitzel" or "Morgan."
When it comes to turnovers, Michigan State is a little like a troubled family member trying and promising to go straight. We want to believe it will happen but there's a history here. Last year in Big Ten play, the Spartans committed a turnover on 26 percent of their possessions. That's the highest number I've seen posted by any major-conference team in the past three seasons.
This year? After three Big Ten games the Spartans are committing turnovers on 28 percent of their trips. It's early, but if Michigan State wants to keep the expectations for this team where they are, they need to change the turnover numbers for this team.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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