Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

February 18, 2009

Michigan State is Joaquin Phoenix

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:16 pm

Purdue scored 46 points in the second half last night and beat Michigan State 72-54 in West Lafayette. The Spartans arrived at Keady Court 20-4 and ranked in the top five nationally. They left a couple hours later as mysterious as ever.  

The mystery is not entirely their fault. A really good team proves itself against really good competition, and here the Big Ten has failed State. The conference as a whole is much better than last year, but there’s no team good enough to make you say, “Wow! The Spartans beat X.” The Boilermakers and Illinois, for example, are cut from the same Gene Keady cloth: motion, an abiding obsession with ball-reversal, pugnacious man-to-man D, etc. All of the above is fine, of course, it’s just that these two particular versions of that cloth happen to be really limited on offense. Check it out:

Plenty of good teams–any dangerous ones? 
Through games of February 17, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession    Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                                    Opp.
                     Pace    PPP    PPP      EM
1.  Michigan St.     63.6    1.08   0.95   +0.13
2.  Purdue           63.0    1.00   0.92   +0.08
3.  Wisconsin        58.2    1.08   1.00   +0.08
4.  Illinois         61.0    1.00   0.93   +0.07
5.  Ohio St.         63.1    1.05   1.01   +0.04
6.  Minnesota        63.4    0.98   0.98    0.00
7.  Penn St.         61.2    1.01   1.05   -0.04
8.  Michigan         61.0    0.98   1.02   -0.04
9.  Northwestern     61.0    1.02   1.08   -0.06
10. Iowa             57.4    0.98   1.09   -0.11
11. Indiana          64.3    0.92   1.10   -0.18

Michigan State is not alone in the mystery they engender. I’m not sure Oklahoma is really as good as the number 1 ranking they’re likely about to receive. I’m not sure LSU is quite as mediocre as their number 24 ranking would suggest. In all three cases the basic perceptual challenge is that there’s no good in-conference benchmark readily available.

Still another weird facet presented by the Spartans is much more basic. They’re not very good at putting the ball in the basket, are they? Bit of a worry; it is after all the nominal object of the sport. The average Big Ten team has shot better from the field during league play than Michigan State has. In fact both Iowa and Northwestern have shot better from the field in-conference than Michigan State has.

Raymar Morgan‘s lingering illness certainly hasn’t helped matters. (He’s played 17 minutes in the month of February.) Nor has the fact that shots taken in the old days by Drew Neitzel (52.5 effective FG percentage last year) are now being taken by Kalin Lucas (42.5 eFG this year, including last night’s game). The sophomore is both an outstanding point guard and a capable perimeter threat, but he makes just 38 percent of his twos. More to the point, he has taken way more twos than any other Spartan. 

MSU has compensated for this by being absolute monsters of the offensive glass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s exactly what you should do if your team doesn’t shoot very well and Tom Izzo deserves full credit for having his team at 20-5 and at the top of the Big Ten. But March tends to find the opponent for you that can dampen your offensive rebounding. There better be a Plan B.

The Spartans hope to follow in the footsteps of teams like Stanford and Villanova, who proved last year that you can at least reach the Sweet 16 without being able to throw the ball into the ocean from a rowboat. The Cardinal did it with an ostentatiously punitive defense built around 14 feet of NBA-bound Lopez brothers. The 12-seed Wildcats beat Clemson and Siena, basked in a week of unexpected attention, and then were euthanized compassionately but unmistakably by eventual national champion Kansas.

Izzo’s team has talent and depth, more of both than any other team in the Big Ten. That’s the point: when we see the Spartans oddly unresponsive, as they were in West Lafyette last night, we know they’re capable of more. Maybe Morgan will get some good chicken soup and get back on the floor. His team could use him. 

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