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Hoopsbag: Doubting the Spartans already?

12/8/2010

Each Wednesday, your humble college basketball hoops blogger (er, me) will respond to your questions, comments and nonsensical rants in this here Hoopsbag. To submit a query, visit this page by clicking the link under my name in the upper right-hand corner of the page. You can also e-mail me or send me your entries via Twitter. Per the usual, let's begin in video form.

After recapping Michigan State's thorough trouncing at the hands of an impressive Syracuse team last night, I asked Twitter followers the ever-perilous annual question: "Raise your hand if you're just a little bit -- even a little bit -- worried about Michigan State. Anyone?" (What, you thought I was referring to the Kevin Bacon Logitech commercial? Because, man, what a great commercial.) The response on MSU was immediate, thorough, and altogether pretty diverse. A sampling of responses:

@Slicknickshady: "Nope. Not at all. Like this every year. Izzo treats these like pre season games. They really don't matter. Sure I would love to see them win more of these games and im sure izzo would. But you don't hang banners for beating Connecticut, Duke, and Syracuse in Nov./Dec. Wins would be nice. But oh well."

@Duvisited: "Worried, no. But they may be what they were last year - a good but not great team, a five seed, not a top-five team."

@SteveLayman: "I'll raise my hand. But, I sort of feel like Izzo's standing at the front of staring through me, saying, 'doubting me? Ha!'"

@raphiellej: "I don't know if I like the basketball IQ of the guys on the court right now. (Besides Draymond Green.) Have faith in Coach Izzo though."

@jeffborzello: "Been worried since the preseason -- more so now."

@johnkirby: "No, I was just stretching."

@BuffJE: "Raise your hand if you've been worried about Michigan State in December before, only to see them eventually make another Final Four."

Mr. BuffJE makes the salient point. If this were any other team, or any other coach, the Spartans' bandwagon would currently be experiencing mass departures. Because Michigan State seems to do this almost every year -- comes into the season highly ranked, sputters against a brutal nonconference schedule, falters against top competition -- and still manages to pull it together come tournament time leads us to believe that it's all part of Izzo's master plan.

It's a weird analytical situation. Do we judge by precedent, or by what we see on the court? Where do you draw the line? I'd argue there are three overriding parameters to always remember when discussing this Michigan State season at its current juncture:

1.) You never want to count a good team out in December.

2.) You never, ever want to count a talented Spartans team out in December.

3.) This Spartans team has three losses, all of which came to top ten teams in neutral or road environments.

4.) Even understanding Nos. 1-3, I still have my worries about the Michigan State Spartans.

Why No. 4? Because Michigan State didn't just get beat last night. They were, in some ways, exposed. They were unable to get the ball into Syracuse's zone for almost the entire first half. They were unable to stop Syracuse's dribble penetration. Against a team that still hasn't shot the ball well, Michigan State's bigs gave up way too many layups and dunks: 28 of Syracuse's 58 shot attempts were either layups or dunks, and the 'Cuse converted 20 of those 28 attempts. Syracuse shot 5-of-27 from the field when forced to take jumpers. The Spartans couldn't make that happen frequently enough to win.

And then, of course, there are the turnovers. It almost feels like a cliché to say the Spartans are struggling with turnovers, but they are. They had another 25 percent turnover rate at MSG Tuesday night, in line with their season average of 25.1 percent. While some of those turnovers can be credited to Syracuse's stifling zone defense, Michigan State frankly gave the ball away with little provocation numerous times last night, numerous times against Duke, and plenty of times in its other seven games so far this season. This has been a trend common among all of Michigan State's performances, so it's clear where the blame lies.

These are big problems. Michigan State deserves the benefit of the doubt, not only because of Izzo and the Spartans' past, but because there's simply too much talent on this team to write it off this early. But it's fair to worry about Michigan State going forward.

Question time: Can they be a Final Four team by the end of the year? Sure. Did they look like one last night? Not even close. Is Dec. 8 too soon to make rash judgements about a team with history of lame starts and strong finishes? Absolutely. Should MSU fans be a little worried anyway? I'd say so.


Tom Beno from Washington, D.C. writes: Do you think Michigan State was being given too much credit for their Final Four appearance last season? Every major publication dubbed them the clear cut No. 2 team in the nation coming in to the season. It seemed like analysts thought, '2010 Final Four team only losing 2 players and bringing in 3 top 100 guys, oh these guys are going to be good.' There was a reason MSU was a No. 5-seed last year heading into the tournament, and people are forgetting that because they made the Final Four.

Eamonn Brennan: Well, we should probably all just admit that preseason rankings are kind of silly. I mean, the reasons for them are valid -- it's a nice quick-glance way to look at who's supposed to be good in the coming months -- but the execution is always a little off. Teams get way too much credit for returning players (Florida) and highly touted freshmen (North Carolina); teams with big names get higher rankings than those with obscure conference affiliations. But then again, what else is there? Before the season starts, how are we supposed to know? The calculus always comes down to: Team X has Y returning players, plus Z recruiting class. Solve for: They're going to be good. For the purposes of the casual fan, I'm not sure if there's a better way.

That said, I disagree. Michigan State deserved to be the No. 2 team in the country coming in to the season. One, they went to the Final Four. Two, they did it with their best player in a medical boot. Three, they returned that player and pretty much everyone else. Four, who else was going to be No. 2? No, the Spartans were ranked properly. They have plenty of time to prove it, but they haven't do so thus far.


Ryan from Albany, N.Y. writes: Might be time to start giving Jimmy Boeheim some love. He loses three stars from last year's team and according your pre-game commentary Syracuse wasn't that good of a team this year. Then they go out and dismantle Michigan St. Oh, and by the way, Jimmy B is 5-1 against Izzo.

Brennan: It was also Boeheim's fourth win in a row over Izzo and the Spartans. As for giving "Jimmy B" (Boeheim is now apparently a Sopranos character) some "love," well, is that really necessary? After all, the man did win national coach of the year honors last season, and as he was doing so pretty much everyone was marveling at the fact that Boeheim had never been named coach of the year once before during his career. That had more to do with the vagaries of "coach of the year" awards than with the man himself, but the point remains: People are well aware Jim Boeheim is a very, very good coach. He has another very, very good team, a team that made a major statement after some early-season growing pains, and one that might gradually get better once it manages to find a consistent outside shot. I think Boeheim will get all the love he deserves this season and more.


@maggiehendricks writes: What is more likely to happen: My Missouri Tigers making the Final Four or Kim English being named the U.S. Poet Laureate?

Brennan: I'm going to go with the Final Four. Mizzou has looked plenty capable thus far this season, Mike Anderson is an excellent tournament coach, and Kim English is too focused on basketball to spend time worrying about poetry right now. (Plus, the poet laureate process is SO political.)


@DevineBoston writes: How hearty should my laughs at Providence College's 9-1 record be? Regular Campbell's Soup hearty or Chunky hearty?

Brennan: In so far as the degree of heartiness correlates to your disbelief in the Friars, I'm going to go with Chunky. How did we miss Providence's nonconference schedule? It's as bad as bad gets: Keno Davis's team has played no true road games and no high-major opponents. The closest they've come is a win over rebuilding Rhode Island at the Dunkin' Donuts Center. Mmm. Dunkin' Donuts. I could go for a donut right now.

Wait, what was I saying? Oh, right. Providence's record. Chunky. As in: don't get too excited.


@rmj_equals_hero writes: Is Virginia better than expectations more than Virginia Tech is worse than expectations?

Brennan: I'm not 100 percent sure how to answer this one. It kind of tied my brain into knots. So let's go with this: To my mind, Virginia has created the wider gap between preseason baseline expectation and current performance. Virginia Tech got a lot of love this preseason, but the Hokies also have a depleted front line, and for all the talk of Va. Tech challenging Duke and getting to the NCAA tournament, this was and is the same team that went to the NIT last season. Virginia has one bad loss (Stanford) and two understandable ones (Washington and Wichita State). But it's getting hard to argue that the Cavaliers have enough to compete and win on the road in the ACC this season. In fact, they've already done it. Is Virginia a tournament team? No. But they're playing much better than anyone could have expected.


Craig from Bowling Green, Ohio writes: Yo Eamonn! I know it's early in the week for Hoopsbag, but I wanted to ask while I was thinking about it. After some early season success, are Nebraska and Iowa State better than predicted? Or is the competition inflating their records? Thanks!

Brennan: Enthusiasm, people. It'll get you in the Hoopsbag every time.

As for the answer, Craig, well ... can it be both? Neither team has played a particularly daunting schedule, and both teams have lost to marginal opponents here and there. Nebraska fell to Davidson; Iowa State lost to UNI and Cal. But both teams have also, like Virginia above, looked a lot better than anyone could reasonably expect. Nebraska has a win over USC, which beat Texas at home, so go figure. And Iowa State has been especially impressive. Though the Cyclones don't own any marquee wins, both aforementioned losses were hard-fought single-digit affairs, and the Cyclones aren't messing around with lesser opponents, either. In fact, ISU is blowing them out.

Neither team is anywhere near the bubble yet; both teams are likely to struggle in the Big 12. But when you're expected to be as bad as both teams -- and especially Iowa State -- were to begin this season, these early results should be downright encouraging.