Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Basketball Nation [Print without images]

Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Summer Buzz: Michigan State Spartans

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Michigan State Spartans.

On May 5, when Gary Williams retired from his longtime post at Maryland, I wrote that part of the coach's appeal -- especially to my formative teenage eyes -- was how hard he always appeared to be working. Some coaches can coolly stand on the sideline. Others roll up their sleeves and sweat it out. Williams was the poster child for the latter.

Tom Izzo
Tom Izzo's Spartans didn't rebound last season like they have been known to do in the past.
Tom Izzo isn't far behind. Whether his teams are great or middling -- and they're usually great -- the Michigan State coach always appears to be working through one of the most challenging mental puzzles of his lifetime. His in-game antics are ebullient. His defeated stares are legendary. His post-game news conferences can be brutally honest whether he's talking about his team's performance or his own coaching decisions. Everything always looks hard. And then, in February and March, something miraculous usually happens: The struggles pay off. The team melds together. The coach looks suddenly pleased. And the Spartans go on a run that few of us ever see coming.

That's the Michigan State we've come to know. But 2010-11 was different. Game after game, week after week, we kept waiting for the Spartans to bounce out of the funk that had seemingly afflicted them in their brutal nonconference schedule. We kept giving Izzo the benefit of the doubt. The Spartans kept struggling. And while they managed to get a few key wins down the stretch -- enough to make the NCAA tournament -- there was no tournament run to be had here. Michigan State lost in the first round to UCLA, finishing 19-15 overall. And that was that.

The question is, what happened? What caused a team ranked No. 2 in the country to begin the season, one with so many returning pieces from two straight Final Four runs, to bottom out in such spectacular fashion? Or, more accurately: What has to change in 2011-12?

The first affliction, one that couldn't really be helped, was personnel. Guard Chris Allen was dismissed from the team during the summer, and his absence proved more important than anyone, perhaps even Izzo, had realized. Korie Lucious' midseason dismissal (and eventual transfer) played a role, too. The loss of Raymar Morgan to graduation, underrated by so many pundits last offseason, robbed MSU of a vital interior rebounding presence.

But for all the off-court issues that beguiled Izzo, there's no question the Spartans underachieved on the court, too. Why? Offense.

In 2011, the Spartans' adjusted offensive efficiency was the lowest in Izzo's past nine seasons at the school. Per Ken Pomeroy, the Spartans scored 1.09 points per possession in 2012, good for the No. 62 ranking in all of college hoops. In the past nine seasons, Izzo has never fielded a team that scored fewer than 1.10 adjusted ppp; the closest he came was in 2003, when the Spartans scored exactly that. Meanwhile, the Michigan State defense -- a unit ranked No. 30 in the nation, allowing opponents .92 ppp -- hovered right around where it usually does. To use scientific jargon I haven't busted out since fifth grade lab experiments, defense was the constant. Offense was the variable.

Why did the Spartans' offense droop? You can't blame shooting or turnovers. Or, put another way: You could, but you'd be missing the point. Michigan State didn't excel in either category last season, but those are constants, too. Take a gander at the Spartans' Four Factors in 2009 and 2010, two years that ended in Final Four appearances:

Michigan State 2009:
Effective Field Goal Percentage: 49.8 (No. 139)
Turnover Rate: 20.7 (No. 198)
Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 40.7 (No. 6)
FTA/FGA: 36.6 (No. 201)

Michigan State 2010:
Effective Field Goal Percentage: 51.6 (No. 58)
Turnover Rate: 21.3 (No. 221)
Offensive Rebounding Percentage 39.7 (No. 10)
FTA/FGA: 36.9 (No. 188)

Now take a look at the Spartans' Four Factors in 2011:

Michigan State 2011:
Effective Field Goal Percentage: 48.6 (No. 190)
Turnover Rate: 20.2 (No. 179)
Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 35.3 (No. 70)
FTA/FGA: 36.6 (No. 201)

Sure, the Spartans shot worse last season than they did in the previous two seasons, but it's not like they ever set the world ablaze. Sure, the Spartans committed a ton of turnovers in 2010-11 -- this was frequently cited as a reason for Michigan State's struggles, especially early in the season -- but Izzo's team actually committed fewer turnovers per possession than in either of the previous two seasons. And in all three years, the Spartans never got to the free throw line at a particularly high rate.

No, the difference is clear: Michigan State didn't rebound its own misses. Rebounding has long been a cornerstone of Izzo's success at Michigan State. His brutal, exhausting rebounding drills are renowned. Thanks to that rebounding, the Spartans have long been able to mask other deficiencies; the offensive glass was always the best possible Plan B. Without that rebounding, they simply stopped scoring.

There is some reason to believe this problem won't be quite as pronounced in 2011. For one, forward Draymond Green -- who led the way on the glass last season despite his propensity to step outside and shoot jumpers -- is back for his senior season. So is forward Delvon Roe, who is hoping to have a truly healthy season for the first time in his Michigan State career. (This process is not off to the most encouraging start.)

More important will be the emergence of a group of young and/or little-used big men, all of whom showed promise on the glass last season. Derrick Nix returned from a team hiatus to 14.7 percent of available offensive rebounds in limited minutes last season. Freshman Adreian Payne, a rangy, athletic player who looks like what you'd dream up in a lab if you wanted to find an active rebounder, grabbed 11.8 percent of available offensive boards.

Izzo's guards shared plenty of blame for the season's disappointments, to be sure. Guard Kalin Lucas, a popular preseason All-American pick, never really found his rhythm, and small forward Durrell Summers tortured Michigan State fans with his willingness to slip in and out of games; Summers could seemingly lose interest at any time, even the most opportune.

But more than anything, Michigan State's failures came because the Spartans weren't the Spartans. For whatever improvement MSU can make by limiting turnovers and shooting more efficiently, the biggest and most important thing Michigan State can do is to be Michigan State again. That means, quite simply, that it has to rebound.

When the Spartans do so, the Final Four is always in reach. When they don't, Izzo's methods -- his frustrated mannerisms, his blunt honesty and his brilliant situational tactics -- amount to little more than window-dressing for otherwise mediocre basketball.

That's the lesson of 2011. Will MSU apply it to 2011-12?