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

Friday, February 17, 2012
On the best Spartans team in a decade

By Eamonn Brennan

On yesterday's ESPNU College Basketball podcast, when Dana and I were previewing last night's Michigan State-Wisconsin tilt, I found myself uttering a question I hadn't really intended until it had already snuck out of my face and onto the microphone: "Is there any way Wisconsin wins in East Lansing tonight?"

My own doubt in the Badgers, or perhaps my belief in the Spartans, briefly shocked me. But I'm not sure why. It's time to go ahead and admit it to yourself if you haven't already: This is the best Michigan State team Tom Izzo has had in a decade, and maybe more.

Adreian Payne
Adreian Payne, 5, and Michigan State are playing some of the best defense in the country as the NCAA tournament nears.
Why? They're good at everything, really, but especially the things Izzo's best teams value most: Defense and rebounding. In 2003, the Spartans finished the season ranked No. 10 in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency metric. In 2009, they did the same. Those are the two best defensive seasons Michigan State has had in the past decade, and this team is already a) better on offense than either and, most importantly, b) better on defense, too. After last night's commanding win, in which a good Wisconsin team had almost nothing to offer in the way of an offensive challenge, the Spartans now rank No. 3 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. They're No. 3 overall, too.

As SI's Luke Winn pointed out in his always-excellent power rankings yesterday, Michigan State also happens to rebound both ends of the floor better than any team in the country this season. According to TeamRankings.com, which unlike most advanced stats sites tracks total rebound rate (or the percentage of available boards a team grabs on both ends of the floor, rather than just the offensive or defensive end), the Spartans are the best rebounding team in the nation, grabbing 57.3 percent of all available misses. (UNC is second at 57.1. percent. Tyler Zeller is a beast, folks.) As Luke writes:
In TeamRankings' database, which goes back to 1997-98, only 10 teams have finished a season with a total rebound rate of 57.5 percent or above, and three of them were among Tom Izzo's finest productions.

Those three teams, as you'll see from his handy chart,* were the 2001 Spartans (61.8 percent, No. 1 on the list), the 2000 Spartans (60.0 percent, No. 2) and the 1999 Spartans (57.7 percent, No. 7). As you might recall, those teams were really good. The 1999 and 2001 teams both went to the Final Four. The 2000 team, with Mateen Cleaves and Mo Peterson and the like, took home a national championship.

(*Quick aside: You know when you wish you were really good at something -- say, cooking -- and it just seems slightly outside your abilities, and you have a friend who seems effortlessly good at it, and you get really jealous? That's how I feel about Luke's charts. No writer in the country covering any sport, you name it, visualizes and presents data better than Mr. Winn. I don't even want to know how much time he spends putting them together each week, but they're always great. End aside.)

Izzo's teams almost always rebound the ball incredibly well (with rare exceptions -- here's looking at you, 2011), but only the 2009 team approached this kind of retrieval acumen on both sides of the floor. And that team wasn't quite as good as this one defensively, and -- oh yeah -- it wasn't quite as efficient on offense, either, especially at a comparable point in the respective seasons. Those 2009 and 2010 teams got better and better as late February and early March rolled along, peaking just in time for deep tournament runs. This season's team already has has those characteristics. It's already right there.

In summary, I thought our ESPN Home Court Twitter feed pretty much nailed it last night:
If Michigan State plays this way in March, no team is going to want to see them in their region. Offense. Defense. Rebounding. Coaching.

Boom. At this point in the season, there isn't an obvious weakness in this squad, a matchup problem that you can pick out and dissect, an obvious concern you can cite as the Spartans move forward toward March. This team is comprehensively good.

Does it mean the Spartans are perfect? Of course not. Are they going to be comprehensively good every time they take the floor? As last month's 42-41 loss at Illinois proves, well, no. And, of course, there are no guarantees in March. Anything can happen. (The standard disclaimer applies.) But whatever happens, the sample size is now large enough, and the results are in: This is the best all-around Michigan State team since 2001.

Will it share a similar fate? Time will tell. Considering where the Spartans were a year ago, their fans might do well to forget about the future, about potential, about the idea of a spot in the Final Four. For now, it's best to merely sit back and enjoy.