Over the Tom Izzo era, several recurring issues have plagued the men’s Michigan State Basketball Team. These include a propensity to turn the ball over, a weakness defending the three point shot, and an inability to consistently shoot from the perimeter.
Are these issues simply a matter of going through the early season growing pains that are necessary to produce a Tom Izzo caliber Final Four team? Or are they areas where there is room for improvement in order for Michigan State to become one of the truly elite programs that their opponents fear year round, and not just during the NCAA tournament?
One of the biggest weaknesses for Spartan basketball in the Tom Izzo era has been their propensity to turn the ball over. The Spartans have averaged 14.2 turnovers a game since 1999-2000. Over that span they have finished last or second to last in the Big Ten in turnovers 6 times. This is in spite of the fact that they have had no shortage of talented point guards. Even with Kalin Lucas, Marcus Taylor, Drew Neitzel and Mateen Cleaves running the offense, their Spartan teams still turned the ball over at an alarming rate.
While Tom Izzo has always preached responsibility for his players when it comes to turnovers, especially with his point guards, at some point he must look at the design of his offense and not just at the players running it.
Tom Izzo’s “Weave” is a precision based offense. When it is clicking on all cylinders come March, it is virtually impossible to scout and defend. When he has new players or those who are out of sync with their rotations that are running it, the results can at times look ugly.
The Spartans did experiment with a “Drag” spread motion offense at times last season, and perhaps adding more of a simplistic freelance offense like that into the mix can help counter some of their notorious early setbacks. The question remains as to whether employing a second offensive philosophy will hinder them from ultimately mastering their half-court sets and becoming a well-oiled team come March.
2. Opponents' three point shooting
Another problem for the Spartans has been their inability to defend the three point shot. Many Spartan fans have become frustrated watching Michigan State’s opponents knock down wide open three after wide open three, especially early in the season.
It seems as if Tom Izzo is primarily concerned with stopping easy baskets inside. In return, he is willing to let his opponents take a less than stellar shots from outside. Unfortunately, especially early in the season, Izzo’s players can be a little slow in recognizing their defensive rotations and help assignments, which leads to too many open looks from outside.
Fortunately, the Spartans inability to defend the perimeter early in the season simply seems to be a matter of Izzo’s players learning their responsibilities in his “Help-Side Defense,” as it has rarely been an ongoing problem as a season progresses.
We all know that one of the overall strengths the Michigan State basketball program over the past decade has been their defense. Given their results at that end of the floor come tournament time, it’s pretty tough to argue with their philosophy, even if it does take them a little while to get to the point that we’ve all come to expect early in the season.
3. Offensive perimeter shooting
Speaking of the perimeter, it’s as equally maddening to watch the Michigan State's outside shooters miss wide open shots as it is to see their opponents consistently knock them down.
There is no question that the Spartans have struggled with their outside shooting in recent years. This has especially been highlighted by their struggles against zone defenses, and in particular, the 1-3-1.
It’s not surprising that some of the best Spartan teams in recent memory in 2000 and 2009 featured big men like A.J. Granger and Goran Suton who could step outside and consistently knock down long range shots. Both were instrumental in shooting over and extending defenses in their respective runs to National Championship Games.
Finally having a true sharp shooter like redshirt freshman Russell Byrd (if he is recovered from two years worth of foot surgeries) should help remedy Michigan State's outside shooting problems, although the Spartans still have had enough upperclassmen who have had significant shooting slumps to conclude their careers (Jason Klein, Mike Chappell, Adam Ballinger, Chris Hill, Durrell Summers and even Drew Neitzel all come to mind) that there is still some reason to be concerned with their perimeter shooting as a program.
Tom Izzo’s offensive and defensive schemes are both very precise systems. It’s almost as if he gives his players just enough rope to hang themselves by letting them do things “their way” early in the season, and then implores them to come back to him when they are ready to do things “his way” later in the year in order to win. When his players do buy-in and start to gel, they are on par with the nation’s elite programs.
The question remains whether Michigan State basketball will always be a team that takes several months to come together, or whether there is still some room in which to improve and compete with the nation’s elite - not only come tournament time, but all season long as well.