Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are recurring issues holding MSU basketball back, or are they necessary growing pains?

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?

1. Turnovers

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.

MSU needs to continue improving on the field, alter their reputation to become BCS contenders

Not long after Mark Dantonio took over as Michigan State’s football coach in 2006, he explained his plan for turning the Spartans into a BCS caliber program:
“Our first step was to try to get to a bowl game, and I think we did that in ’07…Our next goal was to try to go to a New Year’s Day bowl game (which they did in the 2008 season), and our next step is to go to a BCS championship-type game.”
In spite of a 2010 regular season in which the Spartans went 11-1 and won a share of the Big Ten Championship, they were still left out of the BCS. This left many MSU fans screaming about a BCS conspiracy and their overall lack of national respect. After all, they could make a pretty strong argument that they were more deserving of a BCS bid than Wisconsin, who they beat head to head, and Ohio State.

Unfortunately, the Spartan football team has not yet moved beyond the point where a single strong season can prevent them from getting overlooked on a national level. Part of that is due to the program’s less than stellar track record over the past two decades, and part of it is due to the negative perception that the nation has attached to the Big Ten in general after their disappointing showings in BCS Bowl Games in recent years.

Mark Dantonio may not have initially realized it, but changing the nation’s perception of the Spartan football program plays a role in the process that he needs to take before his teams can begin to make it to BCS games as he desires. While the BCS touts itself as a mathematical system that in part considers a team’s overall record and strength of schedule, popularity and perception are subjective variables that also come into play when teams are ranked and even selected to go to prestigious bowl games. That is why the Spartans lost out on BCS bids to Wisconsin and Ohio State last season.

The Spartans must convince the nation and pollsters that they are a legitimate football power, and not just a one year wonder or some paper tiger that scraped by with an easy schedule. Changing their national image will not only involve holding up their end of the bargain on the field - meaning less blowout losses and more last second wins on trick plays that have catchy names when they are on national TV - but it will also take some extensive lobbying and PR work.

Coach Dantonio finally seemed to realize the political game that is involved in college football at the end of last season. The usually quiet and low-key coach affirmatively went to the media and lobbied hard for his Spartans to get a BCS bid over Wisconsin over Ohio State. His Spartans ultimately lost out on that bid to their more established conference rivals, but Dantonio made sure that America and the respective bowl committees were fully aware of what his team had accomplished.

Sure, it would have helped his long-term case had his Spartans not gone on to lose to Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl, but at least the national media thought about Michigan State as a football school after Dantonio implored them to consider his team based upon the merits of their season, as opposed to any preconceptions that may have had about the Spartans as a program.

On the field, the Spartans are steadily making progress. As recently as a year ago the local media would frequently throw the phrase “same old Spartans” around whenever they would collapse or lose a game that they were supposed to win. Ironically, after a season in which they won every game that they were supposed to win, and then even found a way to win a few more that they weren’t, the Spartans were written off by many as overrated or lucky. To me, that sounds as if Mark Dantonio has his Spartans on the right track.

Changing the perception of a program is not an overnight process, but as long as the Spartans keep improving on the field, their final step in becoming a BCS contender is making sure that the rest of the nation knows about them.