By Patrick Vint on February 2, 2021 at 3:35 pm
A lyin' in winter
© Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC


TIME 6:00 pm CT
WHERE Carver Hawkeye Arena
TV Fox Sports One
RADIO Learfield Affiliates
STREAM Fox Sports Live
LINE Iowa -9.5
KENPOM Iowa -11
12-4 RECORD 8-6
6-3 CONF. 2-6
124.5 (2nd) OFF. EFF. 107.9 (73rd)
97.7 (96th) DEF. EFF. 94.4 (51st)
70.6 POSS. 69.8
55.9 (17th) eFG% 49.0 (210th)

We've finally reached February, where most Iowa teams either catch fire or crash and burn.  And so it begins with the annual death sentence that is the Michigan State Spartans, Tuesday night in CHA.

Then again, Sparta's already burning.  You'd be hard pressed to find a team that has struggled more in its own conference than Michigan State.  Entering the Big Ten season, Sparty was 6-0 with wins over Duke and Notre Dame.  They rose as high as tenth in the Kenpom rankings.  But the Big Ten has been unkind, with the Spartans sandwiching two wins (against woeful Nebraska and stuttering Rutgers) around a pair of three-game losing streaks.  Rutgers beat them by 30 in the return trip last week.  THIRTY.  RUTGERS.


The biggest problem for Michigan State has obviously been scoring.  The Spartans have only broken 70 points twice in Big Ten play, and the last of those was a month ago against still-woeful Nebraska.  They scored just 54 in a home loss to Purdue, 62 in a loss at Ohio State last week, and THIRTY-SEVEN POINTS in that loss at Rutgers.  The sub-50 effective field goal rate is particularly bad; just Nebraska and Minnesota have worse effective rates among Big Ten teams.  They're also turning the ball over at a rather high clip, one out of every five possessions.

The Tom Izzo modus operandi has always been to live with mediocre shooting and high turnover rates, though, because Sparty's tenacious rebounding made up all the difference.  Extra possessions led to easy putback points, and fear of the offensive rebound prevented teams from leaking guards downcourt in transition.  So when you combine the bad things above with a very un-Sparty-like offensive rebounding rate (30.1%, 102nd), you have the makings of a fairly horrendous offense.  By way of comparison, Michigan State hasn't shot this poorly since 2010-11, and is rebounding fewer of its own misses than any Spartan squad since 2016-17.  Both of those teams lost 15 games.  In a full season, this team looks to be on that path.

The fact is, this looks like a 20th Century basketball team.  The three Spartans with the highest usage rates -- in essence, the guys whose play ends the most possessions -- all have efficiency ratings at or below 107.  By way of comparison, there is only one guy in Iowa's rotation (Joe Toussaint) who is below 110.  As a team, the Spartans are shooting 32.7% from three, and that's artificially high; the starting five is 59/199 from behind the arc on the season.  That's 29.6%.  The only Power 5 teams shooting that poorly from three are Miami, Kentucky and Ole Miss.  Aaron Henry (6'6", 210) leads the team in scoring (13.1 ppg) and assists (3.4 apg), but has taken 43 three-point shots in 14 games and made nine of them.  Point guard Rocket Watts (6'2", 185) has been hardly better, shooting 28% from three and an even-more-unpalatable 35% from two.  He's second on the Spartans in shot attempts and posting a sub-40 effective field goal rate.  That's simply unsustainable.  Joshua Langford (6'5", 200, 8.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg) fills out the backcourt, with Foster Loyer (6'0", 175, 4.9/1.6/2.1) back for yet another season; Loyer has been Michigan State's most efficient player by miles, and shoots 41% from three.  Izzo naturally has him playing 16 minutes a game off the bench. 

On the interior, Marquette transfer Joey Hauser (6'9", 220) has provided a bit of Michigan State's usual size in the post.  Hauser is second on the team in scoring (11.3 ppg), leads the Spartans in rebounding (7.4 rpg), and is by far the most problematic offensive player in the starting lineup.  Still, he's playing center in this Big Ten at 6'9" with only junior Marcus Bingham (6'11", 225, 2.7/2.4) and freshman Mady Sissoko (6'9", 235, 0.9/1.9) providing about 15 minutes a game in the post off the bench.  Junior Thomas Kithier (6'8", 230, 3.1/3.1) starts at power forward but earns a "nearly invisible" rating from Kenpom for his lack of production; sophomore Malik Hall (6'7", 225, 5.5/5.1) gets more minutes than Kithier and does more with them, but is hardly setting the Big Ten afire.  

That lack of frontcourt height also contributes to Sparty's trouble on defense.  Izzo's teams have never been focused on turnovers -- MSU has been in the national bottom 50 in turnover creation since 2013-14 and haven't ranked in the top half nationally since 2003-04 -- as Izzo's preference has always been to contest shots, force the ball out of the paint, and dominate the glass.  In the last ten years, MSU has finished the season with a top-10 effective field goal rate defense four times, and only fell out of the top 30 once.  This year, the Spartans are 92nd in effective field goal rate defense.  Again, it's unsustainable in this league, especially when their rebounding is lackluster.

If there's a risk for Iowa, it's this: Michigan State is first nationally in assists per field goal made.  They've been first nationally in that stat for each of the last four years, and have been no worse than seventh nationally since the 2014-15 season.  Iowa's defense, on the other hand, is 322nd nationally in assists per field goal made allowed; only Purdue, Syracuse and Texas A&M are worse among Power 5 conference teams.  Part of that is structural: Iowa's played a ton of zone defense this year, which inevitably leads to a lot of assists (that's why Syracuse is in that group; same goes for Buzz Williams at Texas A&M).  But it also indicates that Michigan State is fully equipped to break down a zone defense through ball movement.  Does that ball movement win out over the tepid perimeter shooting?  The answer to that question might be the difference in this game.

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