Don't look now, but Michigan State's zombies are back atop the Big Ten
How very dumb of us.
Michigan State looked dead. For once. Finally.
After 3 straight Big Ten titles, the Spartans fell off the table completely in 2021. Michigan State made the NCAA tournament via the First Four, and it felt a whole lot like that happened purely because their jerseys said “Michigan State.”
The Spartans were selected a modest sixth in this year’s preseason poll, and which seemed precisely the right place to put them.
In a year where a preposterous 11 players were named first team preseason all-Big Ten, not one of them was a Spartan. Michigan State appeared to be a decidedly average basketball team waiting to happen.
Roughly one-third of the way through the Big Ten schedule, it’s easy to find the Spartans in the standings. They’re the ones alone at the top.
Pick against Izzo at your own risk
The preseason voters did get one thing right about this Michigan State team: there doesn’t look to be a first team all-Big Ten player in the bunch. It’s a tough list to crack this season with 3 Big Ten players in the national top 10 in scoring.
But even if that weren’t the case, the Spartans don’t have anyone putting up remarkable stats.
There are no Michigan State players in the top 15 of the Big Ten in scoring or in the top 10 in rebounding. Point guard Tyson Walker is third in the conference with 5.2 assists per game, but that’s as close to the top of the leaderboard as you’ll find a Spartan.
But there’s still Tom Izzo. And as we are again seeing, no coach in the B1G gets more out of the 5 he has on the floor.
Michigan State makes up for its lack of star power with balance. As expected of an Izzo team, the Spartans can defend and rebound. MSU is second in the Big Ten in defensive field-goal percentage and third in rebounding.
But by far the biggest difference from last season is their aptitude from 3-point range. Last year’s Spartans were the worst 3-point shooting team of Izzo’s career, finishing 252nd in the country. (And no, his tenure does not predate the 3-point shot, even if it may feel that way.)
After Friday night’s 86-74 win over Wisconsin to move into sole possession of first place in the B1G, Michigan State is seventh nationally behind the arc. The Spartans have made 39.2% of their 3s.
As a result, they find themselves in the pole position to win the program’s 11th Big Ten title under Izzo.
But if one thing has been made perfectly clear in the first portion of the conference schedule, it’s that getting to the finish line won’t be easy.
Illinois game looms large
The Spartans are in the middle of their toughest two-game road trip of the conference schedule, following up the win at Wisconsin with a trip to Illinois on Tuesday night.
Most would have predicted the Spartans and Illini to enter that game tied atop the league standings, but Illinois was stunned at Maryland on Friday night.
Granted, the result wasn’t necessarily stunning given that the Fighting Illini were without all-America center Kofi Cockburn. The bigger issue for Illinois is that Cockburn suffered a concussion in the team’s Monday loss to Purdue, and thus might not be ready to play against Michigan State.
Another linchpin to Illinois’ offense wasn’t quite there physically in the Maryland loss. Andre Curbelo, absent since Nov. 23 due to a concussion of his own, finally returned against Purdue. But Curbelo clearly expended himself in that double-overtime defeat, because his legs weren’t there against the Terrapins Friday night. He only scored 4 points in 14 minutes.
Those facts loom crucially over Tuesday night’s game.
If Cockburn and Curbelo can play and are at full strength and stamina, there’s a very good chance Illinois wins. Michigan State will then find itself in the middle of a logjam of 2-loss teams tied for the B1G lead.
But if Cockburn can’t go, or Curbelo just doesn’t have the legs to play against a physical defense yet, the Spartans would pick up a massive road win over the foe best positioned to make a run at the conference crown. Michigan State would have 2-game lead on Illinois with a tiebreaker to boot.
Turnovers are potential Achilles heel
Whether against Illinois or beyond, it’s pretty clear what’s going to cost Michigan State games this season.
The Spartans are too sloppy.
Michigan State is turning it over 14.5 times per game, which is easily the worst rate in the conference. The Spartans are nearly a full turnover a game worse than Illinois, which is 13th in the B1G with 13.8 turnovers a game.
From a national perspective, Michigan State is 287th nationally in turnover rate. Per KenPom.com, the Spartans turn it over on 20.7% of possessions. Of the teams rated worse than Michigan State in that category, only Oklahoma looks like a possible NCAA tournament team. It’s rarely company winning teams keep.
If the Spartans find a way to clean it up, they have a chance to stay in their usual Big Ten perch. But if they don’t, the B1G has far too many talented teams hot on their trail for another year to be added to Breslin Center’s Big Ten championship banners.