Illinois loss exposes truth about Michigan State -- but also some hope
Saturday was a gut-check for Michigan State at the Breslin Center, and the Spartans showed plenty in a frenzied but ultimately failed comeback attempt in a 79-74 loss to Illinois.
But for all the Spartans possess in fortitude, they lack in talent. At least the level of talent required to win a Big Ten title. Saturday’s loss essentially closed the door on Michigan State’s hopes of earning its fourth Big Ten championship in 5 years, but the clues have been evident for quite some time.
Much is made of how turnover-prone this Michigan State team is. And justifiably so. But the problems run deeper.
Spartans outclassed on the glass
Rebounding is the hallmark of Tom Izzo’s best teams.
Izzo’s 2000 national champions, by percentage, were sixth in the nation in offensive rebounding and second in defensive rebounding. Of the 7 teams he’s brought to the Final Four, 2015 was the only in which the Spartans were not a top-30 team in offensive or defensive rebounding.
And that makes sense. The 2015 Spartans were a 7-seed that made Michigan State’s most unlikely Final Four run.
Last season was Izzo’s worst at Michigan State since his rookie year of 1997. It was the first time since then that the Spartans finished below .500 in Big Ten play, and they snuck into the NCAA tournament field by virtue of making the First Four.
The most uncharacteristic aspect of that team? Average, rather than exceptional, rebounding. The Spartans were 91st nationally in offensive rebounding and 107th in defensive rebounding. It was the first time since 2004 — another Sparty 7-seed — that Michigan State was worse than 90th in both categories.
Michigan State’s offense is dramatically improved from a year ago, but rebounding remains an unlikely Achilles heel. The Spartans are a respectable if unspectacular 60th on the offensive glass, but only 126th in defensive rebounding.
No Izzo-coached team has ever ranked that low in defensive rebounding.
And that means that Michigan State had very little chance with Kofi Cockburn in the house on Saturday afternoon. The all-American Illinois center had 5 of the Illini’s 14 offensive rebounds.
Illinois turned its domination of the offensive glass into 19 second-chance points. Literally a quarter of the points scored by the Fighting Illini were off of their own misses.
Thus, the Spartans appear headed to the same general vicinity they go in those rare years that they can’t board — probably a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament.
Backcourt adjustment offers glimmer of hope
Michigan State’s overall trajectory is not cause for optimism, obviously. Its only win in the past 5 games came against an Indiana team that’s currently diving deeper than Jacques Cousteau.
But as 2015 demonstrated, an underwhelming regular season doesn’t necessarily inhibit the Spartans come March. And Izzo may have unlocked a key that could allow these Spartans to make a run of their own.
This season has been a frustrating rollercoaster at point guard, with the duties split between the tandem of AJ Hoggard and Tyson Walker. Both are capable of playing well, but inconsistently so. That’s been a major reason the Spartans are 280th in the country in turnovers.
But on Saturday, Izzo tweaked what has only been kinda-sorta working. Rather than alternating between Hoggard and Walker, he put them on the floor at the same time. Hoggard played the point in the second half while Walker played off the ball.
The results were stunning.
Walker had 26 points, scoring 24 of them in a scorching second half in which he went 9 of 10 from the field. And he didn’t turn it over once.
Hoggard had one of his finest games under the new arrangement, finishing with 15 points and 8 assists. He had 3 turnovers, but only 1 of those came in the second half.
From the looks of it, Hoggard played more relaxed basketball. Rather than glancing to the bench to see when he would get yanked for Walker, he was dishing it to Walker for assists. This could be a massive development for Michigan State’s long-term potential.
There’s no guarantee of this snowball rolling down the hill and turning into an unstoppable behemoth. Though the Fighting Illini were clearly unprepared for that tweak, every other Big Ten coach now has it on film.
Even if the new arrangement surprised them, the Illini are a fantastic defensive team. KenPom.com rates Illinois as second in the Big Ten and 25th nationally in defensive efficiency. Players don’t go off on Illinois the way Walker did in the second half.
In its final 5 regular-season games, Michigan State won’t run into a better defense. So if Izzo has stumbled onto something, we’re about to find out.
It’s too late for Michigan State to rally to the Big Ten’s regular-season title. And the rebounding struggles will not be going away. But if the new deployment of Hoggard and Walker can replicate Saturday’s performance with regularity, the Spartans might be able to overcome their flaws in Indianapolis and beyond.