I take two things as given this week. One, I'll see more "Over/under on 'Hoosiers' references this week?" statements than I will see actual references to "Hoosiers." And two, Michigan State will occasion more incorrect statements than any other team in Indy. It won't even be close.
So as a public service, I'm offering Gasaway's Amazing Portable Reality Kit for you to take with you to Indy or to your couch, as the case may be.
These Spartans aren't just lucky, they're different.
This morning's Wall Street Journal makes the point that, historically speaking, Michigan State hasn't exactly been blowing opponents away in the tournament. The Spartans have won four games by a total of 13 points, giving Tom Izzo's men the lowest overall scoring margin of any Final Four team in the modern era. (By comparison, North Carolina's smallest winning margin in any single game in the tournament last year was 12 points.) Ordinarily we here at Prospectus are in the habit of waggling a stern finger at lucky teams and proclaiming that doom will surely ensue. In fact we did just that this year with a flock of overrated three- and four-seeds and the finger-waggling turned out to be rather prescient.
But when speaking of a lucky Final Four team, doom doesn't have as much room to operate. Michigan State, however they happened to get here, is now just 125 possessions away from a national championship, give or take. And in a four-team single-elimination tournament bereft of any 2010 lottery picks, the task before even a lucky team is, as my mom might say, no hill for a climber.
Only thing. Don't say that this team got here with Izzo-like "defense and rebounding." Izzo would like it that way, sure, but the truth is this team is here for two reasons pretty much diametrically opposed to “defense and rebounding,” namely offense and perimeter skill. If the Spartans weren’t making 41 percent of their threes in the tournament (not to mention devoting 35 percent of their shots to attempts from beyond the arc), they would have long since been sent back to East Lansing at the hands of Tennessee, Maryland, or perhaps even New Mexico State.
And as for the rebounding, don’t be surprised if there’s very little of it on either offensive end in this game. Butler, of course, forfeits offensive boards in the name of transition D. But Michigan State may find it difficult to do much on the offensive glass as well. Thus far in the tournament the Spartans have rebounded 37 percent of their misses, which, ordinarily, would qualify as a pretty healthy number. For Izzo’s men, however, it actually represents a step down from what they were able to do in the crazy-for-defensive-rebounding Big Ten (39 percent). Not to mention Butler’s already denied offensive boards to two excellent offensive rebounding teams, Syracuse and Kansas State. It’s not too much of a stretch to envision them doing the same thing to Michigan State.
It took three players, but Izzo has effectively replaced Kalin Lucas.
I realize it was just a couple games ago when Lucas went down, but there’s much to be learned from the preferences a coach displays in late March, even if technically the “sample size” is quite small. And in the tournament the Michigan State offense has unmistakably and indeed quite successfully revolved around Durrell Summers. In tournament play the junior from Detroit has personally accounted for 33 percent of the Spartans’ shots during his minutes, a level of prominence that exceeds what we saw over the course of the entire season from unabashed above-the-title types like DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmer Fredette, and Omar Samhan. Summers has been virtually unstoppable over the last four games (most especially over the last three), making not only 53 percent of his threes but also, by my count, more than half of his long two-point jumpers as well. He is quite simply The Man for this post-Lucas team.
While Summers has absorbed the shots that used to be attempted by Lucas, the point-guard duties have been split between Korie Lucious and Draymond Green. Yes, Draymond Green: Izzo's spoken in terms of Green getting a few possessions at the point but, if my eyes and Green’s tournament numbers are any indication, the coach is being disingenuous. We’re talking about more than just a few possessions here. Call Green a point guard, a David Padgett-style point forward, or a point dancing bear for that matter. Under any name he’s clearly been this team's most effective source of assists over the last four games, dishing 14 of the things while committing just six turnovers in the 160 tournament possessions he's played.
It doesn't matter if Matt Howard gets into foul trouble. (And he will.)
Howard's a starter who plays in the post with his back to the basket, so our eyes are in the habit of thinking "Well, he must be an indispensable part of this team's success." And, sure, Brad Stevens would be delighted to have Howard on the floor for 30-plus minutes like the junior was against Syracuse. But by this point in the season the Bulldogs are, goodness knows, well acquainted with the occasional state of Howardlessness. More importantly, the difference between foul trouble and no foul trouble for Howard is customarily just ten minutes or so. And the impact on the game of Howard being absent for 15 possessions is not nearly as great as the announcers will have you believe. Whether Howard is on the floor or not, Butler's shots will be taken by Shelvin Mack (whose tournament numbers are eerily similar to Summers') and Gordon Hayward. And on those occasions when Howard hasn't been on the floor, those same two players--Mack and Hayward--have been able to take care of business on the defensive glass over the last four games.
It does matter if Butler forces turnovers.
The Bulldogs play outstanding defense--ask Syracuse or Kansas State--and Durrell Summers should definitely be getting ready to make the acquaintance of one Ronald Nored. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in East Lansing this week as they watch tape of Nored defending K-State's Jacob Pullen. However the Spartans are planning to free up Summers in this game, they have to know that plain old ball screens or screens off the ball weren't terribly successful for Pullen and the Wildcats.
That being said, Butler's team defense is predicated less on total Nored-like blanket coverage from five players and more on either forcing turnovers or, failing that, making role players on the opposing team take jump shots. The Bulldogs' tournament opponents have given the ball away on one in every four trips, but when those vanquished foes held onto the thing they actually fared OK, averaging 1.19 points per effective (TO-less) possession. For comparison's sake, West Virginia ranks first in this stat in Indy, allowing just 1.13 points per effective trip. (Michigan State's D is last at 1.26 but, again, MSU is currently doing its best Florida 2007 impression, outscoring opponents and not sweating nerd candy like "defense.")
Izzo's team labors under a presumption that they commit a lot of turnovers but, even post-Lucas, the Spartans have done a pretty good job taking care of the ball to this point in the tournament. Then again that ability will receive its most severe test from Butler. I realize that on any given Michigan State possession Lucious looks a lot like someone who was voted Most Likely to Commit a Turnover in high school, but actually the worst offender here of late has been Raymar Morgan, who’s given the ball away 14 times in 189 personal tournament possessions. In any event, MSU's response to a fundamentally sound half-court defense that nevertheless creates turnovers will go a long way toward determining which team will be the surprise entrant in Monday night's game for all the marbles.
John often dispenses quotes from Gasaway's Amazing Portable Reality Kit on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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