Of the teams that began the season ranked in the top five of the ESPN/USA Today poll, three have more or less stayed right where they were. Duke, Ohio State, and Pitt are a combined 40-1, and all three are still atop the rankings nine weeks into the season. But you may have noticed things haven't gone quite so smoothly for Kansas State and Michigan State.
The Wildcats have had to deal with the temporary suspensions of Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly, of course, but even at full strength Frank Martin's team mustered just 44 points in a 13-point loss to unranked Florida on December 18. Pullen has now returned to action for a team that's 12-3 and ranked No. 17.
Nor has the early season been particularly kind to Tom Izzo's Spartans. At 10-4 and ranked No. 19 by the coaches, MSU is a long way away from where they were expected to be in early January.
Now, I realize that it seems like Michigan State does this all the time. Seeing the Spartans struggle and indeed lose games has put the "early" in "early-season" in each of the past few years, and you may have noticed that Izzo's team keeps reaching the Final Four anyway. Why worry this time around?
Because this team isn't scoring enough points. True, the Spartans have played a brutal schedule. MSU's four losses (to Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse, and Texas) have all come to teams currently ranked in the top 12 in the polls. But even allowing for that schedule -- one no tougher than what four-loss West Virginia, for example, has faced -- MSU has underperformed on offense.
Here are the things you need to know in order to worry knowledgeably about Michigan State in 2011:
The Spartans play a tough early-season schedule every year.
It may seem like the gauntlet Michigan State has had to run this season is unusual, but in fact the Spartans' strength of schedule over their first 14 games is about the same as what they faced coming out of the gate two seasons ago and only a little tougher than what it was last year. (In each of the past three seasons MSU's first 14 games have included matchups against Texas, Oakland, and a road game at Northwestern.) And while Izzo's team has lost some games in November and December in each of those years, what's different this time around is the way they're losing. Two seasons ago Final Four-bound Michigan State was 12-2 after 14 games, having scored 1.13 points per possession. Last year the Final Four-bound Spartans were 11-3 while scoring 1.15 points per trip. This season? Izzo's offense is recording just 1.05 points per possession.
Turnovers aren't the problem.
Or, more precisely, turnovers are always a problem in East Lansing, so there's no use sounding that particular alarm this season. At this point turnovers are simply part of the Spartans' genetic code. Against major-conference opponents this year MSU's given the ball away on 23 percent of their possessions. That's bad, sure, but it's not all that much worse than the turnover rates MSU's posted in Big Ten play the past two years (21 and 22 percent in 2010 and 2009, respectively). The real problem is what happens the 77 percent of the time that Michigan State doesn't commit a turnover. On these "effective" possessions, ones where they don't cough up the ball, the Spartans are averaging 1.30 points per trip against major-conference opponents. And while that number's a hair above average, expectations for this team were and still are a good bit higher than "a hair above average."
Shooting is the problem.
Specifically two-point shooting. The Spartans' "big three" of Kalin Lucas, Draymond Green, and Durrell Summers has taken a step back this season in terms of efficiency close to the basket. Last year the trio made 51 percent of their twos. So far this season that number has dropped to 47 percent. (Nor has the absence of 54 percent two-point shooter Raymar Morgan helped matters. Everyone was always yelling at the enigmatic Morgan to "play up to his potential." Well, maybe he had a bigger impact on his team's potential than people realized.) Lucas, of course, is recovering from an Achilles' heel injury, but what's more puzzling and perhaps troubling for Spartan fans has been the fall-off in Green's two-point accuracy. Is the do-it-all junior simply being asked to do too much? (Assists, rebounds at both ends of the floor, post defense, scoring, etc.) Whatever the reason may be, Green's accuracy inside the arc has dropped from 55 to 49 percent.
The Final Four banners hanging in the rafters of the Breslin Center in East Lansing suggest it would be foolish if not sheer lunacy to count out any team coached by Tom Izzo, and I most certainly am not counting out Michigan State. But I am seeing that this edition of the Spartans is, so far, performing below the level set by past MSU teams. For Izzo's remarkable streak of Final Four appearances to continue, Michigan State's offense is going to have to improve. And with games upcoming at Wisconsin, at Illinois, and at home against Purdue, now would be a really good time for the Spartans to start improving.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John also offers carefully hedged pre-mortems on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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