If I were somehow given the ability to create an alternate hoops reality and I wanted to whip up an exceptionally underrated team from scratch, here's how I'd go about it:
I'd have my team enter the season unranked.
Then I'd make sure my team started the season 0-2.
Once my team got to conference play I'd see to it that they lost a couple close road games.
And, maybe most important of all, I'd make sure my underrated group isn't even the best team in its own conference.
But of course I don't need to do any of the above, because there's a real-life team that answers to this description. That team is Michigan State, and, yes, they are indeed exceptionally underrated.
After entering the season just outside the top 25, the Spartans ensured that they'd stay that way by recording perhaps the most memorable 0-2 stretch in the history of November basketball. First Tom Izzo's team lost a game on an aircraft carrier to North Carolina, a contest watched by President Obama and just about every other hoops fan in the country. Then MSU went to Madison Square Garden and gave Duke's Mike Krzyzewski his career-win-record-setting victory at Madison Square Garden.
The Spartans then reeled off 15 straight wins, before losing back-to-back road games by single digits (at Northwestern and Michigan). As a result Izzo's team today sports a very normal-looking 6-2 record in Big Ten play. Moreover if you ask me who's the best team in the conference, my answer's not going to be "Michigan State." (Well, "State," yes. I'll let you guess the first part. No, not "Penn.") So what leads me to believe the Big Ten's second-best team is a first-class threat to reach New Orleans in April? Allow me to offer my thoughts....
An offense even Izzo can't fret about (or shouldn't)
Michigan State's head coach has a reputation as someone who likes to worry about his team's alleged shortcomings. You can't argue with success, of course, and if worrying gets the job done then it might fairly be said that Izzo has worried his way to six Final Fours. But even Izzo has to really stretch to find anything worrisome on offense this year. This is the best shooting team seen in East Lansing in years, and, as always, the Spartans are excelling on the offensive glass -- MSU leads the Big Ten in both categories in conference play. Even turnovers, long a weakness for Izzo's teams, have been brought under control this season. Add it all up and you get an offense that's been scoring 1.15 points per trip against Big Ten opponents, tops in the league.
To this point in the season MSU's outscored their conference opponents by 0.19 points per possession. That number reflects just eight games' worth of action, to be sure, and I pledge to keep you posted on further developments. In the meantime, however, it's certainly worth noting that this is a significantly larger in-conference scoring margin than what was achieved by the Final Four teams of 2009 (+0.13) or 2010 (+0.08). I've found a good rule of thumb is that if you're outscoring your major-conference opponents by 0.15 points per trip you have serious Final Four potential. (There are, however, no guarantees. Ask Kansas about any recent year.) Right now Michigan State is clearing that threshold with room to spare.
Izzo frets less when he has this kind of depth
This season the Spartans are utilizing an eight-man rotation, and, as is often the case with a Tom Izzo team, there's a clear line to be drawn within that group. Draymond Green, Keith Appling, and Brandon Wood are the mainstays. After those three there are no fewer than five Spartans averaging between 17 and 21 minutes a game: Branden Dawson, Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne, Travis Trice, and Austin Thornton. The next time you hear someone complaining about today's demanding college players and how they're always clamoring for more touches on offense and more minutes on the floor, think of the Spartans. Izzo has thrived for years now by somehow convincing a significant portion of his roster to be happy playing roughly 50 percent of the minutes. It's a fairly unique approach, one that clearly works for Izzo.
Brandon Wood proves the right stats can be enlightening
One recurring question in basketball circles has long been the relationship between work load on offense and efficiency. Wood is a walking, talking illustration of this relationship. Taking advantage of the NCAA rule that allows eligible players who have graduated to play immediately at a new school (a rule Izzo's benefited from but also, somewhat oddly, criticized), Wood made an instant transition from being the featured scorer in a Horizon League offense (Valparaiso) to being a supporting player for a Big Ten offense. As a result his scoring average has plummeted (from 17 points a game to nine), but Wood is actually more effective now. His three-point accuracy has stayed exactly the same, but his accuracy inside the arc has shot up by five percentage points.
Draymond Green proves even the best stats can be unsatisfying
To watch even a few minutes of Michigan State basketball is to apprehend at a glance that Green is the motor that drives this team, a correct apprehension that for whatever reason can't quite make the jump to numbers. Does Green make an exceptional percentage of his shots like Ricardo Ratliffe, or take unusually good care of the ball like Jordan Taylor? No. And while Green nourishes a justified reputation as an excellent passer, his assist rate's actually gone down this season. In truth Green's most notable statistical achievement this year is also the area where he'd be most easily replaced. He's having a great year on the defensive glass, but, frankly, if Green weren't getting those boards Izzo of all people would have no problem trotting out someone else who would.
So where Green's concerned my advice is to look past the stats, with the possible exception of one: minutes. Green's on the floor more than any of his teammates. It falls to him to take the tough shots, and his efficiency will never reach the heights he attained as a sophomore when he was a supporting player alongside the likes of Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers. But Green's effectiveness is better measured in his team's numbers than in his own.
Even at this late date the Spartans are still (just) outside the top 10 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Don't be fooled. Things can change and I'll keep you updated but right now this is in fact one of the best teams in the country, one that's outscoring the Big Ten by exactly the same margin that No. 1 Kentucky is outscoring the SEC. When you hear Tom Izzo worrying about this Michigan State team, do me a favor. Ignore him.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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