It seems like forever ago, but Michigan State’s inauspicious start to the season – losing to North Carolina on an aircraft carrier and as the unlucky team on the other end of Mike Krzyzewski’s 903rd win – didn’t properly indicate just how good the Spartans would be this season.
But there were hints.
Draymond Green was going to be reliable. The chemistry would be improved. And the talent was there, it was just a question of how long it would take before it fully meshed.
Fast forward nearly four months and the Spartans are not only headed for their second Big Ten title in the last four years, but could snag a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. How’d it happen? How good are they really? Is it a basketball school? And where will Green land in the pantheon of all-time Spartans?
For those answers, I turned to Pete Rossman at The Only Colors in the latest Blogger Spotlight.
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Q: When this story was pitched to me back in October, I figured it was half-optimism, half-hope. I’d never question Tom Izzo’s coaching, but if you told me he was overly optimistic about such an unknown group, I would’ve thought you were smoking something.
So. Did you expect anything close to this?
A: Well, I predicted MSU would place second in the Big Ten this year. I thought Draymond Green would be improved, that Keith Appling would make a productivity jump from his freshman to sophomore year, and I thought that Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix would provide much needed offense in the post.
But to expect MSU to have gone 12-3, with wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin at home? No, I didn’t expect that, and much of that is a testament to how well the offense has gelled and how quickly the freshmen, especially Branden Dawson, have bought in to playing defense.
Q: Past Draymond Green – who’s clearly headed for an All-America spot and is still undervalued – who’s the Spartans’ most essential player? Appling? Wood? Payne? Could they survive an injury to anyone (except Green) and still make the Final Four?
A: The key word here is essential, because there’s depth at many positions: Payne and Derrick Nix combine to make one heck of a center we like to call Derrick Payne, Brandon Wood’s done a great job filling in at the wing; ditto for Austin Thornton who’s made a quantum leap in his ability, going from role player to starter in seemingly days.
However, the one position where there’s currently a distinct drop off in ability is at point guard, and that makes Keith Appling the most essential. The other two players who could possibly run the point, Travis Trice and Brandan Kearney, are both inexperienced and lack the weight needed to play effectively in the Big 10 currently, though it should be said Kearney has earned his keep as a defensive presence. If Appling goes out this team either has to use one of the freshmen, Wood, or even Draymond as a point guard, and then the offense gets a bit dodgy.
Q: It’s Michigan State, so great rebounding is a given. But is that their biggest strength? Or just the easiest to focus on?
A: Tom Izzo and rebounding have become synonymous to the point that if we were playing a word-association game, if I said “rebounding” you’d most likely say “Izzo” or “Michigan State” as one of your first responses. And yes, the rebounding has been that of a vintage Tom Izzo Michigan State team, as they rank in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage, and also are currently tied with North Carolina in total rebounding percentage at 56.9%.
However, there’s another strength the Spartans possess, and that is defensive field goal percentage. MSU ranks in the top 20 in Division One in both two and three-point precentage. If you prefer field goal percentage as a whole, Michigan State is tied for third, with only Kentucky and Florida State (who Michigan State beat by double digits earlier this year) better. Excellent rebounding combined with tenacious defense have been essential in the Spartans’ comeback from last year’s troubles.
Q: Is the Big Ten the toughest conference? And does the team that wins the “toughest” conference have an edge heading into March? Has this type of thing helped MSU in the past?
A: To answer the first question, yes. The Big Ten has five teams in MSU, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana that can conceivably beat any team in the nation on any given day; I’d say only the Big East or possibly the Big 12 comes close to that sort of depth.
For the second question, I’d say no. I remember during the 2009 NCAA tournament when some were wondering if the Big East was the best conference in history. Michigan State responded by beating Big East champions Louisville and the #3 team in the conference, Connecticut, on the way to the national title game. I don’t think playing in the “toughest” conference grants an edge, as any team who plays in a top-tier conference (not necessarily BCS — you could easily substitute the Mountain West for the PAC-12 this year) will have its trials.
And for the last question, I don’t playing in a tough conference has given MSU an advantage in that by the time they get to the tournament, they’ve played enough top teams where they have a feel of what’s going to work on offense and defense. When you look at a conference like the Big East, yes you have your top teams in Syracuse and Marquette, but there’s so much chaff at the conference’s bottom (lookin’ at you DePaul) where teams can afford to take a night off. I don’t think one can in the Big Ten this year, otherwise a team might lose by double digits to the conference’s cellar dwellers. The strength of teams throughout the Big Ten and the diversity of styles (slow, fast, perimeter-oriented, etc.) is one of the ingredients that helps make the Spartans a tough out during the tourney time.
Oh, and Izzo. He helps a bit too.
Q: Yeah, I’d say Izzo is a nice advantage to have. But given how his team has already thrived, is it fair to say that this might be one of the few times the Spartans don’t overachieve in the NCAA tournament? It’s going to be difficult for MSU to surprise anyone in this year’s tourney, let alone avoid the “They didn’t make the Final Four, they choked” backlash (which is always BS). (And, of course, all of this is just blather if they do make the Final Four or win the whole thing.)
A: It will be hard for MSU to overachieve when they’ll most likely be going be a 1 or 2 seed. However, the last time they went into the tournament as a 2 seed was 2009, and that season ended in the national title game.
While I think there might be some backlash by the national media if MSU gets ousted in the Sweet Sixteen or earlier, I think many of us MSU fans won’t be too hard on them. Sure, it’ll be frustrating to think what could’ve been, but compared to last year’s disastrous season everything just seems like gravy.
Q: Is Green gonna go down as one of Izzo’s all-time Spartans? If they win it all, could he displace Mateen Cleaves of the top spot?
A: He’s definitely going to go as one of the all-timers, no doubt about it. He was a pudgy three-star recruit at the time of his commitment, and I recall many Michigan State fans wondering if he was going to pan out. His body, shot, and smarts improved every season though into the All-American candidate he is today. However, I don’t think he’s going to replace Mateen at the top spot. It’s not like Mateen replaced Magic when MSU won it all in 2000, and I think the same sentiment will apply for Draymond if (knock on wood) MSU wins it all in 2012. I do think Green will be on the same plane as Cleaves, which would put him among the top 5 Spartan basketball players of all time in my opinion.
Q: Is Michigan State a basketball school? Or is football the preferred sport, just not as successful?
A: If this was 2005, I would’ve absolutely said basketball school. Football was in a rut and MSU was coming off a Final Four season as a 5 seed. With Mark Dantonio’s arrival however, I think interest in both programs is about equal.
If I had to choose, I’d choose football, and here’s why — After Michigan State’s entrance in the Big 10 in 1953, its first big successes were in Football in the mid-60’s. I think a good part of the fanbase still identifies with those victories and their accompanying history. Combine that with America’s preference for college football as a whole over college basketball and the allure of fall Saturday mornings without snow on the ground, and I think most (but definitely not all) fans would say MSU’s a football school.
Q: What’s your future like at The Only Colors? I know the grind got to KJ after a while. Is emeritus status something you might consider after a few more years?
A: I’m definitely still enjoying The Only Colors. SB Nation’s a great company to work for, and I have great writers with intrpdtrvlr, T-Con, Spartan Dan, Patrick Hayes, Heck Dorland, and even KJ from time to time. The grind definitely becomes a lot easier when you have people to cover you; I even took a week off and went to Peru last summer!
Right now though, I’m 28, single, and I definitely still have the time to contribute, so I don’t see myself going anywhere in the near future. When you have commenters as entertaining and intelligent as we do along with gifted writers, it makes it a real joy to run the site. I see myself sticking around as long as SB Nation will have me.
Read more from Pete at The Only Colors. Follow him on Twitter @PeteatTOC.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.