Michigan State’s efficient three-point shooting is key for 2014-15 success

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Travis Trice (AP Photo)

Michigan State lost Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne from last season’s national title contender, but the Spartans have remained in the top 25 in 2014-15 thanks in-part to the nation’s most efficient team three-point shooting percentage.

The injury-depleted Spartans haven’t looked the part of an offensive juggernaut early this season, but they’ve maintained a 7-3 record while shooting 45.6 percent from three-point range. While Michigan State is 68th in three-point attempts at 204 — entering Tuesday night’s action — they’re 11th in makes at 93 on the season.

If there’s any kind of secret to the Spartans’ sweet perimeter shooting this season it’s that they have the right players taking the right shots. Starting point guard Travis Trice is shooting 41 percent from the three-point line, but Denzel Valentine (51 percent), Bryn Forbes (51 percent) and Marvin Clark Jr. (50 percent) are all shooting at or above 50 percent from distance so far this season. Outside of those four players, Michigan State has only attempted 13 three-pointers this season and made one of them.

Having two shooters of that caliber would be enough of a luxury. Having four means Michigan State can space the floor with multiple shooters in any given lineup and it helps that they take smart shots and move the ball around the perimeter with tremendous patience.

That’s what you get with a Tom Izzo-coached team, one that is playing to its strengths and not trying to do too much.

After the Spartans went 10-for-17 from beyond the arc in a Sunday night win over Oakland, Golden Grizzlies head coach Greg Kampe said with Michigan State’s perimeter shooting clicking on all cylinders, they could compete with Kentucky or any team in the country.

“I don’t care who they play, they can play Kentucky, those three kids shoot the ball the way they shot it tonight they can beat anyone in the country,” Kampe said after the game.

But can the Spartans sustain the high level of three-point shooting against elite competition?

In three Michigan State losses to Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame this season — also the only three notable opponents they’ve faced — the Spartans are only shooting 37 percent (20-for-54) from three-point range. During the one-point overtime loss to the Irish, Michigan State finished 9-for-17 from trifecta, but against long and athletic teams like Duke and Kansas, the Spartans struggled to consistently convert from the perimeter.

That would suggest that Michigan State’s nation-leading three-point percentage will go down as they face tougher competition in the Big Ten. It’s also encouraging because the Spartans shot so poorly against Duke and Kansas and stayed within striking distance in both games deep into the second half. A few of those perimeter looks fall and suddenly we have an entirely different ballgame.

How Michigan State incorporates injured guards Alvin Ellis and Javon Bess into the rotation will be something to watch as well, as both will potentially return to the rotation this week. Ellis missed six games after an injury against Navy on opening night and has been back the last few weeks while Bess was just cleared to practice and could make his Spartans debut this week. Ellis isn’t a three-point threat, but his added athleticism and slashing ability could draw defenders in drive situations and leave for more kick-out opportunities for open shooters. And Bess shot a respectable 34.8 percent from three-point range in the EYBL his final spring and summer of grassroots ball and could be an additional three-point option if Michigan State finds that he’s ready to crack the rotation.

It’s looking like Michigan State might be a classic, “live-by-the-three, die-by-the-three” team this season and it’ll be worth watching how the Spartans continue shooting in Big Ten play and how that could translate against elite competition in March. The additions of Bess and Ellis alongside four top-notch perimeter threats means Michigan State’s offense could get rolling in a hurry if shots are falling.

This isn’t a typical Tom Izzo team, but he’s once again found a way to maximize his team’s ability and it looks like the Spartans are another lock for 20 wins this season.