Let’s start this writing with a collective apology from all of 3MW to the Big Ten and, in particular, the state of Michigan. While we were high on the B1G’s depth in the preseason, even expecting 8 or more NCAA bids, our overarching theme with the league was that it possessed no true national championship contenders. Quick, someone tell Old Takes Exposed (so that they can tweet out a link to our podcast!). Both of the league’s representatives from the Mitten rank in the top 6 at KenPom (3 and 6) and T-Rank (3 and 4), and although you need to extend that to the top 7 for Haslametrics (3 and 7) and the NET (3 and 7), the point is clear: the B1G has some big-time squads.
The Wolverines have obviously been great (please refer to the bare-bottom spankings they gave to North Carolina and Villanova), but we’re going to focus on their neighbors to the northwest. Once hailed as “the king of March Madness,” Tom Izzo hasn’t seen the Big Dance’s second weekend since 2015, with three straight early exits suddenly making him appear mortal. Of course, that’s all a narrative built around a nutty single elimination tournament where one white-hot shooting performance can you send you packing (like when Middle Tennessee went 11/19 from deep!), so it’s not really fair to say Izzo has fallen off on the sideline.
And that brings us to this year, where his Spartans have become a juggernaut, rolling over good and bad teams alike en route to a 14-2 (5-0) record and those aforementioned lofty ratings. Powered by an elite offense that ranks as Izzo’s second-best in the KenPom era (ranking behind only the Denzel Valentine/Bryn Forbes-led three-point machine in 2016), Izzo looks to have every bit of a Big Ten and national contender on his hands, one that could potentially resurrect his March mystique once more.
The elite offense is, by and large, the product of its floor leader: Cassius Winston. The crafty point guard has been ridiculously effective this year, leading Sparty in both points and assists while posting career highs in both usage and efficiency, an extraordinarily impressive feat. Although his three-point shooting has tanked from “surface of the sun” hot all the way down to simply “boiling lava” (49.7% to 45.7%), he has also essentially banished turnovers from his game: he’s currently sporting a crisp 45/10 assist/turnover spread in Big Ten play this year through five contests.
If you want an idea of just how incredible he’s been, how about a comparison? Hmm, just for fun, how about to last year’s National Player of the Year?
Brunson may have been a slightly better defender, but Winston is a better/more creative passer, and his contributions to MSU’s #2-ranked offense cannot be overstated (they just passed Duke last night). Per Hoop Lens, Michigan State is scoring a robust 1.22 points per possession with him on the court, compared to a disappointingly pedestrian 1.00 when he’s on the bench, a colossal gap for one side of the ball. The Spartans don’t really have another perimeter creator (especially with Josh Langford currently injured), but that hasn’t bothered Winston in the slightest.
Entering this season, Matt and I in particular were skeptical that Winston could be the best player on a title contender, and in our defense - how could we have known he would be this good? He was very effective for a team that had two lottery picks and exited the NCAAs in the Round of 32, but there was no possible way to predict he would take his sophomore year stats and blossom into something this good. Right? Wait…oh no, not another comparison…
I swear I’m not making a mistake with those PER numbers – yes, they are identical; Winston is essentially following Brunson’s career production path step for step. He is playing at a First Team All-American level (competing with the likes of Jarrett Culver, Markus Howard, Ja Morant, and Shamorie Ponds in the backcourt), using his craft, vision, and unorthodox-but-effective jump shot to masterfully manipulate opponents and repeatedly put his teammates in position to thrive.
Winston’s passing deserves special mention. He doesn’t just hit the open man; instead, he often “passes people open,” a trait most often seen in transcendent quarterbacks in football. This is to say: he knows teammates are open before they do, leading them to an open area with deft passes that result in lay-ups and open jumpers:
His prowess in transition is the biggest reason why Izzo has MSU playing at its fastest tempo in the 18-year KenPom era (first time ever in the Top 100!). Per Synergy, 50 of Winston’s 113* assists have come in uptempo situations, using his eyes to move the defense and perfectly time passes to rim-runners and spot-up shooters.
His patience and anticipation in the pick-and-roll is also superb, bending the defense to create passing lanes to cross-court shooters or holding the ball long enough to allow Nick Ward to establish deep post position as a roll man, where he is devastating (more on that in a second). The screener/scorer isn’t Ward in this clip (it’s Xavier Tillman), but Winston is so clever with how he pulls the big man defender out an extra step to allow Tillman time to roll farther down the lane - and the long, one-handed bounce pass is right on the money:
Finally, Winston can create his own shot too, perhaps the most significant development in his game. He uses a wide variety of dribble moves and hesitations to create space to shoot or drive, and it can be a thing of beauty:
As stated, the Spartans don’t have a lot of other creators, so having someone like Winston that can create for himself makes the rest of the offense go. They do, however, have plenty of finishers and shot-makers, and his preternatural feel for hitting them in the right place and at the right time allows them to do just that.
The other offensive fulcrum is Nick Ward, a man-child in the paint who bullies one-on-one matchups and has a VIP parking spot at the free throw line. He’s one of the best players in the country at establishing early, deep position in the paint, and once he gets the ball there, it’s lights out for opponents. His persistence in earning prime real estate makes his shot chart (courtesy of The Stepien) a very one-dimensional graphic (click each for a larger, pop-out version):
To summarize that data - 50 of Ward’s 77 charted shots qualify as “at the rim,” where he’s shooting a sizzling 80%. That’s pretty good, folks! Ward makes the uptempo system work in his favor, sprinting the floor and beating opposing bigs to the block, where he uses his considerable derrière to seal them into oblivion - even a behemoth like Kaleb Wesson:
Don’t you go thinking Ward can only score off positioning, though, because he has a clever array of moves. Like many lefties, his favorite is a quick half-hook over his right shoulder, but if you overplay that side, you’ll get embarrassed by a counter-move:
Ward has the benefit of receiving excellent post feeds from Winston and the Spartans’ supporting cast, a group that is simultaneously aggressive yet intelligent. Every player after Winston and Ward has seemingly embraced a specific role and performed it to its absolute maximum: Josh Langford is knocking down shots, Xavier Tillman has been a dominant rebounder and defender while making 71% of his field goals, Matt McQuaid is hitting 44% of his threes while being a pesky defender and resembling Stuart Little, Kenny Goins has been Xavier Tillman Lite and is flashing a perimeter jumper, Kyle Ahrens hits threes and somehow gets to every loose ball, and freshman Aaron Henry has been a spark plug in his minutes with his athleticism.
One thing that really stands out on film is how well every guy pays attention to detail and fights at the little things. Each Spartan cuts hard through the lane with a purpose, a seemingly small thing that has an exponentially huge effect on the quality of shots that the offense generates. The team boxes out intensely, securing the ball and finishing defensive possessions. And they intelligently attack the offensive glass, making key hustle plays that can break the back of an opponent who thinks it has finally gotten a crucial stop:
Defensively, Michigan State isn’t quite the monster it was last year, when it allowed a completely insane 38.4% conversion rate on 2-point field goals. Sparty actually isn’t far off that mark right now (allowing 40.1%), but I would expect that number to creep up as Big Ten play continues and the competition stiffens. Tillman’s transformation of his body has turned him into a wrecking ball on D, a shot-blocking force who has more mobility to play in the pick-and-roll, and Ward is a similarly stout presence in the paint.
Izzo’s perimeter defenders aren’t lockdown gloves like some of his past players (Tum-Tum Nairn, Gary Harris, etc.), but his conservative, tightly-packed scheme and stable of rim protectors frequently force opponents into the worst shot in basketball - the dreaded mid-range jumper. Per hoop-math.com, Spartan foes are taking 32% of their shots in that area, 35th-highest rate in the country. And even when they do get all the way to the rim, Ward/Tillman/Goins/etc. are allowing a paltry 47.6% success rate, 3rd-lowest in the country (for reference, last year’s team conceded 45.8% at the rim).
So what do we take away from all of this? Do Tom Izzo’s Spartans once again have the goods to make their way back the sport’s hallowed ground, the Final Four? Or are they doomed to another early exit, more fuel for the “Izzo has lost it” crowd?
That’s the fun part – we don’t know! There’s a loooong way to go still, including a grueling Big Ten schedule filled with landmines in the form of 11 NCAA Tournament hopefuls. The downside likely lies in Winston wearing down under such a demanding offensive burden, both to score and facilitate, but the team’s dominance on the boards and in the paint on both ends gives them something to rely on night in and night out. Izzo has assembled a feisty, physical roster that battles on every screen, cut, and box out (exactly the way he prefers it), and the team’s deadeye shooting gives its considerable upside, a retractable roof on nights when they’re cooking from deep.
Obviously, they’ve lost two stiff tests already (to Kansas on a neutral floor, and in overtime in a rowdy Louisville environment), but they hung around despite seeing the best game of Quentin Grimes’s career and could easily have pulled out the UL game had another bounce or two gone their way. Maybe there’s an argument that they’re peaking too early, but given how everyone appears comfortable in their roles along with the way Izzo’s teams traditionally improve as the year goes on, Michigan State appears to be every bit of a national title contender (so shove it, 3MW). The Spartans scrimmaged Gonzaga in Minneapolis in October to get a barometer on the roster, and it’s entirely possible they’ll be making a second trip the Twin Cities when April rolls around.