Final Four Fact Sheet: Michigan State Spartans

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on April 2nd, 2015

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Midway through a week before the most highly-anticipated Final Four in years, let’s do a reset on each of the four teams still standing. Today’s victims: Michigan State and Wisconsin (later this afternoon).

How Sparty Got Here

East Region Champions. Michigan State beat #10 seed Georgia in its NCAA Tournament opener before using superb defense and key coaching adjustments to stun #2 seed Virginia in the Round of 32. From there, it was off to Syracuse where the Spartans edged #3 seed Oklahoma in the Sweet Sixteen and overcame an eight-point halftime deficit by beating Louisville in overtime to punch a surprising but well-earned ticket to Indianapolis.

For the second-straight season, a #7-seed won the East Region. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

For the second straight season, a #7 seed won the East Region. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The Coach

Tom Izzo. Izzo’s remarkable run of March success has been well-documented. He’s now tied with Rick Pitino and Roy Williams for fourth all-time with seven Final Four appearances – three of which came as a #5 seed or worse. His .742 NCAA Tournament winning percentage and 46 total victories rank fifth among active coaches. By defeating Louisville last Sunday, Izzo notched his 13th win over a higher seed in the Big Dance – the most such victories all-time – while improving to 20-4 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend, also one of the finest marks ever. Simply put, Michigan State’s 20th-year leader is masterful in the third month of the year.

Style

At 17.8 seconds per possession, Michigan State is among the more uptempo offensive teams in the country and ranks second behind only Kentucky among Final Four units. The Spartans are more than willing to get out in transition, finish near the rim or locate open shooters – like transfer Bryn Forbes (43.5% 3FG) – on the wing. In the half-court, Izzo’s club moves the ball very well (seventh-highest assist rate in college basketball), takes a healthy number of perimeter jumpers and likes to run ball-screen and pick-and-roll action as the shot clock wanes. Defensively, Michigan State applies some man-to-man ball pressure and tries to limit both easy looks in the paint and second-chance opportunities (72.9% DReb). Only three teams in college basketball forced its opponents into longer offensive possessions this season (20.1 seconds per trip).

Strengths

  • Transition offense. There’s a reason this is Izzo’s fastest-paced offensive team in four years. The Spartans move the ball exceptionally well and are very good at scoring in transition. Several different players are capable of running the break – including Denzel Valentine, one the best passing small forwards in the country (14.3 PPG, 4.4 APG). They shoot the ball at a good clip (53.4% eFG) and athletic forward Branden Dawson is difficult to contain in the open court.
  • Three-point shooting. The Spartans shoot 38.6 percent from behind the arc, which is the 27th-best mark in college hoops and second behind only Duke among Final Four teams. Forbes leads the way at 43.5 percent, but Valentine (41%), Trice (37%) and even freshman Marvin Clark (34%) can also scorch the nets. Michigan State hit nine three-pointers each against Oklahoma and Louisville last weekend.
  • Rebounding. Michigan State is neither the best offensive rebounding team (Kentucky) nor defensive rebounding team (Wisconsin) in this Final Four, but it is the only unit that ranks among the top 100 teams nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate — which is to say that the Spartans do a good job of crashing the glass on both ends of the court. Despite standing only 6’6”, Dawson is one of the best all-around rebounders remaining in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 9.3 boards over his last four games and ripping down seven offensive rebounds over the weekend.
The play of Branden Dawson will be crucial in Indy. (Seth Wenig, Associated Press)

The play of Branden Dawson will be crucial in Indy. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Weaknesses

  • Free throw shooting. Michigan State is the 14th-worst free throw shooting team in college basketball at 63.2 percent, which is by far the worst mark among Final Four qualifiers. Despite hitting some big ones down the stretch against Oklahoma and Louisville, the Spartans (55-of-88) are actually shooting slightly below their average from the stripe in the NCAA Tournament. It is a troubling deficiency that has bitten them before and may very well bite them again this weekend.
  • Fouls. Wisconsin, Duke and Kentucky rank first, fifth and 55th nationally in defensive foul rate, meaning that each team is very good at defending without fouling. Michigan State, on the other hand, comes in at 205th in this metric. That spells trouble against squads that like to attack the rim; Georgia attempted 27 free throws in the opening round while Louisville reached the line 29 times on Sunday – which kept the Cardinals afloat despite making only six field goals over the game’s final 25 minutes.
  • NBA Talent. Each of the other Final Four teams boast at least two players projected to be first round NBA Draft picks. Not only does Michigan State not have one such player; it doesn’t even feature a single first team all-Big Ten performer. If it takes surefire NBA talent to win National Championships – as people often suggest – then the Spartans are in trouble this weekend.

Go-To Scorer

Travis Trice (15.3 PPG, 5.1 APG). The senior point guard has been nothing short of excellent in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 19.5 points per game and providing consistent offense against several of the country’s top defensive units. In fact, Trice’s 23 points against Virginia was the third-highest total the Cavaliers allowed against an individual player all season. His outside shooting and ability to run the pick-and-roll will again be crucial in Indianapolis.

X-Factor

Branden Dawson (11.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG). Dawson is Michigan State’s best rebounder and most versatile defender. Several of his 22 combined rebounds against Oklahoma and Louisville were hugely important down the stretch in both contests, most noticeably against the Cardinals – the senior’s fall-away offensive rebound and putback in overtime sparked the Spartans’ six-point victory. Whether he can be effective on the boards, guard Duke wing Justise Winslow and help contain Jahlil Okafor will go a long way in determining Saturday’s outcome.

Outlook

Make no mistake, Michigan State – with its 27-11 record and #15 KenPom ranking – will be the underdog in Indianapolis this weekend. Still, the Spartans played Duke fairly tough in the Champions Classic back in November and took Wisconsin to overtime in the Big Ten championship game less than three weeks ago. Their defense has been superb in the NCAA Tournament and they have made fewer unforced errors and seem capable of adapting to multiple styles of play. Winning the National Championship will be incredibly difficult (considering this year’s competition), but reaching the title game is certainly possible.

Tommy Lemoine (249 Posts)


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