Michigan State’s Turnover Bug is a Real Problem

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 26th, 2018

If you glance only at the final score, Michigan State’s performance at Illinois on Monday was an unqualified success: The Spartans won by 13 points and trailed for only 1 minute and 51 seconds of game time. Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear that the preseason Big Ten favorite should have probably won by more — perhaps a lot more. The Spartans shot a ridiculous 68 percent from the floor (to Illinois’ 43 percent) and doubled up the Illini at the free throw line. They also crashed the offensive glass at their highest rate yet in conference play (60% OReb). Unfortunately, turnovers — a whopping 25 of them — prevented Michigan State’s ‘good’ performance from being great. It’s been a recurring issue this season, and one that could wind up the Achilles’ Heel for an otherwise complete National Championship hopeful.

Tom Izzo and Miles Bridges Have to Clean Up the Turnover Issue (USA Today Images)

To be sure, the Spartans’ eye-popping turnover figure on Monday — their most since 2005 — was in part due to Illinois’ aggressive style — the Illini force miscues at the sixth-highest rate in college basketball. But it was also the result of Michigan State’s often-stagnant half-court offense. When the Spartans don’t score in transition (where they’re especially lethal), their attack often devolves into a lot of dribbling around the three-point line with limited off-ball movement. For point guards Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn, that’s often been a recipe for disaster. Case in point:


The sloppy half-court offense was even worse in the team’s losses to Ohio State and Michigan, games in which big man Nick Ward was mostly kept out of the paint. Again, with players standing around the perimeter and Ward away from his perch underneath the basket, excess dribbling and indecisive action led to mistakes. “And we’ve been complaining that our guards aren’t getting [Ward] the ball,” head coach Tom Izzo said recently, “but it’s hard to make a pass when you’re at the three-point line to a guy that’s almost standing next to you and there’s two people guarding you.” Even when the guards aren’t coughing it up, the general lack of half-court action has too often resulted in deferring to Miles Bridges late in the shot clock and hoping he can make something happen. That, too, has led to turnovers, not to mention occasionally bad shots.

And here’s the problem: recent history is not on their side. The Spartans’ offensive turnover rate as of Friday is 20.4 percent. Since 2010, only two of the 32 Final Four teams had turnover rates above 20 percent — and none since 2012. In fact, Michigan State’s current national ranking in that category (263rd) would be worse than any Final Four team in the KenPom era. It’s also worth noting that offensive turnover rates have decreased considerably since 2002 (that year, a 20.4 percent rate would have been good for 93rd in the country). Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that the Spartans would be darn-near perfect were it not for the miscues. Despite the high turnover rate, Michigan State still boast the eighth-most efficient offense in college basketball and the second-best effective field goal percentage. Defensively, they’re the ninth-most efficient team, limiting opponents to a nation-leading 41.4 percent eFG. When Illinois wasn’t scoring easy buckets off turnovers on Monday, they were struggling mightily to find open looks against Michigan State’s relentless defense. Turnovers alone kept the Illini competitive and confident. Come tournament time against better and more disciplined opponents, such carelessness could result in an upset bid.

Like he often does, Izzo perhaps put it best while talking about football: “That’s why I love these football playoffs… I wanted [the] Pittsburgh [Steelers] to win. But with the pick and the fumble and the return, it just meant I could come back and tell my team, ‘See? Turnovers matter’.” Whether his team pays heed to that lesson could determine its plans come March and early April.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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