Season Preview: The Michigan State Spartans

In the second edition of the Season Preview, Brumby looks at the Illini's rival at the top of the conference, the Michigan State Spartans. The apparent major question for the Spartans this season is how quickly will Dreew Neitzel be able to take in the reigns at point guard. Read more to see how Brumby thinks the point guard position will affect the Spartans this season.

Prior to the 2003-2004 season, the Spartans were ranked Number 3 in the AP poll. The Spartans dropped out of the Top 25 entirely by Christmas, and never again re-appeared in the Top 25. The Spartans' struggles over the past two seasons were commonly attributed, by me included, to a lack of a true point guard. Fans and media members alike were pointing to the fact that the loss of Marcus Taylor to the NBA (ok, who am I kidding to Scandinavia and a level below the CBA and NBDL) as the reason for the Spartans struggles.

With the lack of a point guard, the standard belief was that Michigan State struggled to score offensively as players like Chris Hill and Alan Anderson were forced to play out of position as make shift point guards thanks to the complete unreliability of junior college transfer Rashi Johnson. Johnson's biggest contribution to the Spartans in his two years in East Lansing may have been his graduation. To counter the lack of one true point guard, Tom Izzo normally played four guards or wings with Paul Davis in the middle. The result was a surprisingly very good offensive team.

Now, defense was a completely different story for the Spartans. Defense has been a staple of Tom Izzo teams throughout his tenure at Michigan State, and it was the Michigan State Final Four and National Championship teams that cemented the belief across the nation that the Big Ten was a rough and tumble grind it out conference. In 2003-2004, the Spartans were not a rough and tumble, grind it out team, they more resembled Snuggles the Bear than Mr. Clean.

The lack of a point guard did not stop Michigan State from scoring points; it stopped them from stopping other teams from scoring points. The offensive and defensive efficiency numbers of the Spartans prove this out. The Spartans were third in the conference (behind Illinois and Wisconsin) in offensive efficiency, yet they were seventh in the conference in defensive efficiency (only ahead of Minnesota, Ohio State, and Penn State). The numbers bore out that while the Spartans could score, they could not stop good teams from scoring, illustrated by their inability to beat either Wisconsin or Illinois during the 2003-2004 season.

  Michigan State
Pace Factor 63.61
Offensive Efficiency 109.93
Defensive Efficiency 105.65
+/- Differential +5.30
Points per Shot Attempt 1.203
Points per Possession 1.10

The other key offensive number from the Spartans last season was that no team did more with each shot attempt than they did. The Spartans were scoring 1.203 points per shot, while most teams in the Big Ten were less than 1.1 point per shot. This efficiency was key for the Spartans, but when you compare it to the points per possession; you see they average less points per possession than they did per shot, so they did not always get a shot off per possession. This gap of 0.1 may not seem like a large margin, but no other team in the Big Ten besides Iowa had a gap that large. (Only Wisconsin scored more points per possession than they did per shot attempt).

So now the question will be: how does Michigan State improve upon last season's numbers, not offensively, but defensively?

The answer most Spartan fans and the national media are pointing to is Drew Neitzel. Neitzel was Michigan's Mr. Basketball in 2004, and he comes in with the eyes of Spartan nation squarely on his shoulders. His adjustment to the college game will be more scrutinized than any other freshman in the Big Ten because the lack of a point guard has been the national media's rallying cry as to why Michigan State has struggled for the last two years. Neitzel will be a good player for Michigan State, and it will probably happen sooner rather than later, but he may not be the most important freshman coming into East Lansing; that might be power forward Marquise Gray.

The lack of a true power forward killed the Spartans more on the defensive side of the ball than it did on the offensive side of the ball. Having Alan Anderson, a shooting guard, playing the power forward on defense and the point guard on offense was a move that Tom Izzo had to make based on the talent available to him on the roster, but he was not a good defender of power forwards.

The problem with having Anderson in at the power forward was directly reflected by the Spartans rebounding numbers last season. The Spartans defense only grabbed 21.3 defensive rebounds a game, while their opponents were grabbing 9.9 offensive rebounds a game. If you figure that in good seasons, Spartans' opponents would only get half of those offensive rebounds, and that each possession in the Big Ten results in about 1.04 points (this number was averaged across every team in the conference last year), improving team defense and rebounding to what is normally expected from Michigan State would result in a 5 point swing in favor of the Spartans, Neitzel or no Neitzel.

So far in my analysis I have only mentioned three players on the current Michigan State team as I focused on what happened last season. That focus was definitely deserved as the only players the Spartans lose are Jason Andreas and Rashi Johnson. I have had sneezes that have cost me more than the losses of those two players will cost the Spartans, so figuring out why the Spartans "struggled" last season is a good way to figure out how they will play this season, but enough about that.

Paul Davis - Davis is the Spartans star, and he is thought to be softer than a box of Charmin Ultra Soft. This is not what you would expect from a Michigan State big man, but it is what the Spartans have. Davis is very effective both inside and outside, but he needs to improve his aggressiveness defensively without fouling for Michigan State to have a chance to take down Illinois in the Big Ten and make a deep NCAA Tournament run. If the Spartans are going to get defensive improvement, it will have to start with their All Big Ten center.

Chris Hill - Outside of Alan Anderson, Chris Hill is the Spartans best perimeter player. He has split his time with both the point guard and the shooting guard position, but he has shown that he is more comfortable when he is playing off the ball. He may be the player that will most welcome Drew Neitzel into East Lansing because it means more time running off screens to find open shots and less time finding open teammates.

Shannon Brown - The athletic sophomore could have that break out season that Jason Richardson did in his sophomore season, but with the backcourt as crowded as it is, that is not likely. Expect a good season out of the Maywood, IL product, but his breakout will have to wait just one more season.

Kelvin Torbert - Would you be shocked if I told you Kelvin Torbert shot 48.4% from the three point line? Would you be shocked if I told you that was better than any percentage from any player that routinely shot outside shots on Michigan State, Illinois, or Wisconsin? Well, prepare to be shocked, the senior with the ugliest shot this side of Frank Williams adjusted his shot and is now a threat from the outside. Sure, he has not lived up to the hype he had coming out of high school, but to write him off as Clanky McClankerson would not be a smart move for any team game planning against the Spartans.

Predicted Conference Record: 12-4 - Second Place by themselves.

Predicted All Big Ten Team Members
Paul Davis - First Team
Alan Anderson - Second Team
Chris Hill - Second Team
Drew Neitzel - All Freshman Team

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