Back & Forth - Michigan State

Feb 21, 2018

Tyler and I started a Back & Forth post after the Indiana loss - which just means "I emailed Tyler because I had some basketball questions and now I'm publishing those emails" - and we finished overnight while discussing the MSU loss. Here is that discussion. Starting with my email to him:

I remain confused. So I think it's time for another back & forth. Which is more like a Q&A. I have questions - hopefully, you have answers.

I see the offense as the big problem this season. Most everyone else I know sees the defense as the problem (or, at least, the defense is as much of a problem as the offense). Please explain why that's the case. I'm seeing this whole season like I saw the football season: sure the defense has some issues, but does it matter? We can't score so we're not going to win. But I think you see it differently. Can you explain?

I'm not sure I see it differently - I'm just not sure you can separate the two. Our struggles on offense and defense have been alternately (and sometimes coincidentally) responsible for the 2-12 Big Ten record to this point. Let's go to the tape...

- NW: Forced the Cats into turnovers on 4 straight possessions at the end of regulation - but couldn't convert any of those opportunities. Blame to the offense.
- Maryland: scored on every possession in OT and still lost. Blame to the defense
- Minny - Scored just 8 points in the first 12 minutes of the game and never quite recovered. Blame to the offense
- Michigan: Led at the break. Gave up 48 points in the second half. Blame to the defense
- Iowa: Scored 97 points and lost. Blame to the defense
- Nebraska: Shot 39% for the game including 18% from three. Blame to the offense.
-@Wisconsin: Mega suck in all facets. Equal blame.
- Michigan State: Allowed a record 68% shooting and 50 points in the paint. Blame to the defense.
- OSU: Took a 63-60 lead with 5 minutes to play. Scored 4 more points the rest of the way. Blame to the offense.
- Wisconsin: Allowed the Badgers to score 15 points above their conference average PPG and their highest FG% of the season. Blame to the defense.
- Penn State: Scored 16 second half points. Blame to the offense.
- Indiana: Gave up 109.1 points per possession/Scored only 95.1 PPP. Equal blame.

Per the extremely scientific and quantitative analysis above that's 5-5 with two ties. Actually I think per the nerdstats our losses are a bit more correlated to our defensive metrics than the offensive ones, but I wouldn't look too hard for a deep dive explanation. It's pretty simple - we don't consistently get stops on defense and we don't consistently make shots on offense. That's just not a great formula.

OK, so now that four days (and two games) have gone by, let me do the next two games.

- Nebraska: We won! Blame no one!
- Michigan State: They have two lottery picks! Blame the fact that we don't!

Really, since I wrote that last email we've had three good halves of basketball and then one "oh, right - we're still bad" half. So, hey - progress!

I'm not sure there's much to learn from this one. So maybe tell me what you saw at Nebraska and then maybe what you saw tonight?

I agree with your broad point that we put together three pretty good halves and then the one clunker. Beyond that, I thought there were some consistent themes which stood out to me across the two games. Here are my three main takeaways (I've been all about lists recently):

  1. I saw a team starting to finally figure out its way on offense. We were consistently getting the ball to guys at the rim on first option basket cuts, we kept our best offensive player (Leron Black) involved, and we got a ton of shots at the rim. There was a rough stretch in the second half against the Nebraska zone, but I thought that was more a case of guys missing good shots than it was not running good stuff, and of course the length of MSU gave us all sorts of problems around the rim. Still - in a season that's become all about establishing culture, it's nice to see some of the core principles finally taking hold.

  2. I saw a coaching staff ever so subtly taking the foot off the gas a little bit on the defense - with positive results. In the first two games vs Nebraska and MSU we forced 35 turnovers, but also gave up a combined 67% shooting on two point attempts. In the second two games we only forced 17 turnovers, but in turn tightened up our FG defense - allowing only 51% on two point attempts over the two games. We still applied heavy ball pressure, but maintained what amounted to more of a pack line defense elsewhere. As a result we were much better at guarding against jailbreak dribble penetration and backcuts.

  3. Finally I saw what every one else sees. A team that's still operating at a significant talent/skill deficit on most nights in this conference. For example, even though we shot the ball better from deep the last two games, we also had 17 shots blocked. So while we are getting more and more of the looks we want from the offense, we don't have enough guys who can finish. And when Leron and/or Trent have to sit for extended stretches, woof - it gets ugly quick. I'm really not quite sure how we've found ourselves at a place where the Penn States and Nebraskas of the world have substantially better talent than us, but here we are, and man that simply has to change.

I know it's crazy to talk about our talent deficit by pointing to a lottery pick but (WARNING FOOTBALL ANALOGY) it's amazing to watch a player like Jackson vs. a player like Vesel. That one dunk was every Ohio State lineman vs. Illinois lineman in the last 20 years all wrapped into one. A bigger, stronger, and faster athlete having his way with you and dunking on you. It renders the game down to a 2% chance of victory. If the athleticism is that much better, the game is already over. It was decided during recruiting.

Now, I'm not pointing to Vesel and saying "RECRUITING FAIL". Underwood got the job, had all these open scholarships after players like DJW and JCL left, and did the best he could with a project like Vesel. I had someone tweet me recently "what was Underwood thinking recruiting Vesel?" and my reaction was "he was thinking that it's June, the spring signing period is over, but he still has four open scholarships and is scanning the entire globe for any 18 year-olds over 6'-8"."

But that play reminded me of watching Illini football games. When the talent differential gets to a certain point, the game is pretty much over. You can play ten times harder and shoot out of your mind but superior talent will still win out after 40 minutes.

Bold take: we need to recruit some talent this offseason.

Yeah - this is not rocket science. We desperately need players. This team will continue to struggle until there are at least four legitimate offensive players on the court at any given time. Right now we're lucky to have two at best.

Ayo is a great start. His slashing game is tailor-made for Underwood's rim running offense. He's also an uncannily good finisher, and man does this offense need one of those. After watching Penn State run, jump, and dunk us to death two weekends ago, I found myself envisioning Ayo as our Tony Carr.

But the roster still needs legitimate difference makers at two other spots on the floor - a shooting guard who can shoot and a rim wrecking wing. Obviously some size would also be a tremendous help on the defensive end, but I think that's more of a luxury.

These roster gaps I mention could be filled by any combination of sophomore leaps, transfers, or incoming freshmen, but ultimately I don't care how we get there and I doubt Brad Underwood does either. One way or another, though, changes they are a-coming.


Joe Edge on February 21 @ 02:41 PM CST

Shooters.... correction - shooters who actually 'make' shots go through the hoop, NOT bounce off.... Rim protector who can discourage driving guards.... Rebounder's who go after the ball before anything else. Oh yeah, and shooters....

NC_OrangeKrush on February 21 @ 05:36 PM CST

Still, the offense works... add 6-8 missed layups a game, and even 1-2 threes made, and you are looking at a different season, maybe not Tourney worthy, but not abysmal... it is closer than it looks.

I have less confidence on the recruiting but will let this play out, and give them the benefit of the doubt..... however, very few bigs even on the radar to be able to strike out on...

Norcal Illini on February 22 @ 07:03 AM CST

In the first half of the MSU game, I stopped counting at 5 missed layups, and I know there were more after that. The shots were rushed because of the rim protectors. Our opponents have no reason to rush theirs.

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