That was the Spartans’ fourth loss in their last five games. And if not for a last-second dunk to salvage a visit to Illinois, Tom Izzo’s team would be looking at five straight losses.
Michigan State has become known for enduring late-season struggles only to rally and compete for the Big Ten title before rolling into March Madness as a team to watch. However, this season looks to be more difficult than most.
“I still feel like we’re right there,” Izzo said on Monday. “I just feel like we found ways to lose. … We’re 17-9 and we got a chance to right the ship yet.”
Time, though, is running out. The Spartans are sitting in a five-way tie with Iowa, Rutgers, Illinois and Wisconsin for third place in the conference, three games behind Maryland for first place and a game behind Penn State for second place. Michigan State has five games remaining, including a road rematch against the Terrapins on Feb. 29.
Based on Michigan State’s adjusted offensive (112.5 points per 100 possessions, ranking 22nd in the nation) and defensive ratings (90.7, 17th) as well as those of their opponents, we would expect the Spartans to finish with a 20-11 record (12-8 in the conference). They have the third-best adjusted net efficiency rate in the conference (plus-22), per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, yet more than half of the bracketologists who participate in the Bracket Matrix see Michigan State earning just a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. A sizable number (34 out of 94) think Michigan State’s resume is better suited to that of a 6 seed or worse.
Being a 5 seed is no picnic. By now everyone is familiar with how well 12 seeds have done in the tournament, and that 5 seeds are often the first place to look for notable first-round upsets. Since 2011, when the tournament field expanded to 68 teams, 5 seeds have won 33 of 69 games, never advancing to the national title game. And 6 seeds have fared even worse, going 23-36 and never advancing past the Elite Eight.
Michigan State’s tournament outlook could be improved by winning the Big Ten conference tournament, which starts March 11 in Indianapolis, but the conference has a glut of talented teams, and as many as 11 could be invited to the Big Dance.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Michigan State couldn’t outperform expectations. However, it is worth noting the school has only won 1.5 more games than expected over the past nine NCAA tournaments based on seeding. Most of those wins above expectation came from the Spartans’ run to the Final Four as a 7 seed in 2015.
If this year’s squad is going to repeat that run, it will have to get production from players other than Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. Winston leads the team in usage rate (23 percent of offensive possessions) and scores 93 points per 100 possessions, good enough to put him in the 67th percentile of collegiate players this season. The senior guard is at his best as a spot-up shooter (120 points per 100 possessions, 93rd percentile), coming off screens (116 points per 100 possessions, 85th percentile) and in isolation (104 points per 100 possessions, 84th percentile). And Tillman is one of the best in the country at converting opportunities in transition (90th percentile).
But after Winston and Tillman, the roster starts to get thin. No other player on the roster is producing an average game score in the double digits this season. (That’s an all-in-one number that weighs different aspects of a player’s box score stats.) The 2015 team, by comparison, had three players average a game score in excess of 11.2 and a stronger starting lineup overall.
The Spartans also cough up the ball in transition (17 percent turnover rate), when using the pick-and-roll (18 percent) and in the post (16 percent). They even have trouble with a simple hand off (17 percent turnover rate). Turnovers are a building block for upsets in the postseason, offering extra possessions to potentially lesser opponents. If Michigan State doesn’t start limiting its turnovers while getting production from players other than Winston and Tillman, it will be hard for the Spartans to survive and advance in March.
“It’s disappointing,” Izzo said last week of the turnovers. “Some guys are turning it over that just shouldn’t turn it over. There’s going to be talk about them, there’s going to be showing film about them, there’s going to be running about them. We’re just going to try to bring a more sense of urgency and show them what those things do.”