Michigan coach John Beilein, left, has brought an offensive flair to Michigan. MSU coach Tom Izzo, right, bristles at the notion his team isn't offensive-minded. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
New York — There’s no perfect formula, or everyone would do it. The NCAA Tournament is about, in no particular order: Matchups and seniors and luck and defense and freshmen and 3-point shooting and cheerleaders and officiating and games that end well past midnight.
Tom Izzo understands the mix as well as anyone, as Michigan State headed into its Sweet 16 clash late Friday night against Virginia. He has six Final Fours and the 2000 national championship, and the odd thing is, that was the last title for Michigan State or anyone from the Big Ten. You have to go back to Michigan in 1989 to find the previous one.
The drought defies the Big Ten’s standing as a basketball power. In addition to Michigan State and Michigan, programs such as Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin regularly draw high seeds, and the Big Ten has had 11 Final Four participants since 2000, yet just one title.
Maybe, finally, the trend is turning, as the Big Ten is cranking up its offenses. It’s not just about banging bodies on defense anymore, and three teams reached this Sweet 16 utilizing different styles. Yes, even Wisconsin opened up its offense, and Bo Ryan is in the Elite Eight with perhaps his best team ever.
Strength in scoring
Coincidence or not? Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, three of the four highest-scoring teams in the Big Ten, made it to the Sweet 16 (only Iowa didn’t). None of the three best defensive teams (in points allowed) — Ohio State, Illinois, Northwestern — made it.
Izzo long has preached the tenets of defense and rebounding, and it has served him very well. But he bristles when commentators plop his teams in a tidy box, not realizing the Spartans’ fastbreak might be their biggest weapon, and their 3-point shooting is very good. The whole idea of getting Keith Appling healthy and running was to get the offense up and running.
“Over the years, I think one of the successes we have had as a program is we could play racehorse or smashmouth,” Izzo said. “And our conference is filled with new coaches and teams that press, teams that zone, teams that man, teams that walk it up, teams that speed it up.”
John Beilein brought in his offensive flair and has won two Big Ten titles and reached the NCAA championship game. Tim Miles already has Nebraska taking leaps.
Defense still matters a lot, don’t be silly. But offense matters more than it used to, partly because of the 3-pointer and partly because defense is more difficult for young players to grasp, especially with rule changes that hamper physical play.
There’s also the issue of simple mathematics. If you play absolutely brilliant defense and force a shot-clock violation, you’ve held your opponent to zero points on the possession. That’s as good as you can do. There is no minus-0 possession.
But if you play absolutely brilliant offense, swinging the ball and finding the open man, you can hit a 3-point shot, which is worth 50 percent more than a two-pointer. Numerically, great offense can produce more than great defense can reduce, if you follow.
That said, great offense also is rare in college basketball because of youth, and because players are so obsessed with the perimeter shots, few teams play an effective inside-outside game. Outside shots are easier to defend without an inside presence, and we all know how fickle shooting can be.
So maybe the Big Ten was behind the offensive curve while North Carolina, Duke, Florida, Kentucky and Louisville have been winning championships. Those programs often land the touted one-and-done players, but relying on that is risky, too. Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins likely will head to the NBA with little discernible impact.
That doesn’t mean you stop recruiting them, and Izzo still will, within reason. He has a unique group this season with two senior starters in Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. And by the way, the next time someone points out how a player’s draft stock was damaged by staying in school, kindly remind them of Payne, who has polished his game nicely.
“I don’t have a problem with guys leaving early, and contrary to popular belief, I don’t try to recruit guys that are staying four years or one year,” Izzo said. “I appreciate freshmen and sophomores, juniors and seniors. But I have a great appreciation for experience. Guys that have been through the wars, it’s great to have them on your side.”
Go back to his 2000 champs, who were led by seniors Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson. Go back to the ’89 Wolverines, led by the sizzling shooting of senior Glen Rice.
Different paths to greatness
There are other formulas, such as John Calipari trying to win at Kentucky with a fresh batch of NBA prospects every year. Louisville’s Rick Pitino uses a relentless defense to produce dynamic offense. Virginia’s Tony Bennett is building somewhat on the Michigan State model, focused on defense, which is why Friday night’s game was expected to be such a slugfest.
“I think the advantage of our conference is even better than it was before,” Izzo said. “When the conference was so good with Bob (Knight) and Gene (Keady) and Jud (Heathcote) and Clem (Haskins), for the most part people played similar. It was like football, you took on what Ohio State and Michigan did, 3 yards and a cloud of dust. We have more diverseness, if that’s a word, to our conference now.”
Diversity of methods and diversity of players explain why Michigan State entered the Tournament as almost everyone’s favorite, from the White House to the White Castle on the corner. Izzo starts with defense and expands from there, because in a wide-open bracket, it takes more than one way to win it all.