Free throws, turnovers key to MSU tourney run
Make free throws
Michigan State has made just 63.2 percent of its free throws this season and that ranks last in the Big Ten. Not only is it the worst in the conference, the Spartans have never been this bad in coach Tom Izzo's previous 19 seasons at Michigan State. Missed free throws have cost the Spartans several times this year, including in losses to Maryland, Illinois and Minnesota. They have also struggled in wins, making just 7-of-14 in the final two minutes in last weekend's win at Indiana. Senior Travis Trice was an 81.8 percent shooter last season but is just 69.4 this year, and junior Denzel Valentine has decent overall numbers (81.9 percent) but has faltered late in games.
Keep hanging on to the ball
Michigan State has had a couple of games this season where it has fumbled the ball, including 16 times in a loss at Nebraska. But overall, the Spartans have done a good job of securing the ball and are averaging 11.6 turnovers a game, the lowest amount in the Izzo era, a number equaled only by last season's mark of 11.6. In Big Ten games, Michigan State is averaging 11 turnovers and in the last seven games, it is losing the ball only 10 times a game and has three games with eight or fewer turnovers.
Senior Branden Dawson was huge in the postseason last year, averaging 15.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in seven postseason games. He was the spark when he returned to the lineup after missing nine games with a broken hand and could be again this season after missing the regular-season finale against Indiana with concussion-like symptoms. He had been enjoying his best year, averaging nearly a double-double — 12 points, 9.8 rebounds — in Big Ten play. He earned second-team all-conference honors and was on the Big Ten's all-defensive team while recording double-figures in rebounds 12 times this season.
Know your role
Izzo has talked all season about each player doing his job, and Michigan State has been at its best when the support players are doing just that. Junior Bryn Forbes is one of the conference's best 3-pointer shooters and scored a season-high 21 points in a loss at Wisconsin while freshman point guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn is 8-3 as a starter. Sophomore Alvin Ellis and freshman Marvin Clark were huge in the win over Indiana as Ellis scored a career-high 16 and Clark added 14 points. And over the last several games, junior center Matt Costello has been playing his best basketball, recording 11 blocks in the last five games and averaging 8.4 points in his last seven games.
Count on the stars
While the Spartans will be counting on Dawson to bounce back from his head injury, the play of guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine will be critical to their success. They lead the team in scoring with Trice averaging 14.7 points and Valentine 14.4. But Michigan State goes as those two go, and down the stretch Trice and Valentine have been picking up steam. Over the last eight games before Wisconsin, Trice averaged 20.0 points and 4.9 assists while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. He matched a career-high 27 points in the win over Purdue and followed that with 21 at Indiana. Valentine had a career-high 27 against Minnesota handed out seven assists against Indiana.