East Lansing — It’s time for Michigan State to pick up the pace.
For a team that’s used to getting out and running, the Spartans’ fast break has been stuck in the mud the last few games. Not surprisingly, that has resulted in a three-game stretch that included two double-digit losses as No. 9 Michigan State sits two games out of first place in the Big Ten.
“We don’t think our break has been very good,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We just think we gotta space it out a little bit more and run a lot harder and get our break going, which means our guards gotta push it a little better than they’ve been pushing it.”
During Michigan State’s 14-game win streak, the break was hitting on all cylinders. The Spartans were averaging nearly 14 fast-break points a game in non-conference play, highlighted by 34 in a victory over Savannah State. They scored 17 in the win over Notre Dame and, even in the loss to Duke, the scored 16 points in transition.
Things started to slow down once conference play began, with Michigan State scoring in double figures just once, getting 10 points on the break against Rutgers. The Spartans had nine points at Ohio State and just two fast-break points in the loss to Michigan.
“Teams definitely strategize against it, because it’s a big part of our offense,” sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said. “But usually if you keep pushing at them it breaks down. That’s how it worked before, that’s how we get it going a lot of times. That’s on us; we’ve got to keep pushing it at them.”
With six days off between games, Michigan State (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) has spent plenty of time this week dissecting game film over where the breakdowns are happening.
Heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. tip against Indiana at the Breslin Center, that film work has made it clear the Spartans simply aren’t pushing the pace.
“You can see it,” Winston said. “You can see the different things we’re doing. We’re not running the lanes hard because we’re not pushing the ball ahead, we’re not throwing the ball ahead well enough. There are all types of things you can sense and watch it in the film.”
The struggles on the break have led to issues with the offense as a whole. Spacing hasn’t been good while running, and it’s been poor in the half-court sets, as well.
“It’s hard to play in the half-court against any team, especially in the Big Ten,” Winston said. “Teams know your offenses, they know what you do. You gotta kind of get the ball moving a lot. On the break, everything is spread out, everything is open. People aren’t cluttered, so that’s where you want to score at.”
It’s made things much tougher on center Nick Ward, as well. Teams have started to double-team Ward more often, which makes spacing crucial. It also makes the fast break critical, considering Ward had been effective running the floor which resulted in his share of easy baskets.
“When we run they can’t double-team me,” Ward said. “It would be just me and another big, one on one.”
Of course, that’s not every trip down the floor. The half-court offense has to be much better, too, and a lot of that comes down to moving the ball and getting more efficient touches for Ward.
Since Big Ten play resumed in early January, teams have focused on stopping Ward, who is averaging just five shots a game over the last three.
“On the catch, they are smothering me,” Ward said. “It’s hard to get off like that. They sag more in the paint and that has hurt us.”
Getting that turned around will be vital in the second half of the Big Ten season. Getting the fast break back to where it was early in the season will help, but getting Ward more involved will, as well.
In the losses to Ohio State and Michigan, Ward has scored just seven points on 2-for-6 shooting. Some of that is on Ward, but it’s mostly on the entire team.
“We’re working on a couple of schemes that we think will help eliminate their ability to double, whether we do some things on the weak side that we’re talking about,” Izzo said. “Nick does get frustrated, and he’s handled it a lot better, but he’s been more stagnant.
“I think we’ve been doing way too much dribbling and not enough passing, and the ball has been kind of standing still. That’s something that’s gonna change one way or another.”
Indiana at No. 9 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Friday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
Records: Indiana 11-7, 4-2 Big Ten; Michigan State 16-3, 4-2
Outlook: The Hoosiers enter the game having won three straight, and five of the last six. … Michigan State has won five of the last six in the series, including three straight at home. … Indiana enters the game second in Big Ten games in steals per game (7.3) and turnover margin (+3.7) while Michigan State is 13th in turnover margin (-3.2).