Michigan State offense humming despite key absences

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Kenny Goins leads MSU with 9.4 rebounds a game.

East Lansing — While Tom Izzo’s eyes might be telling him one thing, the numbers are saying something slightly different.

The Michigan State coach sees plenty of areas his team needs to improve, but a look at some of the analytics say there’s not much further the No. 6 Spartans have to go when it comes to offensive and defensive efficiency.

“We’re gonna have to improve in some areas,” Izzo said on Tuesday. “And yet, we’re still rated a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency, which is probably where we’ve been one of the more solid of any team I have had. It doesn’t add up. But at least the analytical people say that. My eye test doesn’t always see that.”

The analytical people, as Izzo described it, paint a pretty impressive picture of the Spartans (18-3, 9-1 Big Ten). They currently rank seventh in the nation in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com.

They’re first in assists per game, second in rebounding and third in field-goal percentage defense while they’re top 10 in field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, a real eye-opener considering they’re averaging 13.3 turnovers a game.

And Michigan State has done it spending the bulk of the season missing plenty of punch at the wing position. In late November, senior Matt McQuaid missed three games with a thigh bruise while junior Joshua Langford has now missed the last eight games with an ankle injury. Fellow junior Kyle Ahrens has missed three of the last five games with a back problem.

“I think it’s amazing we can lose McQuaid for (three) games and Josh for eight games and Kyle for three or four,” Izzo said. “And then when they’re back they’re not always the same. But that’s all at one position, kind of those wing guys. They’re all shooters. We started looking at it and were taking seven or eight less threes a game and Josh took seven himself, so those things you have to adjust to.”

Michigan State has been able to adjust because, even while a player like Langford was averaging 15 points a game before he got hurt, there are plenty of other options to turn to, namely guard Cassius Winston and center Nick Ward.

Still, Izzo believes he has seen some drop-off the past couple of games, including the fact the Spartans gave up 16 offensive rebounds in the loss to Purdue on Sunday.

“(The injuries) don’t mean we’re gonna fall on our face either, we’ve just got to make adjustments,” Izzo said. “We’re gonna have to learn how to deal with it and do a better job of getting the ball round and I think our defensive rebounding has to improve and that has nothing to do with those guys. I mean, Josh is a good rebounder and Kyle is a good rebounder, but that’s where our bigs have got to do a better job and take some of that burden on, because then we can still get our break going which I think has been very good.”

It’s likely the biggest reason the Spartans have been able to remain one of the better offensive teams in the country despite losing a player like Langford. While they don’t get the shot-making ability and the experience of Langford, getting freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown to run the floor the same way has been a quicker transition.

“We work on our fast break with everyone, from freshmen to starters to scout team,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Everybody works on the fast break. That’s the one thing we do and do to a ‘T’ and everybody knows their job.”

The break has always been at the center of Michigan State’s offense, and while it has dropped off slightly over the past couple of weeks, the Spartans still rank in the top third in the adjusted tempo, according to Kenpom.

The defensive rebounding is key to getting that break going, not to mention having Winston pulling the strings. He’s been at his best this season, winning his fourth conference player of the week award from the Big Ten after Michigan State went 2-1 last week.

His adjustment to losing Langford has been critical in the Spartans barely missing a beat offensively.

“Josh is more of a guy you can give it to him and let him create for himself,” Winston said. “Other guys you’ve got to create for. Kyle is a better backdoor cutter, things like that. … It’s been eight games now and you get a feel for their spots and keep rolling.”

Ahrens could be back as soon as Saturday when Michigan State hosts Indiana, but Langford’s return is tougher to predict. Izzo said again on Tuesday that he hopes to know more by the end of the week, but that they’ve left no stone unturned in trying to nail down Langford’s issue.

“I’m frustrated I don’t have an answer,” Izzo said.

Until then, the Spartans will keep riding their point guard while working to regain their toughness on the defensive glass and igniting their break.

“Is it the perfect scenario? No, it’s not,” Izzo said. “But that’s what happens when you lose some guys. … But we’ve got to deal with some reality here and the reality is we’ve got a damn good basketball team and really good guys and they’re a fun team to watch. They’re efficient on offense, they’re efficient on defense. We’re more than an adequate rebounding team and we’re gonna get better. Depending on what happens with (Langford and Ahrens), it creates a problem that we’re gonna have to deal with and make adjustments.

“But I like where we are. I sure wish we didn’t have the injuries, but I like the players we’ve got.”


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