MSU basketball mailbag: Are recent struggles a phase, or sign of things to come?

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s been a while since we’ve delved into the Michigan State mailbag, and judging from what we found, there is plenty of frustration in the fanbase.

Granted, none of it came from the football program, which is understandable because they don’t play again for another six months and it’s easy to feel good about things in February, but when it comes to the basketball program, there is plenty of hair pulling.

It’s understandable when the Spartans lost back-to-back games for the first time all season and looked bad doing it Tuesday night against Wisconsin, but there are some short memories out there.

We do our best to offer some clarity in the latest installment of the mailbag.

Michigan State's coach Tom Izzo signals to a player during the first half.

► Question. Have you noticed that Michigan State's offense is seemingly always on the perimeter? They rarely get shots inside while their opponents routinely get easy shots in the paint. Thoughts? —@pfnnewmedia

► Answer. It can certainly seem like this considering the Spartans don’t have a go-to post-up option like they did with, say, Nick Ward, and it’s been an ongoing battle with Marcus Bingham Jr. to spend more time in the post. But it has been happening, and Julius Marble has had his moments, too. The last handful of games, though, post scoring hasn’t been as good, but some of this frustration might be wrapped up in one game – Tuesday vs. Wisconsin. That was a truly rough offensive performance, but Michigan State won’t shoot that poorly most nights, and did not in the second half.

As for easy shots in the paint for opponents, Michigan State is 37th in effective field-goal percentage defense, according to KenPom, and it ranks 64th in two-point field-goal defense. Where do the other Big Ten contenders rank against two-point shots? Illinois is 14th, Ohio State is 56th, Purdue is 134th  and Wisconsin is 143rd.

More: Effort, toughness remain issues for suddenly reeling Michigan State basketball

► Q. Do you think this team has an athleticism/speed problem? I think a lack of athleticism/speed ties back to struggling on the boards, limited ability to beat defenders off the bounce (often resulting in TOs), and a non-existent transition game. — @ryanjstolz

► A. We’ll start with a simple answer. No, I do not think there is a speed/athleticism problem. Are the Spartans THE most athletic team in the country? No, but is Gabe Brown athletic? Is Max Christie? How about Malik Hall and Jaden Akins? And Tyson Walker surely isn’t slow. But we can argue that all day. The real eye-opener here is the idea MSU has no transition game. If the statement was MSU had not transition game the last week, then it’s true. MSU was blanked at Maryland and Rutgers and scored 8 against Wisconsin.

Before that, when was the last time MSU did not score double digits in transition? The Baylor game. On Nov. 26., MSU had 8. The next 13 games the Spartans hit double digits in transition points, in fact, never getting less than 12 while racking up 31 against Penn State, 28 in the Michigan win, 25 against Louisville and 21 in the win at Wisconsin. So, yeah, the fast break hasn’t been great for a couple games – one was when Rutgers made nearly every shot it took – but that hardly equates to a team with a “non-existent transition game.”

► Q. Are the struggles the last two years due to Izzo’s stubbornness? Similar to Dantonio from 2016-2019? — @Mark_Szott

► A. I guess I’m not sure where to go with this. Stubborn with what, exactly? Rotations? Game plans? Recruiting? This team still ranks 34th in the nation in offensive efficiency so is it that people want it to look like the NBA with guys going one-on-one all night? This is the same offense that ran up and down the court at Wisconsin and at home against Michigan in just the last few weeks. Was he too stubborn then? I don’t want to say everything Izzo does is perfect because he even admits it’s not. I’d prefer he doesn’t take Bingham and Walker out before the first media timeout every game, and maybe Hall should start, but this feels more like frustration over a few bad games instead of some much bigger issue with how Izzo coaches.

More: Niyo: Izzo's lethargic Spartans take one step forward, two steps back

► Q. Why are ‘chemistry’ and ‘fitting together in their roles’ perpetual issues for MSU basketball? — @dawntreadercapt

► A. This one has me truly stumped. One of the most important qualities of this team – you know, the one that is a single game out of first in the Big Ten in the loss column – is that everyone understands their role. It wasn’t like that last year, and there’s a lot of reasons why, but this team is the opposite. That doesn’t mean they play their role perfectly every game, but they understand it. And trust me, chemistry hasn’t been a problem around this team in a long time. I’d have to go back at least 10 years before even entertaining the idea of a chemistry issue.

Wisconsin's Chris Vogt puts up a wall for Michigan State's A.J. Hoggard to bounce off of in the second half.

► Q. Do you think that the turnovers are also a function of how many passes are made to take a shot? We consistently top assists to shot ratio. I also believe players are afraid to break a play to make their own shot and will instead force a pass to run the play. — @jswizzo

► A. I don’t know about that. It’s not like Izzo is Norman Dale over there yelling “How many passes before we shoot?!” And let’s be clear, a lot of assists is not a bad thing. But there’s really only a few of the turnovers a game that leave you wondering what happened and often I think it’s a product of a player trying to do too much. A.J. Hoggard has admitted that multiple times this year, in fact. And as for not breaking the play, have you noticed how often Izzo yells at a guy for NOT shooting? It might be hard to see on TV, but if you get to a game, pay attention to that. There were multiple occasions in the Wisconsin game when it happened, so I don’t think players are afraid to get away from the set.

More: Michigan State names Leah Johnson new volleyball coach

► Q. If turnovers have been a problem for years, at what point do we admit it’s a coaching problem and not a player problem? — @Jackiewrotethis

► A. I’ll concede that Michigan State’s style of pushing the pace can surely lead to more turnovers. So, in that sense, I suppose it is a coaching problem. But Izzo has played this style forever, the same way Wisconsin plays slow. There are plusses and minuses to each style, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot of issue with what Izzo’s style has produced. To some extent, turnovers are simply part of the deal.

► Q. With the first half of the Big Ten schedule bringing Minnesota and Northwestern twice, Michigan, Maryland, Nebraska, Illinois (without Kofi Cockburn), Wisconsin (without Wahl), and not a great win out of conference, nothing this past week is overly shocking. I love this team and am enjoying the season. The ceiling is where it is with this group. Go Green. — @RoeserScott

► A. Well, that’s a healthy approach, Scott. And Izzo has been with you all along, saying more than once that the schedule has been favorable. As for the non-conference wins, UConn is No. 17 in KenPom, nine ahead of MSU, and Loyola is No. 33. Those are pretty good wins.

► Q. Recently, there was a quote attributed to Coach Izzo in which he talked about “bringing back” the WAR drill. If he was serious, do you think he took it out due to injuries? Recruiting? Or, have rule changes led to less emphasis on physicality/toughness? — @FearsHarding2

► A. Let’s be clear, the War drill never left. It still gets played and recruits surely know that. However, it is true they haven’t used it as often, especially once the season is going. A lot of that was from last year when they rarely had a full team for practice and it does present some injury risk, so it’s not something you want to do all the time. But with the lack of emotion and toughness the last few games, it might get played a little more than usual.

Michigan State's Malik Hall lays out on a layup in the second half.

► Q. Why does Tom keep rolling with the same lineups? — @MatthewRDeVries

► A. We’re going to assume we’re talking staring lineups here, since he had Christie at the point for a while the other night. I’m wondering if we don’t see some changes come Saturday afternoon. I don’t usually care much about who starts but more about who plays the most when the game is on the line. I think Izzo has liked the idea of perhaps getting Joey Hauser going early and Malik Hall a potential spark off the bench. But that might change. We’ll see. But that’s about it. Maybe Hoggard instead of Walker, but I doubt that.

► Q. We've seen plenty of good from the basketball team and now we're seeing plenty of bad. How do you see the rest of the regular season playing out? — @daveholz

► A. Leave it up to Dave to remind everyone that this team’s last week hasn’t been the norm all season. Yes, turnovers have been there the whole way, but that’s really it. Inconsistencies have plagued MSU, no doubt, but the good has far outweighed the bad. I think this team stays in the hunt but comes up a game or two short. Purdue and Illinois are just too good. And if they get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, that’s a reasonable goal, too. And who knows, maybe there’s a Travis Trice type finish for someone and there is a run none of us saw coming.

► Q. So what are the odds that both Hoggard and Walker stick around another year? I don’t see it. I don’t think Walker is physically strong enough to play in this league. — @cmb2112

► A. I do not share your view. If you want to see a point guard not strong enough to play in the league, look at last year and Foster Loyer. I suspect both will be here, but I’m definitely not guaranteeing it. I wouldn’t do that with any player on the roster.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau