The 2015 BTPowerhouse Recapitulation Series will look back at the season of each Big Ten team through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations in 2014-15. The series will be released during the summer in reverse order of conference standings, meaning the last place team will be reviewed first and the Big Ten champions will be reviewed last.
Confused? See the advanced stats glossary here.
The 2014-15 season was a bizarre one for Michigan State. After coming off a 29-9 season and the loss of several major contributors, most expected the Spartans to take a step back. The team still had a good mix of depth, experience, and talent, but attempting to replicate a season that included nearly 30 wins, an Elite Eight appearance, and a Big Ten Tournament title would not be easy, especially without Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne. Though 2014-15 team may never have matched up to the talent of the year before and couldn't match their raw success, they did put it all together at the end of the year to get back to the Final Four. For what looked to be a transitional year on paper, to end up hanging another Final Four banner was a major accomplishment.
Let's look back at the season in its entirety.
1. Preseason Expectations
Coming into the year, Michigan State had good, but not great expectations on the season. Given the consistent nature of the program under Tom Izzo, nobody figured that the team would be bad, but reasonly speaking, a step back was likely considering the losses of Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne. These were great players that put up huge numbers for the program during their careers. Replacing them would not be easy. Still, with the return of players like Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine, there was enough to believe the Spartans would still field a really good team. Due to these factors, I slotted Michigan State in at #6 in my Big Ten preview.
Here was my preseason storyline for Michigan State:
The biggest storyline for Michigan State this season will be how the team attempts to replace 3 starters and 2 important contributors from last year. For many, last season was the year that the Spartans would truly contend for a Final Four appearance and the national championship. Unfortunately, MSU fell short of making the Final Four, but the real challenge could come now with major roster changes occurring since last March. For most, this team is going to look very different than the last few seasons. Can Tom Izzo continue his magic and keep MSU at the top of the Big Ten despite these challenges? That will be the story for MSU this season.
The Big Ten writers writers were actually a lot higher than me on the Spartans and put them in at #3 in the preseason conference standings behind just Wisconsin and Ohio State. There was certainly talent, proven coaching, and some proven options, but the issue would be on how people viewed the role players for the team. If players like Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes could produce, this would be a very good team, but if not, this looked like a solid team, but not one that could compete at the top of the Big Ten.
2. Non-Conference Play
With good, but not great preseason expectations and a tough non-conference slate, the Spartans were expected to get off to a decent start, but likely suffer a few losses early on. They would have to face several top teams away from home like Duke, Kansas, and Notre Dame and even if they could play well, scoring wins against those teams would be difficult. There were some manageable games against teams like Marquette and Oakland, but not a lot outside those top matchups. Here is how things went.
Michigan State 2014-15 Non-Conference:
- Win (1-0): Navy, 64-59
- Loss (1-1): Duke, 81-71
- Win (2-1): Loyola Chicago, 87-52
- Win (3-1): Santa Clara, 79-52
- Win (4-1): Rider, 77-45
- Win (5-1): Marquette, 79-68
- Loss (5-2): Kansas, 61-56
- Loss (5-3): Notre Dame, 79-78 OT
- Win (6-3): Arkansas Pine Bluff, 85-52
- Win (7-3): Oakland, 87-61
- Win (8-3): Eastern Michigan, 66-46
- Loss (8-4): Texas Southern, 71-64 OT
- Win (9-4): The Citadel, 82-56
3. Conference Play
The Spartans had shown they could beat decent teams, but MSU was still largely an unknown coming into conference play. They had failed to beat a Top 100 KenPom team in non-conference play and the loss to Texas Southern at home left many scratching their heads on Michigan State. The team would get their opportunities early in conference play with games against teams like Iowa and Maryland, but until the Spartans showed they could compete at the highest level, the verdict would stay up in the air on Michigan State. Here is how things went.
Michigan State 2014-15 Big Ten Play:
- Loss (0-1): Maryland, 68-66 2OT
- Win (1-1): Indiana, 70-50
- Win (2-1): Iowa, 75-61
- Win (3-1): Northwestern, 84-77 OT
- Loss (3-2): Maryland, 75-59
- Win (4-2): Penn State, 66-60
- Loss (4-3): Nebraska, 79-77
- Win (5-3): Rutgers, 71-51
- Win (6-3): Michigan, 76-66 OT
- Loss (6-4): Illinois, 59-54
- Win (7-4): Northwestern, 68-44
- Win (8-4): Ohio State, 59-56
- Win (9-4): Michigan, 80-67
- Win (10-4): Illinois, 60-53
- Loss (10-5): Minnesota, 96-90 OT
- Loss (10-6): Wisconsin, 68-61
- Win (11-6): Purdue, 72-66
- Win (12-6): Indiana, 74-72
4. Postseason Play
With Michigan State going 12-6 in Big Ten play, the Spartans were considered a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament and a potential contender to move up with a successful Big Ten Tournament. Due to the tiebreaker, MSU would come in as the #3 seed, despite being tied with both Iowa and Purdue and get the double-bye in Chicago. In their first game, MSU would face the winner of Ohio State against the winner of the Minnesota and Rutgers game. If they were able to win, they would likely face Maryland in the semi-finals. Here is how things went:
Michigan State 2014-15 Postseason Play:
- Win (Quarterfinals - Big Ten Tourney), Ohio State, 76-67
- Win (Semifinals - Big Ten Tourney), Maryland, 62-58
- Loss (Finals - Big Ten Tourney), Wisconsin, 80-69 OT
- Win (Round of 64 - NCAA Tournament), Georgia, 70-63
- Win (Round of 32 - NCAA Tournament), Virginia, 60-54
- Win (Sweet Sixteen - NCAA Tournament), Oklahoma, 62-58
- Win (Elite Eight - NCAA Tournament), Louisville, 76-70 OT
- Loss (Final Four - NCAA Tournament), Duke, 81-61
Entering the postseason, MSU was in that intriguing place where their bid to the NCAA Tournament was secure, but they had a potential route to a much better seed if things went right in Chicago. Due to the tiebreaker, they had avoided Wisconsin's side of the bracket, which meant that they would only have to beat out teams like Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State, and Minnesota to get to the championship game. These certainly would not be "gimme" games, but the Spartans had competed pretty well against all these teams and would have pretty decent odds to actually get to the championship game for a potential matchup with Wisconsin.
Thanks to Minnesota beating Rutgers and Ohio State then beating Minnesota, the Spartans would get an interesting matchup with the Buckeyes in the quarterfinals. The two teams may not have an official rivalry with one another, but the teams have consistently played each other in extremely tight matchups over the years and this one would prove intriguing as well. Ohio State was a slim 50.9% favorite before tip-off, but thanks to some huge performances from Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, MSU put the pedal to the medal and won by a final score of 76-67. Ohio State may not have been an elite team, but they were a very good unit - detailed in my Ohio State retrospective - and thanks to the win, MSU got a nice resume bump.
With their win over the Buckeyes and Maryland taking care of business against Indiana, the Spartans would have a third chance to finally get their first conference win against the Terps. The interesting thing about Maryland is that though they had put up a really impressive record and were the #2 seed in the field, their flurry of close wins during conference play really hurt them in the advanced stats, allowing MSU to be a 59.6% favorite heading into the game. Though Maryland came out firing early on, yet again MSU got a huge performance out of Travis Trice and with 17 additional points from Branden Dawson, were able to secure a 62-58 win over the Terps. NCAA Tournament qualification wasn't an issue, but with two wins against really solid teams, things were going well for MSU.
The Spartans had utilized a weaker side of the bracket to get to the Big Ten Tournament Championship game, but since nobody had been able to upset Wisconsin, the Badgers marched on and would be MSU's final opponent in Chicago. Wisconsin had handled MSU in their regular season matchup and few thought anything would be different this time. Before tip, KenPom gave Wisconsin 76.8% odds to win the game.
Early on, it was a tight affair. Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky were hitting some big shots for Wisconsin and players like Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes were doing the dirty work for MSU. With 10 minutes left in the 1st Half, the teams were tied at 15-15 and continued this back-and-forth battle during the 1st half. By halftime, the score was 32-21 in MSU's favor thanks to some late plays from Branden Dawson and Trice Trice.
The Spartans actually continued their run in the 2nd Half and were able to use great plays from Dawson, Forbes, and Valentine to get up to a 57-46 lead with just 7:46 remaining in the game. This is when things got wild. Thanks to huge plays from Hayes, Kaminsky, and Koenig, the Badgers not only got back in the game, but were able to erase their entire deficit and take a lead with just over 4 minutes remaining. The last few minutes of regulation were wild with both teams hitting huge shots, but they were eventually forced into overtime. During overtime, it was all Wisconsin as the Spartans were unable to even get a bucket and Wisconsin won by a final score of 80-69. It truly was a disappointing finish to what was one of the better Big Ten games of the entire season.
Even though MSU fell flat against Wisconsin in overtime in the title game, it's hard not to like what they did in Chicago. They scored nice wins against Maryland and Ohio State and though they fell short against Wisconsin, it can hardly be a blow to a team to lose to a Top 5 team on a neutral court in overtime. Even if the committee won't boost a team for a "moral loss," the hit would be so minimal from that game that it hardly could matter. Still, thanks to some underwhelming regular season losses, the Spartans were selected as a #7 seed in the East Region along with #1 seed Villanova, #2 seed Virginia, and #3 seed Oklahoma. They would have a matchup with Georgia in the Round of 64 where the Spartans would have 60.6% odds to win before tipoff with the winner likely facing Virginia in the next game.
In MSU's opening NCAA Tournament game, it was actually a pretty tight battle early on. Kenny Gaines made some really nice plays for the Bulldogs and allowed Georgia to take control early on. However, as time went on, Trice and Valentine proved to be too much for Georgia to handle. By halftime, the Spartans had more than a 90% chance to win according to KenPom and pushed their lead to 10 points early in the 2nd Half. Eventually, MSU was able to move on by a final score of 70-63.
In the Round of 32, the Spartans would face an extremely talented Virginia team - they were actually my only Final Four pick that failed to make it to Indy. The Cavaliers were one of the nation's toughest defenses and literally would simply grind opponents until they couldn't keep up anymore. This was important to keep in mind because MSU was able to push the pace early on and get up 13-4 and pushed it to 17-9 halfway through the 1st Half. Virginia was able to thin the deficit thanks to Darion Atkins, but were still down 23-18 at half.
In the 2nd Half, Virginia opened with a few buckets, but thanks to some massive plays from Dawson, the Spartans not only maintained the lead, but pushed it up to 32-22 just a few minutes into the 2nd Half. Unfortunately for Virginia, without a fast paced offense, playing from behind wasn't a great option and though they would go on a run here and there, they simply could never close the gap. MSU won by a final score of 60-54.
Thanks to the win over Virginia, the Spartans would move on to face Oklahoma. The Sooners were nowhere near as scary as Virginia and were only 54.3% favorites against MSU before tip. Unfortunately, things did not go well early and Oklahoma held a solid lead due to Buddy Hield and TaShawn Thomas during the entire first portion of the 1st Half. However, the Spartans were able to cut the deficit to four at halftime and thanks to a monster 2nd Half from Valentine, were able to move on by a final score of 62-58.
Luckily, for MSU, the bracket's #1 seed Villanova had gone down earlier in the tournament and the Spartans would get to avoid them in their Elite Eight matchup. Unfortunately, they were gifted with Louisville as their opponent. What's amazing though is that despite going into the NCAA Tournament as a #7 seed, the Spartans would actually be slim 50.6% favorites to win an Elite Eight game according to KenPom. That's incredible and says a lot about how much some of MSU's struggles with consistency during the regular season hindered their seeding in March.
The matchup would turn out to be a classic and a complete battle for its entire duration. Both teams were exchanging buckets early on with Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell doing damage for Louisville and Trice and Valentine doing work for the Spartans. For virtually the entire first 16 minutes of the game, the margin of the game was a possession, but at halftime, Louisville held a 40-32 lead. Things would play out similarly early on in the 2nd Half with the Cardinals holding a lead, but just narrowly over MSU.
However, as the game reached its final minutes, MSU got some big plays inside from Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling and Valentine really made some great plays with both his passing and shooting. In the final minutes, MSU held a very slim lead over Louisville, but thanks to some late fouling, Louisville was able to tie things up and force overtime. During the overtime period, Forbes and Valentine made some great plays and pushed the Spartans to a win by a final score of 76-70 and a trip back to the Final Four.
Unfortunately their matchup in the Final Four would be a stinker. They made a nice run early in the game, but Duke was simply too good for Michigan State and it really wasn't all that competitive for the vast majority of the 2nd Half. It was nice to see Dawson, Trice, and Valentine all score double-digits, but with Quinn Cook, Jahlil Okafor, and Justise Winslow all around the 20 point mark, it just wasn't enough. Duke won 81-61.
Overall, Michigan State took a team that had decent preseason expectations, but had trouble with consistency in the regular season and put together a 27-12 overall record, a 12-6 record in the Big Ten, and a trip back into the Final Four. The Spartans may have caught a break with Villanova going down, but they certainly earned their keep with postseason wins over Georgia, Louisville, Oklahoma, and Virginia. That's an impressive slate and polished off what was a great season for the program.
Michigan State was far from a perfect team last season, but their strengths certainly showed during their trip back to the Final Four and in their great play down the stretch in Big Ten play. Particularly, the Spartans were very effective at shooting from long range, holding onto the ball, and at blocking shots on the defensive end of the floor.
Though there were a lot of changes for MSU before the season started, one thing that really crossed over between the two teams was outside shooting. This has not always been an area of strength for Tom Izzo's teams, but they were able to finish at #85 nationally in 2011-12, at #16 in 2013-14, and finished at #29 last season. Maybe these aren't the elite numbers that some desire, but they were a huge part in MSU's offensive efficiency last season. Just take a look at how their numbers compared to the conference.
2014-15 Big Ten 3PT%:
As mentioned, the outside shooting was a huge part in MSU's offense last season as 31.8% of the team's points came from outside the arc, which ranked #88 nationally. Considering that MSU finished with the #15 rated offense last season, those are pretty significant numbers. Another area where the Spartans did a great job on the offensive end was avoiding turnovers. Just look at how they compared.
2014-15 Big Ten Turnover Stats:
Along with playing well from long range and taking care of the ball offensively, the Spartans also held up well on the defensive end and particularly, did a nice job at blocking shots. They ranked #47 in defensive efficiency last season and a big part of that was their blocking rate, where they ranked #49 nationally. Just take a look at how some of their top contributors compared to the Big Ten.
2014-15 Big Ten Blocking Stats:
There were a lot of things to like about Michigan State's team last season and they were relatively well balanced, but their ability to shoot the long ball, control possessions, and block shots around the hoop were huge parts in their success last season.
Of course, the Spartans also had some weaknesses on their team last season. Chief among these was a horrid performance from the free throw line all season, but the team also struggled at creating turnovers on the defensive end, which probably held their defense back from reaching that elite level as a team.
By far, the most visible issue on MSU's team was their free throw shooting. They finished at #347 nationally in free throw rate, #347 nationally in percentage of points of free throws, and finished dead last in the Big Ten in free throw shooting during conference play. To say this was underwhelming would be putting it mildly.
However, what is perhaps more significant about the free throw shooting issues is that it almost assuredly contributed to the inconsistency of the Spartans last season and held them back in numerous games. The Spartans shot 57.1% from the line during their loss to Texas Southern, 60% in their loss to Nebraska, and 65.5% in their loss to Minnesota. All three of these losses hurt MSU's resume and might have been avoided with better free throw shooting. Take a look at how they trended during the season.
2014-15 Michigan State Running FT% Average:
It's undeniable that free throw shooting was likely the team's biggest issue, but the inability to create turnovers defensively was also a major issue. The Spartans ranked #312 in defensive turnover rate and #282 in defensive steal rate. Considering that MSU finished in the Top 100 statistically in just about every other major measure, it's not hard to make an argument this was the one area that held them back. Here's how they compared to the Big Ten.
2014-15 Big Ten Steal Stats:
Michigan State was a good team last season and that ultimately had a great deal of success late in the year, but their free throw shooting and inability to create turnovers were major factors in holding them back early on. If they could have even been mediocre in either one of those stats, this very well could have been an elite team all year.
7. Top Player
Entering the season, there were some pretty big question marks about who would be the team's top player. They had lost Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Adreian Payne in the offseason and would have to look for somebody new to emerge if they were going to remain a contender. Luckily, they did bring back some major players in Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine who could make an impact.
Let's take a look at how the players compared.
Michigan State 2014-15 Stat Leaders:
- Minutes - Travis Trice
- Field Goal Attempts - Travis Trice
- Points - Travis Trice
- Rebounds - Branden Dawson
- Assists - Travis Trice
- Blocks - Branden Dawson
- Steals - Branden Dawson
Trice also held up very well in the advanced stats.
Of course, advanced numbers may not necessarily be a perfect reflection compared to how a player performs in big games and whether he can push them over the top. To help assist in this, KenPom does an analysis of an MVP in each game and awards it to the best player during the game. Here is how Michigan State stacked up.
It's pretty evident from the raw stats, advanced stats, and individual performances that Dawson, Trice, and Valentine were a pretty big step up from any other players. Trice and Valentine probably got a slight edge, but it's hard to separate the two as they both produced very well. Trice probably deserves a slight edge simply due to his total contributions, but it's neck and neck.
8. Sixth Man
The Spartans were certainly not among the nation's elite in terms of bench production, but they did get quite a bit out of a few players at times. Overall, Michigan State came in at #188 nationally in bench minutes.
Last season, Michigan State's most started lineup was Branden Dawson, Bryn Forbes, Gavin Schilling, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine. This was certainly not the lineup for the entire season, but these were the most started players, which is the measure for this comparison. This left the top bench contributors as Marvin Clark, Matt Costello, Alvin Ellis, Lourawls Nairn, and Colby Wollenman.
Michigan State 2014-15 Bench Leaders
- Minutes - Matt Costello
- Field Goal Attempts - Matt Costello
- Points - Matt Costello
- Rebounds - Matt Costello
- Assists - Lourawls Nairn
- Blocks - Matt Costello
- Steals - Matt Costello
Here is how they held up in the advanced stats comparison.
This pretty easily goes to Matt Costello. He had a really nice season and though he certainly was not a typical bench player last season, for this comparison, he easily came out on top.
9. Top Storylines
The storyline of Michigan State's 2014-15 season was a bizarre one. At the end of the day, it's hard not to think this MSU team was a very good unit. After all, they did make the Final Four and won 27 games on the year, but it's also odd to factor in those four losses at home including three that really should have been wins. It's not often that a team can lose to a team like Texas Southern at home and still make the Final Four.
Preseason expectations were pretty high for Michigan State. They were not considered the Big Ten favorite, but most thought they would play into the discussion at the top and if things went right, they could make an impressive run in March. There was plenty of talent there, but many were concerned about the significant offseason departures and how the Spartans would work in their newcomers.
Things didn't start the best in non-conference play with a loss to Texas Southern and no great wins, but in Big Ten play, MSU was able to show it was a good team and started to reel off resume building wins. They tripped up several times, but when all was said and done, they were the #3 seed in Chicago. They fell short against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, but used that momentum to lead to a Final Four run in the NCAA Tournament including wins over Louisville and Virginia. The team lacked consistency, but it certainly got the results fans wanted.
What's interesting about Michigan State's team is that there was no "miraculous turnaround" to the season. Unlike teams like Purdue that started rough and improved over the course of the year, MSU really didn't "build" toward anything until the very end of the season. It was a consistently good team, but due to their weaknesses, especially on the free throw line, they lost games they had no business losing. Overall, this was a very good team that definitely met preseason expectations despite failing to show consistency during the regular season.
(Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)
10. Final Verdict
Michigan State's performance during the 2014-15 certainly met and exceeded the vast majority of preseason and midseason expectations. Though they had some really rough tripups during the season, it's hard not to think a third place conference finish, a runner-up finish in the Big Ten Tournament, a Final Four appearance, and 27 overall wins was anything other than a remarkable success.
Thanks to the team's ability to create outside shots, hold onto the ball, and defend around the hoop, the Spartans were able to compete with the top teams. What's interesting is that outside of a home upset against Minnesota that was at least partially due to missed free throws, the only losses for Michigan State in their final 16 games of the season came against Duke and Wisconsin, who played for the national championship. Certainly a telling stat about how the team played late in the year.
Of course, there does have to at least be an acknowledgment of the consistency issues. Obviously, the loss to Texas Southern was a nightmare, but there were also several losses in Big Ten play that prevented MSU from really reaching that next level. In fact, if they had simply been able to hold off Maryland at home in a loss that went to double-overtime, they would have been tied with the Terps in conference record. Add in the rough losses to Illinois and Minnesota at home and the road loss to Nebraska and there were definitely some missed opportunities.
Nonetheless, even if MSU bloodied its nose during the regular season, it's hard to really think that many care about a loss to a team like Minnesota at home when they will have a Final Four banner to hang next fall. It's kind of like a boring scene during the middle of a great movie. You don't like it, but nobody really cares when all is said and done because the ending is so awesome that it overrides any of those issues. MSU had its issues and it hurt it numerous times during the season, but it's really impressive play late in the year made up for virtually all of those issues.
Season Grade: A