Michigan State has done a lot of good things this year. The Spartans have won 12 out of 13 games with the lone loss coming to then-No. 1 Duke, each of those wins has came by double-digits, they’ve beaten a pair of top 10 teams, and they have proven to be the deepest team in the Big Ten with all five starters averaging double-digit point totals.
However, there is one thing that continues to be the Spartans’ achilles heel — turnovers. And if this problem isn’t solved, then it could cost Michigan State it’s chance at winning Tom Izzo’s second National Championship.
Wooh, the turnovers issue is so bad that it could derail this team’s hopes at a National Championship? Yeah, it’s that bad, and as of right now nothing suggests it’ll change.
Let’s dive into the true numbers to showcase how turnovers have continued to be the Spartans biggest issue. Michigan State is currently averaging 14.4 turnovers per game, which ranks 235th out of 351 teams in college basketball. I was honestly surprised they didn’t rank worse in this stat. It’s still a terrible number, especially when you compare it to last year when Michigan State was averaging 13.6 turnovers through the first 13 games. That team was also much younger and simply not as talented as this year’s squad.
So from last year to this year, we’ve seen improved play on the court except in this category. It’s actually gotten worse for Michigan State. That’s hard to believe when you think about how bad of an issue this was a year ago.
Another key stat in this area is turnovers margin, and it also doesn’t bode well for Michigan State. Out of the first 13 games, only three times have the Spartans won the turnovers battle — against UConn, Notre Dame and Long Beach State. Uncoincidentally, Michigan State beat all three of those teams by the average margin of 26.7 points. Below I included a tweet of mine that showcases a game-by-game look at the Spartans’ turnover woes.
I'm taking a look at the MSU turnovers issue for an upcoming story for @BTpowerhouse and the game-by-game numbers say it all. Spartans have had fewer turnovers than their opponent only three times this year. That's an alarming stat. pic.twitter.com/mWJP5UxIRm— Robert Bondy (@RobertBondy5) December 27, 2017
So why has Michigan State continued to struggle with turnovers? That question was addressed by Izzo following the Spartans’ most recent win against Long Beach State, which Michigan State finished with 11 turnovers.
“There’s no secrets about it. I think if you counted them tonight, we counted about seven of our first nine were borderline ridiculous, unforced, whatever you want to call them,” Izzo said during the postgame press conference. “We’re working on it every day. We’re talking about it every day. Should be easy to correct because it’s not even trying to make a play. We’re out in the middle of the court and we just throw it out of bounds.”
Izzo hit it nail right on the head. It’s the unforced turnovers that are hurting this team right now and making fans want to rip their hair out of their heads. The good news is it is a fixable thing because like Izzo said, these are mostly unforced turnovers. It would appear more focus and sharp passing would go a long way in fixing this problem.
To fix the problem, Michigan State will have to start in the backcourt. That means starting point guard Cassius Winston, who is leading the team with 2.7 turnovers per game. Winston has been a star for Michigan State this year and quite possibly emerged as the most important person on this team. However, turning the ball over has also been an issue for him, and when we hit the thick of conference play it could cost the Spartans.
Winston understands the importance of limiting turnovers too, making a comment earlier this year about how it can derail a team.
“Limiting turnovers and remaining focused,” Winston answered when asked about what the team must improve after an early-season victory over North Florida. “... If we can limit the turnovers and remain focused, I’m looking at a pretty good team.”
Michigan State would be more than a “pretty good team” if they solve this problem. They’ve already proven they can beat some solid teams despite the turnovers bug, and should still dominate the weaker opponents regardless of this issue too. However, it’s in March when this could truly haunt the Spartans.
In the one-game elimination style that is the NCAA Tournament, too many turnovers could certainly cost you the game. It’s a huge factor in the underdog pulling off the upset, along with shooting lights out. So with that being said, this is by far my biggest concern moving forward with this team, and if it isn’t figured out by the end of the year then Spartan fans should be worried.
With a team that is Final Four or bust, this one issue could result in this season becoming a disappointment. As Izzo said, the good news for Spartan fans is that it’s an easy fix. But then again, haven’t we been hearing that since last year?