I told you so.
Last week in this column, I said Michigan could make some noise in this league if they hit big threes and make their free throws. They hit some big threes and were one controversial finish away from beating Purdue. Then they went into East Lansing, made 28-of-35 free throws, and knocked off the Spartans.
So that’s the Michigan side of Saturday’s upset in Ann Arbor. What about the Michigan State side?
The loss to their arch-rivals was just the final act in a three-part play called The Decline and Fall of The Spartans’ Big Ten Title Hopes. The first act was a blowout loss in Columbus. The second act was a home overtime squeaker against Rutgers, the lowest-rated team in the Big Ten. And the final act--well, unless you were a Purdue fan or a Minnesota fan with a high tolerance for pain--you saw what happened Saturday.
(Seriously, why were Saturday’s only two Big Ten games scheduled at the same time?)
Watching the Spartans on TV, it seems obvious what their issue is: bad halfcourt offense, which is a problem nobody foresaw. The game right before the Decline and Fall, Maryland, was like a basketball clinic. The ball moved around the court to the open man, and Michigan State took full advantage of the plethora of offensive weapons on their roster. They scored 1.44 points per possession. Every player who played at least ten minutes had an offensive rating over 100.
Michigan State scores an average of 1.20 points per possession this season. The D-I average is 1.04. In the last three games (admittedly against some pretty good defenses), they didn’t even crack the national average. Against Ohio State they managed 0.96 points per possession. Against Rutgers, 1.01. Against Michigan, 1.03.
So why the dropoff? Part of the answer is Nick Ward.
On Christmas I told you Nick Ward was the best player in the Big Ten. That’s no longer true. According to KenPom (and Dan Dakich, who will tell you at least 37 times per game), Keita Bates-Diop is now the best player in the league. Ward is no longer in the top five.
It’s difficult to lay the blame entirely at Ward’s feet, though. Yes, against Ohio State he only attempted one field goal (which hit the top of the backboard). He was silenced again in the Michigan game, only contributing four points and turning the ball over three times. But against Rutgers, he led the team in scoring and put up a double-double, with 17 and 10 rebounds.
Let’s look at three-point shooting next. For the season, the Spartans average 41.2% from deep, good for No. 14 in the country. Over the last three games, they shot 28.0%, 47.4%, and 25.0%. Again, the Rutgers game is an outlier.
It’s the same story if you look at turnovers. Against Ohio State the Spartans lost the rebounding battle 12-6; against Michigan they lost 18-4. But against Rutgers they only lost 13-12, more or less a wash.
Assists? The Spartans are the best in the country in terms of assists-per-make; they assist on over 70% of their made field goals. Against Ohio State that number was only 48.4%; against Michigan it was 61.9%. Once again, Rutgers is an outlier. In the Rutgers game the Spartans actually managed to assist on 90.5% of their makes.
So is there a single answer for the Spartans’ slump that can explain not just the two losses, but also the lackluster performance against the Scarlet Knights? I think there is.
Miles Bridges passed up millions of dollars to come back to college for one more year. He was the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year and a unanimous Preseason First Team All-Big Ten player. Dominant performances from Nick Ward in November and December notwithstanding, Bridges is the Spartans’ best and most important player.
In each of the last three games, Bridges has attempted more field goals than anyone else on the team. And in each of those three games, he has been less-than-efficient. For the season, his offensive rating is 118.6. Against Ohio State, it was 95. Against Rutgers, an abysmal 86. Against Michigan, it improved to 105, but he had four turnovers.
It’s difficult to intuitively understand offensive rating, so here is some context. Through Big Ten games played as of Sunday morning, here are Big Ten players with the closest average offensive rating to Bridges’ 86, 95, and 105 he put up in the last three games. Coincidently, they all play for the Golden Gophers.
- Michael Hurt, Minnesota (84.9)
- Dupree McBrayer, Minnesota (95.5)
- Barry Konate, Minnesota (105.6)
In other words, the best offensive production the Big Ten Player of the Year has given over the past three games was equivalent to what you could expect to get on any given night from Barry Konate.
That’s what’s the matter with Michigan State.