As ruts go, this is a pretty good rut. Since the 2007-08 season (12 seasons), Michigan State has finished in the top three of the Big Ten nine times. The three times the Spartans missed the cut, they finished 4th, 4th, and a disastrous 5th (quelle horreur). Over that same span, Tom Izzo has led his team to the Final Four four times, and has made the second weekend eight times. A two-thirds chance to reach the Sweet 16, and a one-in-three shot to get to the final weekend is pretty darn good.
And yet it all feels so anti-climatic, like the Atlanta Braves in the 90s, the Utah Jazz with Malone & Stockton, or Marv Levy's Buffalo Bills. You know that the Spartans will be could enough that they could win it all, but you also know that they will not. Every year, the explanation seems one-off. In 2009, MSU ran into an absolutely loaded North Carolina team, on which 8-year NBA vet Danny Green was the team's 4th-best player (at best), as a senior. In 2010, it was Brad Stevens and Gordon Heyward that escaped with a win before pushing Duke to its limit in the title game. The 2014 team managed to get past a great Virginia team only to get tripped up by a streaking UConn, aided by a 22 to 8 free throw attempt advantage. The next year, Duke again. And last year, Texas Tech's stifling defense put a lid on the rim.
Of course, there have been bad losses as well. Syracuse in 2018 and Middle Tennessee State in 2016 certainly come to mind. But on the whole, Michigan State generally performs well in the Tournament, right up until it doesn't. I could throw some theories out there, some mix of recruiting strategy, scheme, or scouting approach. But it would be all spaghetti at the wall, guesswork masquerading as analysis. And don't let anyone tell you differently. Michigan State has beaten great teams in the Tournament in that span, and they've lost to inferior teams as well. They've played fast, slow, against zone, against man, shot 3s, packed it in, etc. They've run into every size and shape of opponent you can fathom, and there's not a certifiable pattern to explain the Ws and Ls in any sensible way. That's just March, it's there to break your heart.
So, let's do it all again, shall we? Entering the year, Michigan State sits atop the Pomeroy rankings, but Bart rudely relegates it to second place, but there's no shame in following Florida out of the gate. The team returns the conference's best player, Cassius Winston, for his senior year. Winston is a great shooter, a clever finisher, and an excellent passer. There's no one simple trick to slowing him down, but he does see a fair number of hard hedges on ball screens, to try and get the ball out of his hands. The problem is that Winston is such a quick and gifted passer, it often ends up with a great shot attempt.
But, there is a window, I think, to deploy a hard hedge to Winston's left. He doesn't have the confidence to pass quickly across his body with his off hand, which means the passes come out a lot slower.
Outside of that, I haven't seen much else that could be characterized as a weakness. Winston's going to get his, he's going to create chances for others. To beat Michigan State, it means you have match his contributions at the other end of the floor. That brings me to another weakness of Cassius Winston, his defense. He just is not a very good on-ball defender:
That's Texas Tech's Davide Moretti, a 6-2 guard that usually is in the business of spotting up for 3s, rather than beating All-Americans off the bounce. Synergy ranks Winston in the 39th percentile of man-to-man defenders, and that roughly matches my eye test, too. This may be intentional, of course. The guy never checks out when a meaningful game is in doubt, so he may be deploying an energy conservation strategy.
Xavier Tillman has gotten a lot of accolades for his defense, and deservedly so. But what makes MSU good on defense (9th in adjusted defensive efficiency in the country last year) is more than just a single player. Izzo has varied his defenses over the years—they used to do a lot of switching on screens, but recently he's more into hedges—but it seems like every season, the help defense gets better.
This screen slip is a great example. Goins is caught well out of position, because he's getting ready to hedge hard on the ball screen. That's a cost of hard hedging, of course, but his teammates have his back. Kyle Ahrens sees this all developing, and moves with the pass to get a deflection. Nick Ward is also in position to challenge a shot if one goes up. The hedge disrupts the ball screen action, and the help defense discounts the cost of that hedge.
MSU's roster is still in flux, however. The team is waiting on transfer Joey Hauser's appeal to the NCAA's denial of his waiver to play immediately. If it goes through, MSU is getting a very valuable stretch 4 (43 percent from 3 last season). That will definitely help alleviate the loss of Joshua Langford, whose injury woes continue. Top-50 shooting guard Rocket Watts is expected to start, while 4-star Malik Hall will battle for minutes with Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham. Normally, a team that loses the likes of Nick Ward, Kenny Goins, and Matt McQuaid (I can't believe I included all of those names, but Goins' improvement was significant over the past two seasons) might need to revise expectations down, but I would not expect a slowdown here.
Especially now with Beilein gone, Tom Izzo is the undisputed chairman of the board in the Big Ten, and his team is almost always the Big Ten's best hope for breaking its national championship drought. It will be again this season. We know how that ends, right?
But what if...