Tom Izzo has Michigan State in the Final Four for the eighth time during his coaching tenure, while the rest of the field consists of two newbies (Auburn and Texas Tech) and a Virginia program that hadn’t made it since 1984.
If there’s one program coming to Minneapolis that has established a long-term tournament reputation, it’s the Spartans. You picture teams that get better as the year goes on. You envision defense, rebounding and a physical brand of Big Ten basketball.
Izzo won’t stop you from thinking all those things about his current team. But …
“People talk about the toughness of this team — and I think we’re tougher than we think we are — but I don’t know if we’re physically like some of the teams I’ve had,” the veteran coach said Monday on a conference call to preview the Final Four.
Maybe he’s right, but this Spartans team still seems plenty tough — along with other superlatives. Let’s take a look inside some numbers to see why:
• Toughness tends to play out in several ways, but two key ones are defense and rebounding.
Michigan State this season is No. 6 out of the 353 Division I teams in total rebound percentage (56.1), according to College Basketball Reference.
And the Spartans are No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency — which takes into account the strength of opponents — per KenPom.com. They’ve allowed opponents to shoot just 41.8 percent on two-pointers (No. 2 in the country) and are among the national leaders in blocked shots, which helps account for that defensive efficiency.
“In our program, we have terminology: Michigan State toughness, Tom Izzo rebounding. These are things we tell our teams,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, whose team will face the Spartans in Saturday’s semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium. “It’s almost surreal that we’ll be having a chance to coach and play against him.”
• As good as the Spartans are on defense, though, they are just as good — if not better — on offense. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Izzo sees a different identity with this team vs. past teams he’s had.
Michigan State has had its share of top point guards over the years — including a fella named Magic Johnson who wasn’t too shabby — and junior Cassius Winston has continued the trend.
Winston ranks No. 2 in the country in assist rate (45.4 percent), which is assists divided by field goals made by his teammates when he’s in the game.
That’s a big part of the reason Michigan State ranks No. 1 in the nation as a team with 67.1 percent of its baskets coming off assists. Spartans opponents, by contrast, have assisted on just 52.3 percent of their baskets.
It all adds up to an offense that’s ranked No. 5 by KenPom in adjusted efficiency. A top-10 offense and a top-10 defense is a pretty good combination. Virginia is the only other Final Four team that can boast both.
• I’ll leave you with an odd number, since it’s hard to find much of a statistical weakness with Michigan State: The Spartans are 0-2 in overtime games this season. The three other teams in the field are a combined 6-0.