Monday, March 1, 2010

As Their Frontcourt Goes, So Go The Spartans

The single biggest factor in Michigan State’s win over Purdue on Sunday was their dominance in the paint. That’s the kind of obvious analysis that you don’t have to pay a dime for. With Robbie Hummel out, the Spartans had a size advantage that they had to exploit in order to be successful. 28 points for Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green, coupled with 44 rebounds did the trick. The advantage would not have been as great if Hummel had played, but that should be an afterthought for Michigan State. Regardless of the circumstances of that particular game, focusing the preparation on the bigs was one of the best things possible for this team at this time. Hummel or no Hummel, there is no reason that Michigan State should not be getting a much better performance from their frontcourt.

Up to this point in the season, their guards have defined State’s style of play. The Spartans have been a pretty good jump shooting team, judicious with their 3s, without much interior scoring to speak of. Which is a shame, given that when Michigan State's frontcourt outscores their backcourt the Spartans are 7 and 1 in Big Ten play and 10 and 1 overall. That statistic is even more dramatic when you consider that one loss happened on the road at Illinois. Kalin Lucas, the prolific scoring point guard, was out that entire game. So why has their interior play been so notably absent at times this season?

The reasons for that appear obvious. All the size at center left after last year’s national title run. Seniors Idong Ibok and Marquise Gray may not have seemed like great losses at the time, but that was experienced size that Michigan State now lacks the luxury of. The lost impact of Goran Suton was more obvious at the time and is no less important now. Freshman centers Derrick Nix and Garrick Sherman obviously were not plug in and play time ready to pick up the slack.

Yet, all of those factors still don’t justify the on court product. Many hoped Delvon Roe was poised for a break out year his sophomore season, after playing his freshman year fresh off of knee surgery. It hasn’t happened. He hyper extended his knee, is playing through pain, and will likely require surgery again this summer. While he can still be a factor, State will need to find other avenues to fill the void. The biggest, most consistent answer is Draymond Green. He’s a great distributor, with ball handling skills and a nice jump shot. Most are quick to dismiss Green’s post ability, given his height at 6'6. After watching Green go up on JaJuan Johnson on Sunday, I’m not one of them.

The height difference also tends to cloud how similar of a player Green is to Suton from last year. People seem to conveniently forget that while Suton was able to play with his back to the basket that wasn’t where he was the most comfortable. He always looked more natural squaring up to the basket and taking a jumper, much the same as Green. That capacity to draw defenders out, coupled with his passing skills often led to chip shots for teammates, again, much the same as Green.

Raymar Morgan is the other key. The senior has been inconsistent, and if you could trademark that phrase in relation to Morgan you would be a millionaire in no time. Part of it is his tendency to withdraw when his game isn’t there, instead of continuing to attack. That’s hard to adjust for, because it’s self-inflicted. But Kalin Lucas and State’s guards need to make a commitment to keep going to him, regardless of slumps. Because when Raymar is contributing, State wins. In games where he has scored 15 points or more, they’re 8 and 1. When he’s scored 10 or more, they’re 13 and 1.

Then there’s Derrick Nix. He’s young, but that isn’t the reason he isn’t getting more minutes. His conditioning isn’t there yet, so even when he’s having a good game, you typically don’t see his playing time break the 15-minute mark. If that’s what he can give, fine. Use him for all of it. He is a big body who knows how to score. Yes, his free throw percentage is atrocious, but it didn’t stop him from getting a nice 3 point play from an and 1 against Purdue.

Serious challenges face Michigan State’s frontcourt and that is all the more reason to make the extra commitment to it. State is not as good of a team when the guards make up all of the offense and the Spartans can't always fall back on them. There will be days when you’re starting point guard turns the ball over 8 times. If you still want to win, get the ball to your big men.

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