Is Michigan State Really War Drill U?
Surprise, surprise: The Spartans offense has led the way under Tom Izzo by Kyle Jen
oughness. Rebounding. Defense. Ask a typical college basketball fan what has made the Michigan State basketball program so successful during Tom Izzo’s tenure as head coach, and it’s a pretty good bet those three words will show up in the response. In fact, ask Tom Izzo before any given season what the necessary ingredients are for that year’s team to be successful, and his answer also is very likely to include those three words. The public image of Izzo’s program has been shaped by stories of the coach putting his players in football helmets and pads for rebounding drills, and by the praise Izzo has heaped on players known more for their tough play on defense and the boards than for their scoring prowess (think Antonio Smith or Travis Walton). But does that trio of terms oversimplify what’s now been a 13-year stretch of NCAA Tournament teams and nearly uninterrupted contention for Big Ten championships? What of the ball-handling exploits of Mateen Cleaves and Kalin Lucas, or the threepoint marksmanship of Morris Peterson and Drew Neitzel, or the low-post finesse of Andre Hutson and Paul Davis? Those skills have certainly all been major factors along the way, in some cases, maybe even surpassing the team’s defensive and rebounding proficiency in contributing to the program’s success. This article will take a long-term statistical look at the performance of MSU basketball during the Tom Izzo era in an attempt to discern where the real track record ends and the cliché begins. To do that, we’ll employ the tools of tempo-free statistical analysis—as popularized by John Gasaway and Ken Pomeroy in recent years—to explain the major concepts of that brand of analysis as we go along. Most of the data utilized in this article were extracted from StatSheet.com, with a couple pieces filled in from KenPom.com. The available data go back © 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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The Program With the exception of the Offensive Defensive Efficiency NCAA Season Pace Rank Rank Rank Wins Losses Win% 2006–07 season—the Efficiency Efficiency Margin Tournament year of hustling hard 1996-97 68.5 201 102.0 119 95.9 76 6.1 9 9 .500* None 1997-98 68.8 215 106.7 49 93.1 26 13.6 13 3 .813 Sweet 16 on defense and then 1998-99 64.4 303 111.3 7 92.4 41 18.9 15 1 .938** Final Four setting picks for Drew 1999-00 66.1 286 112.1 3 89.2 11 22.9 13 3 .813* Champions Neitzel for 30 seconds 2000-01 67.1 262 115.3 4 92.1 15 23.2 13 3 .813* Final Four on offense—Michigan 2001-02 64.8 303 107.0 61 98.4 117 8.6 10 6 .625 1st Round 2002-03 65.2 292 103.7 119 93.9 24 9.8 10 6 .625 Elite Eight State’s pace figure has 2003-04 65.4 274 109.0 31 103.3 246 5.7 12 4 .750 1st Round ranged between 64 2004-05 68.3 160 114.9 10 95.7 58 19.2 13 3 .813 Final Four and 69 possessions per 2005-06 65.6 228 109.4 33 101.3 192 8.1 8 8 .500 1st Round game. Despite Tom 2006-07 60.9 321 105.6 101 92.8 20 12.8 8 8 .500 2nd Round 2007-08 64.3 274 110.3 31 96.9 68 13.4 12 6 .667 Sweet 16 Izzo’s fondness for 2008-09 66.6 161 107.8 57 95.3 51 12.5 15 3 .833** Runner Up transition baskets, that 2009-10 66.1 237 108.7 50 96.5 67 12.2 14 4 .778* Final Four range is firmly within Median Rank 268 41 55 the lower half of the Top-50 Rankings 0 9 6 *Big Ten co-champions **Outright Big Ten champions national spectrum. Source: StatSheet.com, KenPom.com (For reference, the to the 1996–97 season, so we’re only missing data from Izzo’s number of teams playfirst team as head coach (which was merely .500, both overall ing Division I basketball grew from 306 to 347 over this time and in conference play). period.) That’s partly a function of MSU playing roughly half of its games in the glacially paced Big Ten, but it also reflects Tom Tell Your Statistics to Pace Izzo’s insistence that his players work for a quality look at the Themselves basket in the half-court offense, forgoing questionable shooting Table 1 provides national rankings for MSU’s high-level opportunities along the way, and the difficulty opposing offenses tempo-free indicators, as well as information on conference and NCAA Tournament success over the last 14 seasons. “Pace” represents the number of possessions the team averaged per 40 minutes of basketball played in each season. This figure is the starting point for tempo-free analysis, which is based on the fairly straightforward premise that the number of points a team scores in a game can be just as much a function of how many opportunities it has to score as it is a function of the team’s innate offensive proficiency. As an example MSU fans can relate to well, scoring 65 points against a Bo Ryan-coached Wisconsin team can be a bigger offensive accomplishment than getting 80 points against an opponent that plays an up-tempo style. (The Badgers are committed to keeping the number of possessions in a game below 60, while patiently working the shot clock on The improved offensive efficiency of the 2007–08 Spartans, led by Drew Neitzel, paid off in a Sweet 16 run. every possession.) Table 1: Pace, Efficiency, and Results
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Is Michigan State Really War Drill U? can have creating open looks early in the shot clock when MSU’s man-to-man defense is working the way it’s supposed to. The remaining statistics in Table 1 measure MSU’s efficiency relative to the number of possessions available per game. Offensive efficiency is the number of points scored per 100 possessions. Defensive efficiency is the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. Efficiency margin is the difference between the two efficiency figures. Controlling for pace, the MSU offense has ranked ahead of the defense nearly twice as often as not. In nine of the 14 seasons, the team’s offensive efficiency was ranked higher than its defensive efficiency. Included in those nine seasons are five of MSU’s six Final Four seasons in the Tom Izzo era. It’s not that Spartan squads haven’t exhibited stout defenses in some years; the team has ranked in the top 50 nationally in defensive efficiency in six of the 14 seasons in question. Rather, it’s that Tom Izzo teams have displayed high-level offensive proficiency even more frequently—ranking in the top 50 in nine of the 14 seasons. The median national ranking on offense has been #41, versus a median defensive ranking of #55. (Note that these figures are not adjusted for strength of schedule because adjusted-efficiency figures aren’t available for the full period being examined. Given the difficult nonconference teams Tom Izzo typically schedules and the team’s frequent NCAA Tournament runs, the rankings in Table 1 would likely be much higher on a schedule-adjusted basis. For MSU, an unadjusted top-50 ranking generally corresponds with a schedule-adjusted top-25 ranking.) Of the four best defensive MSU teams of the Izzo era— each of which finished in the top 25 nationally in defensive efficiency—two went to the Final Four: the 2000 and 2001 teams. Those two teams also happened to be the most highly ranked offensive teams of Table 2: Offensive Four Factors the Izzo era. The other two elite-level defensive teams, meanwhile, were solid, but not great: the 2003 team that went to the Elite Eight and the rebuilding 2007 squad that made the second round of the Tournament. On the flip side, finishing outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency has been the kiss of death for Tom Izzo teams. All three teams falling into that category bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round.
So that’s one perception considered and one perception invalidated. Relative to the pace at which MSU has played its games (or, in many cases, been forced to play), Tom Izzo teams have usually been more prolific offensively than defensively. This surprising conclusion is particularly true of the most successful teams of the Izzo era. To examine whether the second perception about Tom Izzo’s coaching style—the near-religious emphasis on rebounding—is a valid one, we’ll need to break the team’s historical efficiency measures into discrete components.
Taking Offense What’s driven the Spartans’ scoring under Tom Izzo? Tempofree analysis provides a tidy set of four variables for examining the components of offensive (or defensive) success. • Turnover percentage: How frequently does a team give up the ball before getting a chance to shoot it? • Effective field-goal percentage: How efficiently does a team turn shots from the field into points, accounting for the 50% bonus that comes with making a three-pointer? • Free-throw rate: How proficient is a team at getting to the free-throw line to take advantage of the higher scoring rate of those opportunities? • Offensive rebounding percentage: How good is a team at procuring second chances to score off missed shots? Consistent with the tempo-free concept, each measure is based on the number of opportunities a team has to perform the particular task: number of offensive possessions for turnover percentage, field goal attempts for both effective field-goal percentage and free-throw rate, and number of reboundable missed shots for offensive rebounding percentage. Table 2 provides a history of the offensive four-factor data and rankings during the Izzo era.
Off. Rebound %
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The Program Table 3: Defensive Four Factors Season
Offensive Rebound %
The turnover and rebounding data won’t surprise most Spartan fans. MSU has never been very good at holding onto the ball, failing to finish in the top 50 nationally in turnover percentage in any season and often ending up below the national average. Something about Tom Izzo’s offensive approach results in a disproportionate number of possessions ending without the team getting a shot off. (A personal theory, which is by no means a conclusive pronouncement: The reliance on highly structured offensive sets can lead to turnovers against opponents who disrupt the team’s rhythm with aggressive perimeter defense.) On the other hand, MSU has been consistently excellent at creating second-chance scoring opportunities, ranking in the top 50 in offensive-rebounding percentage in all but three of the 14 seasons. Together, these first two statistics measure the number of shooting opportunities a team gets, so the trick has been to grab enough offensive rebounds to offset whatever possessions are lost to turnovers. As an aside, just how good was the 47.0% offensiverebounding percentage posted by the 2001 Final Four team? No team in the country has posted a percentage above 43.5% in any of the last seven seasons. The 1998 and 1999 teams also topped that 43.5% threshold, with the 2000 national championship team missing it by just a point and a half. The images you have in your head of those first four Izzo-era Big Ten championship teams swarming the offensive glass on almost every missed shot are not nostalgia-induced exaggeration. MSU teams generally have been pretty proficient at shooting the ball from the field, peaking during the Chris Hill/ Maurice Ager/Shannon Brown/Kelvin Torbert/Alan Anderson/ Paul Davis years. That’s the upside of those structured offensive plays: they lead to easy looks around the basket and open jumpers. The team’s ability to get to the free-throw line with
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consistency has fluctuated over time, which is typical for free-throw rate, with the median team being fairly average. Tom Izzo doesn’t encourage his players to make the kind of one-on-one moves that tend to draw a disproportionate number of fouls from opposing defenders.
Table 3 displays the four-factor data for MSU’s opponents 27 158 each season, measuring the 12 1 Spartans’ defensive proficiency in each area. The data show an eerie similarity to the offensive numbers. Tom Izzo teams don’t look to create a lot of turnovers, placing an emphasis on help-defense to prevent drives to the basket rather than disrupting passing lanes. No MSU team has finished in the top 50 nationally in defensive turnover percentage. In contrast, MSU has finished in the top 50 in limiting its opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage in all but two of the past 14 seasons. That’s actually slightly more consistent than the team’s offensive rebounding track record, although the median ranking is somewhat lower (27th vs. 19th). Again, the trick is to win the battle for more shooting opportunities by denying second chances in order to make up for not ending many opposing possessions with turnovers. In terms of preventing opponents from turning field-goal attempts into points, MSU has flirted with greatness, finishing in the top 50 in defensive-effective field-goal percentage in seven of the 14 seasons. The 2006–07 edition of the team was particularly adept at forcing tough shots from the field, matching the mark of the 1999–2000 national championship team. Overall, Michigan State’s performance in keeping opponents off the free-throw line has fluctuated over time, with the absence of aggressive perimeter defense generally offsetting physical interior play.
The War Drill Pays Off Different editions of the Spartan basketball team have succeeded in different ways. The 2003 team made it to the Elite Eight while ranking in the top 100 nationally in only one of the four offensive factors (free-throw rate), while the 2005 team—which was built around basically the same core group of players—got all the way to the Final Four despite finishing in the top 100 in only one of the defensive four-factor categories (defensive rebounding percentage).
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Is Michigan State Really War Drill U? If there’s been one constant at Michigan State, though, it’s been rebounding. In the last 14 years, the MSU basketball team has finished outside the top 50 in offensive rebounding percentage just three times and has failed to reach that threshold in defensive rebounding percentage only twice. The only team that fell outside the top 50 in rebounding percentage on both sides of the ball was the 2004 team—a team that had to rely very heavily on Paul Davis (a sophomore) and an The swarming Spartans D you know and love. undersized Alan Anderson on the interior, due largely to the unexpected early departure of Erazem Lorbek. Four teams. The only other Final Four team, the 2005 team, The data clearly indicate that a major portion of the held its own on the glass but was most proficient at convertMSU basketball program’s success since Tom Izzo was handed ing good shot opportunities into points. the keys can be chalked up to rebounding. Izzo has never emphasized winning the turnover battle, and his preferred A Confluence of Confusion style of play generally hasn’t translated into large discrepanThe answer, then, to the specific question asked at cies in free-throw opportunities. The team has often excelled the beginning of this article is a resounding, “Yes!” compared to its peers in both offensive and defensive fieldRebounding the basketball, on both ends of the floor, has goal shooting efficiency, but those numbers have fluctuated been Michigan State’s bread and butter under Tom Izzo. over the years, without a clear modus operandi established Based on the hard numbers, though, the associated notion across multiple player groups. that Tom Izzo is a defense-first coach is somewhat puzAs shown in Table 4, there’s a strong correlation between zling. From whence has that notion arisen? Here are three the degree to which a given MSU team has dominated the potential explanations. boards and the success that team has achieved. Five of the best First, Izzo himself has done nothing to dispel the notion. six teams in rebounding percentage margin have been Final His tendency has been to heap praise on players who give additional effort and intensity on defense, while downplaying Table 4: Rebounding Percentages and NCAA Success offensive contributions, which generally get recognized more MSU Off. Opp Off. Rebounding NCAA quickly by the media and fan base. Witness the way Izzo Season Rebounding % Rebounding % % Margin Result focused on the defensive improvements made by Raymar 2000-01 47.0 26.2 20.8 Final Four Morgan and Chris Allen over the past couple seasons, even 1999-00 42.0 25.7 16.3 Champions 1998-99 45.9 30.9 15.0 Final Four as those two players struggled at times to make consistent 2008-09 40.7 27.1 13.6 Runner Up contributions offensively. 1997-98 44.8 32.2 12.6 Sweet 16 Second, Michigan State has been the most successful 2009-10 39.8 28.4 11.4 Final Four team in a conference with a reputation for defensive-oriented 2001-02 39.1 29.7 9.4 1st Round 2004-05 38.0 28.9 9.1 Final Four play. MSU’s highest profile conference games in recent years 2006-07 38.9 30.0 8.9 2nd Round have been against teams that excel on defense (Purdue) or 1996-97 40.5 31.9 8.6 None play at a slow pace that at least gives the impression of a 2007-08 39.4 31.6 7.8 Sweet 16 defensive orientation (Wisconsin—believe it or not, though, 2002-03 34.5 27.6 6.9 Elite Eight 2005-06 35.3 29.7 5.6 1st Round the Badgers have ranked higher in offensive efficiency than 2003-04 32.3 31.6 0.7 1st Round defensive efficiency the last two seasons). MSU scored © 2010 Maple Street Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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Goran Suton is one of a generation of Spartans trained to rebound in the “war drill” era. Other programs may consistently excel at rebounding the ball on one end of the court or the other, but none has combined outstanding rebounding on both ends the way MSU has under Tom Izzo.
It’s OK if Opponents Don’t Read This Article In the end, the (incorrect) perception that Tom Izzo teams are oriented more toward shutting down opposing scorers than toward scoring efficiently themselves may have some benefits. Izzo can keep his players motivated to fully exert themselves on the defensive end of the court in order to earn playing time, and, on occasion, MSU will catch outsiders off guard by playing an up-tempo offensive game that defies the slow-it-down expectations for a Big Ten team. (Ask the 2009 Connecticut Huskies about that phenomenon, after Michigan State upset UConn to advance to the national championship game.) The numbers say that the Spartan offense has carried more days than the defense has. Nonetheless, Tom Izzo is welcome to continue saying that defense comes first. MSP
Durrell Summers demonstrates a particularly efficient mode of the MSU offense against Connecticut in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. 118 | Spartan Tip-Off 2010–2011
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Kyle Jen writes about basketball for the MSU blog The Only Colors. His most memorable Spartan moment is being at Lucas Oil Stadium with his sons, Isaac and Nicholas, to see Michigan State advance to the 2009 Final Four.
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70 points or more in only seven of its 18 regular season conference games in 2010. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt, which ranked only a few spots ahead of MSU nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, hit that mark in 12 of its 16 conference games in the more up-tempo SEC. Third, it could be that many college basketball observers naturally equate rebounding, even on the offensive end, with defense. Like defensive performance, offensive rebounding is an effort-intensive activity, as contrasted with, say, draining a three-pointer or throwing a no-look pass. If you take rebounding completely out of the equation, then MSU’s strongest suit under Izzo has been forcing tough shots on defense (as measured by defensive-effective field-goal percentage). The bottom line, though, is that offensive rebounding can have just as much impact on overall offensive efficiency as defensive rebounding has on defensive efficiency, as evidenced by MSU’s statistical profile during the run of success the program has experienced during Tom Izzo’s tenure. As a related matter, note that offensive and defensive rebounding aren’t as tightly associated basketball skills as might be assumed. Defensive rebounding is more about size and position, while offensive rebounding is more about leaping and pursuit—and the strategic choice to send players to the glass. In 2010, MSU was one of only two teams to rank in the top 25 nationally in both offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding percentage. In fact, of the teams ranking in the top 25 in defensive rebounding percentage, only seven ranked even in the top 100 in offensive rebounding percentage.