It wasn’t too difficult not to be a believer in Michigan State before the season.
The Spartans didn’t have a proven point guard, a go-to wing scorer, multiple consistent options offensively and also had little Big Ten experience outside of Draymond Green and maybe Derrick Nix. The concerns weren’t exactly alleviated after Michigan State’s first two games, a 12-point defeat to North Carolina in the Carrier Classic and a loss to Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s record-breaking win.
Count me among those that weren’t sold on the Spartans; I wasn’t even sure they were a lock for the NCAA tournament. Then Michigan State started playing like, well, Michigan State.
The Spartans have won 13 straight games since the opening two losses. They have allowed more than 69 points just once, a nine-point win over Lehigh. Michigan State defeated Florida State by 16, won at Gonzaga and also showed plenty of toughness by beating Indiana last week by 15.
“I’m definitely happy where we’re at,” Draymond Green told our RapidReporter Dana Gauruder in December. “One thing we said is we want to improve every night.”
That is certainly the case with this year’s version of Michigan State. In what looks to be a wide-open Big Ten – while I still think Ohio State is the favorite, is that even a guarantee anymore? – the Spartans have as good of a chance as anyone to make a run in the conference.
The lesson, as always: don’t doubt Tom Izzo.
Izzo has done a tremendous job with this roster.
First, he’s helped turn Keith Appling, a big-time scorer in high school, into one of the most improved point guards in the conference. Appling is averaging 19.3 points and 5.0 assists in his last three games, including a 25-point, six-rebound, seven-assist performance against Indiana last week.
Michigan State doesn’t have a lot of shooters; only backup point guard Travis Trice shoots better than 36.5 percent from 3-point range. Yet the Spartans average nearly 77 points a game and rank No. 19 in the country in offensive efficiency.
The Spartans received no consistency from the big men on their roster last year. This year, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne are combining to average 15.1 points and 8.9 rebounds on the inside. Michigan State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country and are also among the nation’s leaders in block percentage.
And Michigan State is still playing defense. It ranks No. 8 in the country in defensive efficiency and No. 16 in the country in field-goal percentage defense, holding teams to below 38 percent from the field.
Green has developed into one of the best players in the country, while Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood has transitioned well from the Horizon to the Big Ten. Branden Dawson is playing very well as a freshman, and Trice has provided a spark at key times. Even walk-on Austin Thornton has been a rotation regular.
Do we know exactly how good Michigan State is right now? Probably not, but we’ll know more after Tuesday’s road game at Wisconsin.
One thing is certain, though: Michigan State is a lot better than anyone thought as few as six weeks ago.
Photo: US Presswire