Court Report: How Tom Izzo stole from Steve Kerr and helped make Michigan State like the Warriors

Steve Kerr couldn't help but laugh at Tom Izzo's question -- and essentially reject the premise.

"In the last five years, and it will sound crazy, but I've spent a lot of time with Draymond [Green]," Izzo said by phone this week. "And I'll ask Steve Kerr, 'What does it take?'"

Izzo was inquiring about the intricacies of how the Golden State Warriors' offense reached such a level of upper-class hoops engineering. He wondered aloud to Kerr if a rentable emulation was possible for college players. Izzo has, like so many, grown to love watching the way the Golden State plays. 

He wanted, in smaller scope, Michigan State to be Golden State. 

"He told me I'm nuts because I don't have the players he has," Izzo told CBS Sports. "I've been out there [to Oakland] a lot, but I watch them a lot and I'm amazed. Some of the things we've tried to steal. One is the screening. They're great screeners, how they come off screens, but that ball doesn't stop a lot and that is a real neat thing." 

"He told me I'm nuts because I don't have the players he has."Tom Izzo on Steve Kerr

In recent seasons, Izzo's affinity for the Dubs has materialized into highly proficient offense for his Spartans. It's not NBA-style sets or out-of-bounds computations. Certain disciplines, like persistent side-to-side ball movement, have helped unlock college basketball's most shareable stratagem. No one passes the ball to greater means than MSU. The Spartans' 21.1 assists per game ranks No. 1 out of 353 teams in college hoops.

Izzo has his players all-in on more ball movement; he says it leads to infectious unselfishness, which gives way to opportunities for good shots becoming great shots.

"A lot of times there's a lot less dribbling on their team (Golden State) than teams like Houston or Cleveland," Izzo said. "That's all it is, is moving. That's the part I really found intriguing and enjoyable to watch." 

The siphoning worked. Michigan State (15-2) also ranks No. 1 in college basketball in assist rate. Through 17 games, 69.2 percent of Sparty's points come via assists -- almost the exact average this season of the league-leading Warriors. MSU finished No. 1 in America in assist rate last season and was first in 2014-15 as well. The Spartans have been top-seven in assist rate every season of the past five. Maintaining this kind of elite standing in a team stat over a half-decade is a rarity in college basketball. MSU also ranks sixth in effective field goal percentage, coming off a season in which it finished first.

The Spartans are the Warriors, at least in this regard. 

It's more than a trend. This is now Michigan State's identity -- even more than the rebounding and physicality and old-school Izzo hardhat hoop. MSU rates as No. 3 in college basketball at KenPom -- ahead of undefeated Michigan -- and fourth in the Massey Composite.

Forget needing Kerr's players. Izzo's kept on with the most desired roster combination for all college coaches: landing five-star prospects, future first-round picks and still having four-year guys who start upward of 70 games in a career. Junior point guard Cassius Winston is averaging 7.4 assists, fifth-best in college basketball. 

Izzo told me he loves how Michigan State is a pure, fun watch now. The Spartans run and score at a high rate, but are still exceptional defensively. MSU is allowing just 40.3 percent on 2-point shots (No. 2 in the nation). Its only two losses: opening night by five points against Kansas and in overtime at Louisville. 

The adaptation to ball-sharing nirvana has been crucial to Sparty's surging start. The team is still without junior shooting guard Josh Langford and will also not have junior forward Kyle Ahrens for its challenging game Thursday night at Nebraska.

More than half of college players will transfer in their career

How about this research from the NCAA: "About 40 percent of all MBB players who enter Division I directly out of high school depart their initial school by the end of their sophomore year."

Does that number surprise you? Seem high? It shouldn't. College basketball is more of a transactional vessel than any other major American sport. That 40-percent figure doesn't even account for the occasional transfer midway through or after a junior season -- nor graduate transfers. When you take those movers into account, more than 50 percent of Division I college basketball players play their final game at a different school from where they first enrolled. This is the nature of the sport now.

What's important to note is how many "down-transfers" there are. A lot of players are leaving the lower ranks of Division I to seek playing time at an inferior level. 

transferpie.jpg
NCAA

"Fewer than 1 in 10 are 'up-transfers', while just over one quarter are 'lateral-transfers,'" the NCAA states. "And nearly two-thirds are 'down-transfers.' This pattern has remained consistent over time." 

More data the NCAA found: 19 percent of teams, by the conclusion of the 2017-18 academic year, had at least four transfers out. 

My takeaway from this isn't transfers are ruining college basketball! I think the mechanisms and behavior amongst coaches in recruiting is a bit broken. Think about how many hours, how much energy, how much money is put into recruiting. And yet, on average, half the players a coaching staff recruits in a common year will wind up finishing their careers not playing for them. The number, really, is even greater than half when you take into account how often coaches are fired, retire or leave for a better job.

Behind the scenes, coaches lament this as much as almost anything else, but players deserve freedom of choice, and so this is the result of a competitive industry with limited spots for standouts and stars. 

Major mid-major win streak and potential All-American candidate

While Michigan and Virginia own the longest win streaks in college hoops, Hofstra (15-3) is No. 3 in that line with 12 straight victories and goes for the baker's dozen on Thursday at home vs. UNC Wilmington. Joe Mihalich is without question one of the most overlooked really good coaches in mid-major hoops. He's yet to take Hofstra to the NCAAs, but this should be the year. 

Mihalich has a senior in Justin Wright-Foreman who, if Hofstra can make the Big Dance and win 27 or 28 games en route, should receive All-America consideration. The reigning CAA Player of the Year has gone from averaging 3.6 points in the first 37 games of his career to 24.4 in the past 71. He's third in the country in scoring (26.9) and has become the latest program legend, a la Speedy Claxton and Charles Jenkins.

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Wright-Foreman has become a must-see player for Hofstra. USATSI

TCU (13-3) might not have its best player again this season

Jamie Dixon gave a significant update this week on Jaylen Fisher, who has only played nine games in 2018-19 due to complications from a meniscus injury that is still yet to clear up. TCU is fighting for footing in the elite Big 12, and the reality is it might not have its best player for the rest of the season. Here's a snippet of what Dixon said to reporters in Fort Worth. 

Due to nagging swelling in Fisher's right knee, there is no imminent return. Fisher only managed 17 games last season due to season-ending surgery in January 2018. TCU made the NCAAs last season for the first time in two decades. Can it do it again without Fisher most of the way? It's a 9 seed in Jerry Palm's latest bracketology.

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Tim Miles knew the roster he had coming back was going to be good enough to be a second-weekend NCAA Tournament team. Nebraska isn't as adaptable as some other teams when it comes to opponents, so success in the NCAAs could depend more in matchups for the Cornhuskers than other teams seeded similarly. I trust James Palmer in a tight moment, though.

I think you've got 10-12 guys in the mix for the top five. I also think it will be easier to answer this with a few more games of league play. But as of now this is my list. (Not naming Shamorie Ponds because, to me, he is more combo guard than point.)

  • Ja Morant, Murray State
  • Cassius Winston, Michigan State
  • Tre Jones, Duke
  • Ashton Hagans, Kentucky
  • Jordan Bone, Tennessee

"Rough" is a relative term, but I'll go with teams bearing at least five losses as of now. My picks are: Indiana, Seton Hall, Purdue.

Not yet. After UK's 69-49 win at Georgia on Tuesday night, Hagans has a program-record six consecutive games with three or more steals. Keldon Johnson's still been the better player overall from start to now, but hard not to really like what we're seeing out of Hagans. What Tre Jones is to Duke, Hagans is to Kentucky.

Buzzer beaters

  • Virginia, which toyed with No. 9 Virginia Tech on Tuesday, is 47-3 in its last 50 games and has only allowed opponents to score more than 60 just 11 times in that stretch. Outrageous. 
  • The ACC has started kookily. Clemson, a reasonable pick to make the NCAAs, is off to an 0-3 start because of this thankless opening run: at Duke, at Cuse, vs. Virginia. Louisville lost to Pitt, which has a win over Florida State as well. The Seminoles were a top-12 ball club just a few moments ago, a shot away from beating No. 1 Duke ... and now they're 1-3 in the ACC. Meantime, Syracuse managed only 59 points and fell at home to Georgia Tech -- then won at Duke a few days later by putting up 95. 
  • While the NET rankings do allow for teams to boost their standing for winning by larger margins, let's pause to note what Ken Pomeroy pointed out on Twitter: scoring margin in league play is dropping, not rising, this season. For all the concern about teams running up the score, a reality too often overlooked: the losing team doesn't want that to happen and, often, refuses to allow it.
  • Gary Parrish had a good column recently about Ole Miss' surprising campaign this season. Let's also point out senior guard Terence Davis (15.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 42 percent from 3-point range), who has been one of the 25 best players in the country and is making his way toward All-America consideration. 
  • Did you know: Marquette has won 10 straight games that went to overtime. Longest streak in the sport! Average margin of victory: 3.9. It would be cruelty if this streak lasted up until the NCAA Tournament, only to end there. 
  • Michigan State and Michigan are both in numbers and perception considered a cut above in the Big Ten. Results over the past week have also created a small gulf: MSU and UM are the only undefeated teams left in the league, and the only one-loss team is Maryland. If the Terps have any hope of finishing top-two come season's end, the next three games could prove critical: at Ohio State, at Michigan State, vs. Illinois at Madison Square Garden (??). Tough task. 
  • In wake of an investigation from the Conference USA office, UTEP has been officially given a win and Rice a loss after referees failed on monitor review to properly change the clock at the end of the teams' game last weekend. The dramatic victory was amazing -- but shouldn't have counted. Rice coach Scott Pera said, "Our kids played well enough to win the game and we hoped the video replay system, in place to eliminate error, would prevent this very situation." He's right. And yet it didn't. If something like this happened involving a ranked team, it would have been one of the biggest stories of the past few days. 

Final shot

Here's the second when Duke's season for the foreseeable future changed. Tre Jones gets caught up with Syracuse's Frank Howard. Photo courtesy of Rob Kinnan of USA Today Sports Images.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Duke
USATSI
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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