November 12, 2012

Hoop Feed: What went wrong & what it means

EAST LANSING - A second look at what went wrong during Michigan State's loss to Connecticut on Friday and what it means heading into Tuesday's game against Kansas:

The Preamble

Let's rewind 12 months for some perspective.

MSU wanted to avoid getting blown out - above all else - in last year's season opener against North Carolina. Undermanned MSU wanted to avoid a humiliation in what most of us thought would be a lean, rebuilding year.

Throughout preseason practice last year, Tom Izzo focused his limited playing group on half-court defense, rebounding, toughness, rebounding, defense, toughness, rebounding, rebounding, defense, toughness, defense and defense.

It worked. MSU stayed surprisingly competitive against preseason No. 1 North Carolina. That renewed ethic of defense and rebounding served as the foundation for a surprisingly strong season.

This year, Izzo has more players, more athletic ability, and - in some ways - less experience. The team has a higher ceiling of potential than last year, even without Draymond Green.

Izzo wanted badly to win the opener against UConn and end MSU's trend of losing these early-season, big-stage games. Meanwhile, he wanted the Spartans to take as many steps as possible during the preseason in scaling toward that ceiling of potential.

Izzo hit October and early November with a long-term building strategy to match his deeper, more-talented roster. Izzo wanted to play faster, at both ends of the court. He wanted to employ full-court pressure for the first time since 2005. And he wanted to get out and race in the transition game at full-bore levels.

Over the course of the season, this may prove to be a devastating style of play for the Spartans.

For the short term, however, MSU remains the way I described them after the first exhibition game - like a high-performance sports car that isn't yet dialed in for the track.

For another non-basketball analogy, Izzo is working on a bigger, prettier puzzle this year. But right now, fewer of the pieces have been fit into place than at this time last year.

Last year's team began 0-2, with losses to UNC and Duke, in the Champions Classic in New York City.

And MSU may be in line for another 0-2 start heading into Tuesday's game against Kansas at the Champions Classic in Atlanta.

Reason for concern?

No more than last year.

However, I expected more of MSU's high-performance parts to be in working order by now. I suspect Izzo feels the same way. It will be interesting to see how he goes to work on this team's engine in the coming days.

Short-Term Problems: Offense

It seems clear to me that MSU hasn't worked on halfcourt offense all that much.

Is this due to spending more time in other, high-performance areas? Maybe so. There are only so many practice hours between Midnight Madness and Veterans Day. We've seen MSU play with limited halfcourt sets in Novembers past. The halfcourt offense will come around at some point, probably after the holidays. It always does, under Izzo.

Izzo's teams are often hailed as possessing a wider spreadsheet of halfcourt plays than just about any team in America. Of course it takes more than three weeks of practice to get those plays well-choreographed.

Last Friday, the first evidence that MSU is a bit under-rehearsed in halfcourt offense came on the Spartans' opening possession. Adreian Payne didn't know where to position himself. Keith Appling tried to direct him to the proper spot after one or two missteps. Appling was still pointing and directing when a UConn guard stole the ball and raced for the first of a handful of turnover-for-touchdowns.

Michigan State also missed four lay-ups in the first five minutes.

Missed shots bother Izzo. But the true Izzo brand is woven into his team with attention to detail and structured sharpness.

I can't guarantee that this will become a good shooting team, but the following is a list of dull missteps that will be sharpened or iradicated soon:

  • Payne facing up and driving. He did this once, on MSU's second possession, when his defender stepped out and chested him. Nice, brave response by Payne, to try to take him to the rack. But just because Payne was attempting to play Draymond's old position doesn't mean that he should feel like he can put it on the deck and drive like Draymond. Or even Suton.

    Payne was called for traveling. It was one of a handful of errors in the opening minutes which caused Izzo to take steps toward concluding that Payne is not going to work at the four.

    Payne has a nice shot release, and might develop into a reliable shooter at some point. He looked pretty good with a pick-and-pop 17-footer which cut UConn's lead to 45-44. He hit that one as a five, at center.

    The beginning of Payne's problems at the four come on defense. He can't afford to amplify those problems by committing turnovers while trying to drive at that position.

  • Bad screening. BAD screening. Poor timing in trying to free shooters on single-doubles. Air screens by Russell Byrd. And hitman screens by Alex Gauna, the second of which was called for a foul.

    Nix was also whistled for too heavy a screen. Byrd tried to make up for his air picks by setting a hard downscreen along the baseline, but was whistled for moving while doing it.

    All of the above happened by the midway point of the first half.

    And all of it will get fixed, soon.

    When MSU's offense has misfired over the years, critics call for better shooting, better driving. Izzo usually fixes offensive problems with better defense and better screening.

    It'll get fixed.

    In addition to screening poorly, the Spartans also cut poorly. The geometry of old Izzo standards was out of alignment. Guys were running into each other. Cutting early. Cutting late.

    That stuff will get some attention in practice.

  • Nix trying to drive the lane after getting a pick-and-roll pass from Appling looked like a bad idea. UConn swiped it from Nix and scored on a runout to make it 28-13.

    I don't think that's the last we'll see of the Appling/Nix screen-and-roll but I suspect film study will show that Nix had better options than to try to drive through traffic.

  • Zero to the boards?

    You've heard of "four to the boards" as an Izzo mantra, right? [If not, you might not be eligible to read the rest of this article.]

    Anyway, rewind your DVR to the 15:11 left in the first half. Branden Dawson drove for a pull-up 13-footer. When the shot went in the air, MSU sent zero players to the offensive glass.

    This was not by design. This was all the evidence you need to suggest that Izzo hasn't had enough practice time, and tail-kicking time, with this team.

    The shot went up and Byrd - who was playing power forward - floated back on defense.

    Payne, who had moved to center, was also floating back on defense.

    I can kind of understand it with Byrd. He's been a guard his whole life. He hasn't played much in the last two years. I'll give him a half-mulligan.

    But Payne?

    C'mon man.

    That'll get fixed.

  • Simple Decisions 1: Denzel Valentine had a very good night passing the ball. But the best and smartest pass he could have made all night was one he didn't attempt. Valentine chose to drive, spin and miss a shot-put 10-footer with 1:11 left in the game and MSU down by 2 rather than feed Nix in the post.

    Nix had sat for a few minutes, was fresh and hungry. He had deep position in the low post and was calling for the ball.

    Denzell, we love the onions. But senior captain was calling for the ball.

    That'll get fixed.

  • Simple Decisions 2: Appling pulled up on a 1-on-5 break and missed a 15-footer with MSU down double digits.

    Izzo doesn't dig one-man fastbreaks, and told Appling as much.

    **

    There are more. But the commonality here is that these are the mistakes of a newborn season. This team doesn't have the Izzo brand sewn on it yet, but it will.

    Pause here to give credit to UConn. Defensively, they were onto MSU's single-doubles, and played applied pressure without springing leaks. Offensively, they had a few nice in-bound sets, and attacked matchups a few times with a respectable NBA mindset.

    Good short-term preparation. We'll see if they can keep it stapled together.

    Short-Term Problems: Defense

  • Nappy focus away from the ball. Example: Trice was late in trailing dangerous guard Shabazz Napier. This made it easier for a UConn teammate to set a downscreen on Trice. Trice was 15 feet behind Napier when he nailed a 3-pointer to put UConn up 20-6.

    Down by 11 after a dreadful start? And you're coming off the bench to try to help? And you're late on defense like this?

    Not in this program.

    And Izzo told him as much in the next time out.

  • Nappy focus on the ball:

    Example 1: With 5:12 to go, Appling guarded Ryan Boatright and slid over to help Gary Harris briefly with Napier. Appling stayed with Harris as an extra pair of eyes a bit too long and a bit too over-extended as he lost awareness of his primary assignment - Boatright. Boatright flared behind a screen to the other side of the court and was all alone for a 3-pointer to wrest the lead from MSU for good at 59-58.

    Izzo gave Appling the what-for during the next time out. Appling didn't have a good answer.

    [Appling tried to make up for the mistake by trying to do too much at the other end. He made bad use of a ball screen, picked up his dribble at the wrong time, and turned it over.]

    Example 2: Appling and Harris botched a switch late in a shot clock and left Boatright open for a 3-pointer. Boatright of course nailed the shot, as UConn players capitalized on opportunities at every turn. This one put UConn up 62-58 with 3:25 left. Again, it was a very un-Izzo-like defensive breakdown.

    UConn only needed free throws the rest of the night after that defensive error.

  • MSU allowed two easy baskets on baseline in-bound plays. MSU is defending in-bound plays a bit differently this year, trying to play defense without turning a complete blind eye to the in-bounder (lest the in-bounder throw the ball of a Spartan's backside for an easy lay-up, as we've seen happen a few times per season in recent year).

    I give MSU credit for trying to change its in-bound defense. But the Spartans are kind of in no man's land in that area of special teams right now.

    And we can hear Jud, all the way from Spokane, screaming that they should go back to playing zone on all baseline in-bound plays - something they haven't done since the midway point of the 2003 season.

  • Speaking of defense, where was the full-court pressure that MSU spent so much time on in the preseason?

    Well, the main reason Izzo wanted to press this year was to wear down opponents with his depth. But a couple of injuries, and questions about whether Dawson is a three or a four have put the press on hold for at least a little while.

    Long Term Problems

    Izzo stated doubts once again about Payne's ability to play the four.

    He can face up and shoot like a pick-and-pop four. But he can't play the four unless he can defend the position.

    One of the biggest questions coming into the season was whether Payne could move his feet well enough on the perimeter to guard mismatch fours. Six-foot-eight DeAndre Daniels displayed the latest evidence against it by driving around Payne for a dunk and a 17-6 lead.

    Payne looked good in the second half at the five, scoring in the post with a hook, and also assisting on a Harris 3-pointer with a nice inside-out pass.

    Izzo said part of MSU's comeback against UConn was predicated on moving Dawson from the three to the four, and relieving Payne of power forward duties.

    If that's the case, will it stay that way? We may begin to find out during today's weekly press conference.

    If Dawson becomes the starter at the four, does MSU still have enough wings to press?

    If Dawson becomes the four, MSU becomes a better shooting team, but loses some horsepower in transition, as Dawson would go from becoming a wing sprinter to the in-bounder in the blitz counter break. Izzo would hate to lose that component.

    If Dawson become the four, MSU will also lose some rebounding punch. Dawson will get his boards whether he is playing the three or the four. The four is SUPPOSED to get a lot of boards. When Dawson is a rebounding well at the four, he's just another good rebounder. MSU goes from good to great in the rebounding department when it has a small forward who can rebound at a plus level, like Dawson.

    If Dawson has to play the three, MSU's fast break loses octane, its press may get scaled back, and team rebounding takes a hit. But defense comes first, and the Spartans have few other options to play defense at the four.

    Gauna can't play defense at the four. Matt Costello? That's a lot to ask of a 6-foot-10 freshman. I have my doubts.

    Byrd has been the first power forward off the bench. I don't think he's an option for extended minutes at the four.

    Valentine or Kearney might be able to do it in small doses, but not against legit power forwards that can post up with strength.

    **

    As for other long-term problems, I'm not going to worry about Appling's decision-making just yet. There was some slippage in that department in the last six minutes against UConn, but let's just wait and keep an eye on that area for now.

    **

    What about 3-point shooting?

    Dude, Izzo builds his team and program to be able to win whether or not shots are falling from 3-point range.

    ***
    Izzo said he wasn't sure his team got enough out of the two exhibition games. The Spartans had to play smallish teams which created strange matchups. MSU had to blow practice time learning those opponents' offenses and so forth.

    Next year, he said he might consider having only one exhibition game, and spending the other NCAA-allotted exhibition date by scrimmaging with a friendly program. Texas scrimmages Gonzaga every November in Denver. No cameras, no fans, no media. "They get a lot out of that," Izzo said.

    How much has Izzo has daydreamed about going somewhere to scrimmage Brian Gregory's Georgia Tech team? Enough to come up with this play?

    "You spend the morning on offense, the afternoon on defense and an evening session on special teams," Izzo said.

    He's though it through. Can the MSU athletic department do without one of the exhibition home game paydays? That's something Izzo will have to hash out with his administrators.

    But at some point last Friday night, between an air screen and a late cut, Izzo probably mumbled to himself, "Damn those exhibition games."

    Points Of Light

    A story this long about all of these negatives, just one game into the season? What is this, a basketball school?

    Sheesh.

    Here are some plusses from last Friday:

    + Valentine moved his feet well on defense. UConn tested him harshly in this area, and he passed most of the quiz.

    + Dawson's psycho intensity. I didn't know he had it in him like that. Izzo can work with that.

    + Nix looked good on the boards. He went went up high and owned rebounds better than we've seen from him in the past.

    + Gary Harris did a lot of nice things, including some good stuff with medium-range offense. He could be lethal off of side ball screens, with the drive, or the pull-up game. Sophisticated.

    + Kearney produces for others, instantly. His minutes were limited due to an injury and an infection. But he immediately set up Appling for a 3-pointer off a drive-and-kick. Kearney is glue.

    + Appling showed nice finishing ability as a primary scorer. He didn't have a perfect game, but with the ball in his hands so often there are going to be errors. But he looks like a lead guard who can handle the keys to the car.

    * Valentine's passing. He showed great vision off a ball screen to find Harris on the back side for a wide-open 3-pointer (which Harris missed. But still. Izzo can work with that vision).

    And of course Valentine's drop-pass (Hockey term. I couldn't think of a basketball equivalent) off the bounce to Dawson for a fastbreak dunk from Hell.

    * Valentine's defensive rebounds. Izzo can work with that too.

    **

    Twenty-nine games left. Plenty of time to get your crap together.







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