Michigan State enters play this weekend as the undisputed No. 1 team in the nation in college basketball.
The Spartans are 11-0 and have answered the bell every time it has rung. They are an experienced unit. Last season’s group went deep into March and cracked the Final Four in April despite limited expectations.
The main issue for Michigan State and Tom Izzo is not really even an issue so much as a point of perception: The Spartans just lack the sex appeal of some of the other top teams in the nation.
Outside of the Providence game, the Spartans have played close games against all of their stronger opponents, with a combined 16-point margin against Kansas, Louisville and Florida. That is not to say that they have not beaten good teams — you can add Boise State to the mix. Of the teams on the list, Kansas, Louisville, and Providence are 26-3 this season. Each has a lone loss to Michigan State.
It’s not a tidy equation, but it seems that Michigan State does not get the same love in the national media that some teams have received, despite being one of the strongest squads. The main reason for this is the aforementioned lack of early dominance.
Michigan State is doing what it wants… but quietly, without the fanfare which flows to other teams.
Along with the early season success and the team’s depth — everything Tom Izzo could want — the Spartans are also getting back Gavin Schilling this weekend. Schilling will add more depth on the interior, which the squad can certainly use. Schilling will team with Matt Costello inside, lengthening the bench and reducing Costello’s minutes to a more ideal level.
Denzel Valentine has been the player of the year in the non-conference portion of the season. There have been other standout players, but it is hard to top the success Valentine has earned so far. Valentine is averaging nearly 19 points. He’s posting 8.5 rebounds, 7.2 assists, and a steal per game, while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 39 percent behind the arc. Bryn Forbes has been equally as efficient, hitting nearly half of his shots overall and 45 percent from 3-point range.
However, outside of Forbes and Valentine, the Spartans — though deep — do not overwhelm opponents.
Another issue that could come into play is the point guard position. Tum Tum Nairn is the only true point guard on the roster. Finding a backup has been a bit of a question for the Spartans. This has ultimately led to Valentine playing more minutes with the ball in his hands in a point forward role, which has not been a bad thing. Nairn has also been battling a foot injury, which has led to slight declines in his minutes and production on the floor.
While there are some deficiencies at point guard, the team’s performance in the paint is why the Spartans are for real. In its last game against Florida, Michigan State outrebounded the Gators, 45-34, which helped overcome a 37-percent shooting performance.
A win this weekend against Northeastern would make MSU 12-0, tying the best start in school history. Mix that with a Final Four appearance last season from a largely intact core, and it’s clear the Spartans have everything going in their direction.
They might not get as much buzz, but they have no reason to worry about that.