Saturday, June 22, 2024

Report card breakdown: Women's basketball

About halfway through the season, the women's basketball team is looking good

MSU head coach Suzy Merchant stands along the court sidelines Dec. 29, 2008 at Breslin Center during the game against Indiana.

Picked to finish third in the Big Ten, the MSU women’s basketball team is off to a 17-7 start and are 10-3 in the conference. Winners of seven of the last eight games, MSU is in shouting distance of the Big Ten Championship. Here’s how they grade out so far.

Backcourt: B-

The backcourt has been hit or miss this season. The group has been great at finding the post players down low, helping the team average the third most assists in the conference. The group has been solid on defense as well, preventing teams from getting to the rim and keeping opposing offenses to only .263 from behind the arc. For all of that, the backcourt has been hesitant to score and has been extremely turnover prone. As a team, the Spartans are averaging more than 20 turnovers per game, and though it’s gotten better, the loss of sophomore point guard Brittney Thomas to a season-ending knee injury won’t help the group’s cause. Teams will most certainly try to attack MSU’s less experienced guards with the absence of Thomas and provoke some of those old giveaway habits. The additions of sophomore Kalisha Keane and freshman Porschè Poole to the point will add a different dimension to the backcourt and could give teams trouble. Still, as a group the backcourt has won games and continues to feed the ball down low to the Spartans bread and butter, earning themselves a high grade.

Frontcourt: A-

The frontcourt has been the trademark of this team, behind junior superstars Allyssa DeHaan and Aisha Jefferson. The group is probably the strongest in the Big Ten and has only gotten better with the addition of Lykendra Johnson and Courtney Schiffauer. Johnson and Schiffauer were originally added to give a little attitude and energy to the entire team at the beginning of games, but have proven to be much more than hustle players. Johnson is a rebounding machine who has shown her scoring hand since her addition to the starting lineup, averaging 8.7 points in her nine starts. Schiffauer has filled the stat sheet and has been a tough matchup for opposing defenses, who normally have to guard the 6-foot-1 freshman with smaller forwards and guards, allowing her to get to the rim with relative ease. Add the hard covers of DeHaan and Jefferson and the addition of Keane, a former power forward, at point guard and the Spartans start five players that are at least 6-foot-1. No wonder MSU leads the conference in nearly every rebounding category. The only reason for the minus is because it has yet to reach its potential and could be even better.

Bench: B+

The bench has been another strong point of this team, with five players contributing at least 10 minutes per game. The group has been jumbled over the season, with six Spartans switching between the starting lineup and the bench. Of the players that are regulars from the sidelines, junior Lauren Aitch has been the unquestioned leader, averaging 7.9 points per game in 16.8 minutes of play. Aitch’s strong play has allowed DeHaan, who has battled minor injuries all season, to take extended breathers and keep the team playing at its peak, not to mention the 6-foot-1 Aitch brings a different dynamic to the game, playing a much more physical brand of basketball than DeHaan. Poole has also made a strong contribution and has shown the ability to get to the rim against any defense. Sophomore guard Cetera Washington has been a plus as well and could see more time with the loss of Thomas. The Spartans have been using a shorter bench since the start of conference play, leaving much of the bench unused. Thomas’ injury will bring a lot of players back into the mix and could prove to make the bench even deeper. As a group the bench has been solid, but it will need to step up to fill in holes that may arise from any further injuries.

Coaching: B+

Coaching has been brilliant this year. The move by head coach Suzy Merchant to put Johnson and Schiffauer in the starting lineup has proven to be a turning point this season, as MSU has won eight of the nine games since. Outside of the recent loss at Minnesota, the team has also lowered its turnovers. The new challenge on the coach’s plate could be even tougher to chew, as the Spartans try to fill the vacant point guard position without a true point guard on the bench. Keane and Poole bring different dynamics to the position, with Keane being a bigger player who can back down guards on the post and Poole a 5-foot-8 slasher who can get to the rim and run the fast break and transition games. The coaching grade could go up at the end of the season based on how the latest move works out, but given the circumstances the group has been superb.

Defense: A+

This defense has the potential to be one of the best to ever play in East Lansing. The 55.2 points per game are the lowest allowed since 1974-75 and the Spartans are holding opponents to a 34.2 field goal percentage, the lowest since 1976-77, when they began keeping the record. The 26.3 percent that MSU is holding opponents to from the 3-point line is also the lowest since the first year the line was adopted in 1987-88, while the rebounding margin of 8.7 is the best since opponent rebounds were kept in the same year. With a taller lineup due to play the remainder of the season, you can imagine that opponents scoring numbers will take a dip and rebounding will be on the rise. You can’t get much better than that.

Overall: A-

Standing near the top of the Big Ten, with one of the strongest and most athletic teams in the conference, the Spartans are looking good for the NCAA Tournament. The focus the rest of the season will be how the bench will rise to support the loss of Thomas, and if the team can keep up its amazing defense with the loss of arguably its best perimeter defender. The post play should continue its dominance and with three of the final four games at home, the Spartans should be a frontrunner for the regular season Big Ten Championship. There’s room for improvement, but not much.

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