Michigan State men's basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo sounded weary following Michigan State’s game against Louisville on Wednesday night. The Spartans flipped a tight game into a 73-64 victory in the second half against a formidable opponent but, for what seems like one time too many this season, a glaring statistic caught his ire and raised a question that’s infected nearly every discussion of the team lately.
“If we can do this with 19 turnovers, whether it’s Kansas, whether it’s Baylor, whether it’s these guys—in other words, quality teams,” he said. “Just think what we’re gonna be able to do if we quit turning the d--- ball over.”
To be clear, the turnovers did not define the Spartan’s game against Louisville or its result. Michigan State rode its strong defense and a season-best shooting performance from deep (55.6% on 18 three point attempts) that swayed the game in a big way with six Spartans scoring nine points or more and four cracking double digits. And for the most part, the offense pushed the ball successfully, chose their spots well and took advantage of mistakes from the Cardinals to put together hard-charging runs that brought the Breslin Center crowd to the loudest level it's been in years.
The turnovers on Wednesday night also weren’t of the religious disposition — it’s better to give than to receive — that nearly hamstrung Michigan State’s chances against Loyola Chicago. Nor were they of the first game jitters that Kansas gladly ran with to turn the game into a rout.
But as a less resigned Izzo confirmed on Thursday, yes, they were there. Plenty of them, too.
“The turnovers looked as bad on film as they did in person, just so everybody knows,” Izzo said with the slightest smile.
The smile was not one of particular enthusiasm. He deemed two-thirds of the turnovers against the Cardinals as unforced, more than enough for him to hunch his arms up over his head and cover his eyes in frustration during the game. While the team flashes more of their potential and identity as the season rips forward, their biggest headache once again turns into a million dollar question:
What can this team be if they cut down on the turnovers?
For the Spartans, this isn’t unfamiliar territory: Izzo-led teams are notorious for struggling with turnovers early. But through eight games, Michigan State is averaging 16.1 turnovers per game, good for 312th in Division I and their most in an opening stretch since 2010-11.
Izzo acknowledged the issues in the past and the relative inexperience of his point guards yet said this year’s numbers are “beyond acceptable” regardless of prior years. Furthermore, the team’s apparent ceiling has risen but the lingering scoring droughts brought on by some carelessness with the ball frustrate even more.
“We got on a 20-4 run (against Louisville) and we look like a real team,” Izzo said. “And then when we turn it over, it kind of comes in threes. Seems like we have two or three in a row and then a bad shot or a foul for no reason.”
A portrait of the connection between the team’s success and it’s one major shortcoming lies in it’s two essentially new point guards. According to kenpom.com, sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard (four assists, one turnover against Louisville) and junior guard Tyson Walker (career high 10 assists, three turnovers) are ranked 11th (40.8%) and 20th (38%) respectively in assist rate, a statistic charting assists divided by field goals made by a player’s teammates while they’re on the court. Besides Nebraska senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., they’re the only Power 5 players and teammates ranked in the top 20, a testament to their rising production.
But there’s a different side to those numbers as well. When it comes to kenpom.com’s turnover rate, measuring the percentage of personal possessions used on turnovers, Hoggard has the third highest turnover rate (27.4%) of those in the top 20 for assist rate with Howard freshman guard Elijah Hawkins slotted above him (30.1%).
In the top 20 for assist rate, Walker is far and away the highest in turnover rate at 36.1%.
Walker, a key contributor to Michigan State's barely positive 20:19 assist to turnover rate against Louisville, said the turnovers don’t seem like a bigger problem because of Michigan State’s currently stifling defense and offered better focus as a remedy to the situation. Hoggard had a slightly different take on how to reduce turnovers: Don’t swing for the fences.
“I’m not trying to make a home run,” Hoggard said. “Dumping off a bounce pass in the lane might not be the smartest thing to do ... just making smart plays, getting in the lane, kicking out, getting our shooters shots, making a safe play pretty much—it’s just nothing to it.”
Hoggard’s contact hitting approach garnered his coach’s approval.
“If he said that, I’d kiss him," Izzo said. "But when you’re looking over there and throwing over here and trying to be Magic, you end up tragic."
He added that the mantra "Go for singles" has been discussed frequently with his guards.
Some of those safe passes for Walker and Hoggard lie in kick outs to Michigan State’s shooters. Izzo pointed to his ball handlers simply finding the release valve on the perimeter off the drive as a reason for the team’s best shooting night from deep all season.
Do you want the news without having to hunt for it?
Sign up for our morning s'newsletter. It's everything your friends are talking about and then some. And it's free!
Few benefited more from this than junior forward Malik Hall. Hall, a perfect 3-3 from deep against Louisville, stepped up again to lead the Spartans in scoring with a team-high 15 points and helped bury the Cardinals in a second half run with a kick out triple from Hoggard to make it 52-39.
Hall said returning to a regular routine following last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis schedule helped Michigan State turn in a more productive shooting performance. And like his teammates, he noted the importance of overcoming the team’s one major weakness.
“I think that’s our next level that we have to reach and have to mentally understand is that we can’t turn the ball over that much against really great teams,” Hall said. “If we want to be a championship team, we’re gonna have to do better on the turnovers.”
Eight games in, Michigan State isn’t looking like they’re as much of a project as previously thought but taking care of the ball remains the chief concern among the group. Izzo admitted the turnovers will continue to be a “sore spot” for both him and the team even as they shrink the playing group and get further experience along the way.
For his part, Hoggard said they’re keeping a more positive outlook as they continue to work on it.
“I can’t keep coming to (the media) saying we got to clean it up,” Hoggard said. “We got to do something about it.”
For now, the production and the path to further success is there. But it might just be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back beat for the Spartans to walk.
Share and discuss “Going for singles: MSU men’s basketball working to resolve nagging turnovers” on social media.