In a college basketball season where the only certainty has proved to be uncertainty, it’s hard to have supreme confidence in any team as March approaches.
But if you’re going to tie your faith to one coach, shouldn’t it be Tom Izzo?
Michigan State got off to a sizzling 13-0 start in 2015-16, but between a Denzel Valentine injury and struggling to find a defensive identity, the Spartans dropped four of their next seven contests.
Since then, MSU has returned to early-season form, reeling off six wins in seven games with its only blemish coming in a one-point overtime loss at Purdue. There are worse places to lose in college basketball than Mackey Arena, and the Spartans’ wins have come in dominant fashion. They have a plus 20.2-point differential in those six triumphs, and four of their victims (Maryland, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin) were in Joe Lunardi’s latest NCAA tournament mock bracket.
The biggest reason for Sparty’s turnaround? Beyond Valentine’s improving health, Izzo finally seems to have settled on a rotation. Specifically, a dynamite starting five.
The Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris, Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis lineup has logged 22.3 percent of the team’s total minutes in the past five games, per KenPom. That’s more than triple the amount of any other lineup, and guess what? That combination just so happens to be really, really good.
The lineup has three plus shooters (Valentine, Forbes and Harris); one of the best true back-to-the-basket presences in the game (Costello); a rapidly improving rim protector that is an offensive dunk machine (Davis); switchability across the three perimeter defensive spots and a maestro conducting it all in Valentine.
"He can do so many things. His leadership ability, his shooting has improved, his ball handling has improved," Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said of Valentine after Thursday's game. "I don’t think he was a point guard four years ago. He has a big impact on our team like [Frank] Kaminsky had on us last year."
Earlier this season, Izzo was prone to giving 10 or more guys significant playing time. He’s tightening his rotation as March approaches, which is smart. Last night, Michigan State’s top two reserves, Gavin Schilling and Matt McQuaid, combined to log 37 minutes. The rest of the Spartans’ bench played 22 combined.
Watch closely, and you can see why Izzo is so successful late in the season. He uses the early months of the season as a sandbox, trying a litany of lineup combinations to give himself the best chance of optimizing the talent he has. Izzo knows he’ll be fine if he loses a home game to Nebraska in early January. He’s worried about giving his team the best chance to win in Elite Eights and Final Fours come March and April.
Michigan State is a well-oiled machine on offense, as it has the No. 4 unit in the country on that end of the floor, per KenPom. It’s good but not great on defense, ranking 25th in that category, but the Spartans have tightened the screws in their last seven games. They’ve surrendered less than 65 points per game during that span, well below the 69.7 mark they allowed in their first seven Big Ten games.
Harris is a major reason why Michigan State has improved on that end of the floor. He’s gone from a guy that was in and out of Izzo’s doghouse due to a lack of focus to someone he trusts, as Harris stuck Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin’s best perimeter player, during Thursday night’s game. He held Koenig below his season scoring average, and his mindset has certainly shifted for the better.
"I was so locked in, I didn’t even notice it [The Breslin Center atmosphere]," Harris said after the game. "Everybody keeps talking about it, but I wasn’t even thinking about that at all. I was so in myself and focused on the people on the court I wasn’t even thinking about that."
Outside of Oklahoma, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better shooting trio in America than Valentine, Forbes and Harris. They combine to make more than 45 percent of their 3’s.
Tum Tum Nairn is a great defender, but there’s no denying how much he cramps the Spartans’ offensive spacing. Teams can’t clog driving lanes, Costello post-ups or Davis rolls to the rim with Harris in Nairn’s spot, and MSU has proved it can function well on defense without him on the floor. The sophomore missed seven games due to a foot injury and has only played six minutes in two games since returning.
A great coach, a Naismith Award candidate and a roster that doesn’t have any glaring holes. What more could you want in a national title contender come March?
Yes, this college basketball season has been defined by weirdness. But sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one.