Free Throw Futility Pushing Spartans to the Bubble

FEB 10

After Michigan State’s latest in a series of disappointing loss, this time at the hands of the Illini, a berth in the NCAA Tournament has become less and less of a certainty. MSU has not been left out of the big dance since 1997, but this could be the year the streak is snapped. This fall from grace can be attributed mainly to atrocious free throw shooting.

Free throws are the easiest way to get points, yet MSU cannot seem to figure out this concept. The Spartans are dead last in the Big Ten in free throw percentage and No. 330 in the nation as of Feb. 7. Teams that struggle from the line tend to struggle in March, plain and simple. If this season-long slump continues, MSU might be accepting a bid in the NIT.

Futility from the charity stripe has lost several key games for the Spartans. In the overtime loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, MSU shot 5-9 from the line. Only nine attempts in a game is absolutely unforgivable. In the embarrassing overtime loss to Texas Southern, MSU went 12-21 on their freebies. In the first Maryland loss in double overtime at home, the Spartans shot 19-28.

In the two-point loss at Nebraska, MSU bricked 10 of their 25 attempts. And finally in the latest loss to the Illini, Tom Izzo’s squad went 7-18 from the stripe, their second worst performance of the season, barely ahead of the 4-13 “effort” in a crushing loss against Maryland. That adds up to five losses that would have been wins in previous years when the lid on the basket wasn’t there.

“We’re just going to have to shoot free throws until people’s hands have blisters on them. It’s ridiculous,” said Izzo after the loss to Illinois on Saturday. “We’ve addressed it and we’ve brought guys in. Sooner or later, you have to be able to step up and shoot a free throw.”

According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the Bracketology expert, MSU is projected to earn a 9-seed. CBS Sports’ Bracketology expert, Jerry Palm, has the Spartans in the first four out category. The way this team is playing right now, a 9-seed is a gift from the heavens. The bubble is uncharted territory for the Spartans, but they bricked themselves right onto it.

MSU is currently 6-4 in the conference, three games behind frontrunner Wisconsin with eight games remaining. If the Spartans want to guarantee a berth in the NCAA Tournament, they cannot afford to lose any more bad games.

Trips to Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan are very losable based on how the team is performing right now, and a matchup with Wisconsin at the Kohl Center is virtually unwinnable. If MSU drops any of those games, March Madness will become more like a dream.



Three-Point Play: Free Throws, Three-Pointers and “Trigga Trav”

JAN 21
The halfway point of the college basketball season is upon us. Three months of upsets, head-scratchers, blowouts and everything in between has made this season one of the most tumultuous and exciting in recent memory.

As for Michigan State, the season has been confusing to say the least. This team is an enigma, changing with every game and impossible for the experts to put a finger on. Here are three main storylines surrounding the troubled, yet explosive Spartans.

Mental block at the charity stripe?

Free throws should be the easiest part of the game. The referees are literally giving a player points for free, all they have to do is make a wide open, 15-foot shot. Most players can do this in their sleep, but the Spartans cannot.

As of Jan. 18, Michigan State is dead last in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage at 63.2 percent. That also ranks MSU at No. 319 in the nation. Just let that number sink in. Here are some more abysmal numbers: Branden Dawson is shooting 38.9 percent from the stripe. Gavin Schilling is a whopping seven percent better.

Free throws make or break a team in March, and until MSU gets over its mental block at the stripe, they will have an extremely difficult time having any success in the tournament.

Live by the three, die by the three

Ah yes, the three pointer. Michigan State has quite the love affair with shots beyond the arc. They lead the Big Ten in three-point percentage at 40.1 percent, which is also good enough for No. 18 in the nation. But the long bomb is not always kind to the Spartans. MSU has not shot less than 11 threes in a game this season and topped 20 attempts in seven of their games.

In all six of the Spartans’ losses this season, they took at least 17 threes. The problem arises when players like Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice and Bryn Forbes settle for quick outside shots rather than running the offense or getting out in transition, where MSU excels. When the Spartans fall into the habit of taking bad shots, they fall behind quickly.

In the most recent matchup with Maryland, MSU shot 3-17 from downtown, their worst percentage of the season. The offense had no flow whatsoever as the Terrapins locked down the Spartans on the perimeter. When the threes fall, the offense runs quickly and efficiently. When the threes bang off the iron, the offense sputters and even looks confused at times.

For a more consistent offense, the Spartans need to utilize their bigs Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling rather than chucking up low percentage threes.

Travis Trice is the man

This tweet by Draymond Green says it all. Green sent this tweet during MSU’s impressive comeback win against Iowa. Trice was a man possessed, connecting on seven of eight three-point attempts en route to a 25-point night.

A year ago, not many people would have expected Trice to take over a game like he did in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But this is the new Travis Trice. He has transformed into a more aggressive player and confident leader. Trice runs the offense much better than last year and is shouldering a much heavier scoring load.

Last season, Trice never took more than nine shots in one game. This season, he has surpassed that total in 12 games. Of course, this increase is mostly due to his new starting role without Gary Harris and Keith Appling in the rotation, but Trice has made an incredible leap from his junior to senior year. An ESPN article (Insider required) ranked Trice as the No. 11 best player in the nation.

Not only does Trice have a silky stroke, his passing has also been one of his strengths. His 6.1 assists per game average (before Maryland game) is good enough for second best in the Big Ten. Trice also owns the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference at 4.0, nearly twice as good as last season.

Perhaps the most important improvement for Trice has been his health. Known for falling victim to the strangest injuries and illnesses, Trice has been a stalwart in the starting lineup this year.

Michigan State may not be playing to their potential right now, but rarely do Tom Izzo teams peak before March. His squads are a constant work in progress that hit stride just in time for the big games. This year looks to be no exception.


Appling Leads Spartans Past Pilots

Photo by David Defever

NOV 19, 2013 – The Spartans squared off against the Portland Pilots on Monday night as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. After surviving a scare against Columbia on Friday, Coach Izzo decided to shake up the starting lineup.  Gauna and Denzel Valentine started in place of Branden Dawson and Matt Costello. Dawson had eight points and seven rebounds against Columbia, and Costello failed to score in only 10 minutes of action.

Both teams traded blows during the entire first half, with Michigan State taking a seven-point lead with just over six minutes to play. Portland then went on a 9-1 run to take the lead with just over three minutes remaining in the half.

Back-and-forth play ensued, with the Spartans never being able to pull away from the Pilots. MSU held on to a slim four-point lead at halftime, largely due to the hot hand of Keith Appling. The senior scored 16 points on 4-4 shooting from beyond the arc, all in the first half.

In the second half, the Spartans finally started to pull away. After back-to-back threes by Gary Harris, MSU took a 10-point lead with just over nine minutes remaining in the game.

State wouldn’t look back after that, eventually extending their lead to 18 with 3:52 left. Appling continued his hot streak, scoring nine second-half points for a total of 25. The Spartans went on to win the game 82-67.

Appling’s 25 points tied his career high. Izzo said it was “one of the greatest point guard performances in many many years.”

Keith responded well after a disappointing three-point performance against Columbia. Izzo said he thinks Appling is becoming a leader, but just needs to work on communication. He went on to say that Appling is not the same player from last year. Hopefully he can continue his hot streak into conference season.

Adreian Payne scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds. With Costello and Gauna playing a combined 19 minutes, Dawson was forced to play much of the game at the power forward position. He was effective on the boards, with a team-high 10 rebounds. Dawson also had a huge impact on the offensive side, with numerous offensive rebounds and tip-ins.

The Spartans need to figure out who is going to anchor the five position. Gauna got the start, but was only used sparingly. Costello was effective when he was on the court, grabbing five rebounds in 10 minutes. It will be interesting to see how Izzo will handle the rotation going forward.

Although the Spartans won by 15, they did not look like the No. 1 team in the nation. Izzo jokingly said that he doesn’t have to worry about peaking in November. The Spartans head to Brooklyn on Friday and Saturday for the Coaches vs. Cancer Championship rounds.

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Opinion: Branden Dawson is the Spartans’ X-Factor

Branden Dawson’s freshman season ended during the final regular season game of the year versus Ohio State, when he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament. That injury changed the trajectory of Dawson’s career. Instead of spending the summer of his sophomore year developing his game or possibly preparing for his rookie season in the NBA, he was forced to rehab his knee.

 Dawson saw his production drop in his sophomore campaign, going from 16.4 points per 40 minutes pace adjusted to 13.7. Although he was healthy, the mental aspect of recovering from such a serious injury still lingered.

“The mental aspect was hard. When I came back from my ACL injury, there were times where I was thinking too much, and there were times where I went in for a dunk and I just went in and just laid it up. The mental aspect, it was very tough on me. I was going out there, and I was thinking a lot,” Dawson said in an interview with Spartan Nation Radio.

This prevented Dawson from having the breakout season everyone expected from him. If he hadn’t injured his knee, he would probably be in the NBA right now, but a slight letdown of a season made Dawson think twice about making the leap to the pros.

Now entering his junior year, Dawson says he is “100 percent now,” and is due for that breakout year. This is why he will be the Spartans’ x-factor. Without having to worry about his knee, Dawson was able to spend his summer working on his game, especially his jump shot. Although he shot 53% from the field last year, that number was down four percent from his freshman campaign. Branden Dawson has not made a three point shot in a Michigan State uniform, but this year looks to be different. He is so proud of his new jump shot that he posted a video on his instagram account of him shooting.

Dawson has improved so much over the summer that coach Tom Izzo had this to say about the junior in an interview with Spartan Nation Radio:

“This summer he’s improved his shot. He’s improved his body. I think he’s had the best summer of his life, and I think he’ll be ready for hopefully a breakout junior year.”

Everybody can talk about how important Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Keith Appling will be for Michigan State this year, but Branden Dawson might be the player that could carry the team from very good to the best in the nation. With an improved jumper and better ball-handling skills on the wing, Dawson could spread out opposing defenses and open up driving lanes for the guards. Assistant coach Dan Fife said this about Dawson in an MLive article:

“Branden’s got huge hands, but one thing that when he came in, he was a good ball-handler,” Fife said. “He really was. I think he’s working to become a great one.”

The 6’6” junior is one of the best defenders on the team. Dawson led the Spartans in steals last season with 57. His defensive rating was the sixth best in the Big Ten according to He had 1.4 blocks per 40 minutes last season, which was second among all wing players in the nation according to Dawson was also named the Big Ten’s Most Entertaining Player and a preseason third-team All-Big Ten selection by Lindy’s College Basketball Magazine.

This season, has Dawson as the sixth best junior in the nation. He’s on the second best team in the nation according to the coaches poll. If Michigan State wants to make it past the Sweet 16 this year, they will need a better Branden Dawson. He had a disappointing showing in the NCAA Tournament, averaging four points and 4.7 rebounds per game. This was another big factor in Dawson’s decision not to go to the NBA. His poor performance in the postseason hurt his draft stock.

Michigan State’s roster is star-studded, with three players almost guaranteed to make the NBA, not including Dawson. With so much talent on the court with him, he could fly under the radar of opposing defenses and explode for huge nights. Don’t be surprised to see Dawson post a couple double-doubles this season.

This year, there will be a new Branden Dawson. He’s hungry to prove that he is ready for the next level.  He wants to prove that he’s back. The knee injury is just a thing of the past. This will be a more confident, high-flying Branden Dawson who will dunk on you without a second thought. He is Michigan State’s X-factor.

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