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.
Travis Trice is the man
Don't do em like that Trigga Trav @Ttrice20
— Draymond Green (@Money23Green) January 9, 2015
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.
Blake Froling is the co-host of Impact Izzone for Impact Sports.