Markoch: MSU needs to rely on its defense for continued success


MSU forward Malik Hall (25) stands next to point guard A.J. Hoggard during the Spartans’ 71-69 win over Minnesota on Jan. 12, 2021/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

Michael Markoch, Men's Basketball Beat Reporter

EAST LANSINGAfter watching the Michigan State Spartans take down the Villanova Wildcats 73-71 on Friday night, one thought came to mind. This year’s team needs to lean on their defense more than their offense and everyone needs to be okay with that. 

That may feel like an easy thing to say. After all, coach Tom Izzo believes his defense has been and will continue to be a defining factor on his teams.

“I think we’re always going to have to win defensively, that’s the nature of our culture, that’s who we are,” Izzo said. 

It’s understandable. Offense is flashy, offense is fun. It would be nice to have a team that could put up 80 or 90 points on their opponent every night, but that’s not this team. This offense is still not good enough, especially in the half-court, to compete with the elite offenses in the nation. The good news for the Spartans is it doesn’t need to be because the defense is almost there.

Sure, the Spartans are not near the top in really any team defensive ranking, but defense isn’t always something that can be judged by numbers. However, there are a few that stick out that are worth noting when it comes to the Spartans’ early season success.

In the two games against Gonzaga and Kentucky, MSU forced an average of 15.5 turnovers per game. That’s 15 free possessions a game simply by playing defense. By forcing turnovers at such a high rate as the Spartans do, they are also able to get a ton of transition opportunities, which is where MSU has had some of its best looks.

However, this statistic may be deceiving because in order to truly take advantage of those free possessions, a team needs to limit how many free possessions their opponents are getting in return. In the aforementioned previous two games, MSU turned the ball over more than its opponents by almost three turnovers per game. In the aggregate, that means MSU is usually getting up less shots than its opponents which leads to fewer opportunities to score points.

Tom Izzo cringes at a play during Michigan State’s 73-71 victory over Villanova on November 18, 2022. Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

This is where the whole story isn’t being told. Against Villanova, MSU only forced six turnovers while turning it over 12 times. So by this logic, it wouldn’t seem like the defense had the desired effect but a good defense is something you see, it isn’t always something you can count. 

By impacting the opponent’s rhythm on offense and making them take contested jumpers or other “bad shots,” as the Spartans did on Friday, a team can collect even more free possessions. When that’s the case, the Spartans have been able to deliver. The number of shots the Spartans contested began to disguise themselves as turnovers on the stat sheet leading to more opportunities for better looks than their opponent.

As the Wildcats made their furious comeback in the final eight minutes, it wasn’t only the offense that let the Spartans down, it was their defense as well. 

The miscommunication issues that appeared against Gonzaga reared their ugly heads once again. The Wildcats rocketed from 19% from three-point range to 29% during the final stretch and a majority of the looks for the Wildcats were open ones.

On the final possession, MSU’s defense came through one last time, stopping Eric Dixon’s last-second heave and doing just enough on the boards to prevent a put-back opportunity. 

“Our defense has to be what really makes a difference, and it’s sad because we held them way down for most of that game,” Izzo said. “But we did the things you have to do.”

None of this is to say the offense is bad, far from it. On Friday, any concerns one could have with the offense were masked. The Spartans looked better than they have all season. They were consistently generating open looks from all over the floor leading to an incredible 52% from both two-point and three-point range. However, those splits cannot be expected to continue moving forward.

What can be expected to hold up is limiting a very physical and talented Wildcats team to only 28% (8-for-29) from three and outrebounding them 31-26. As the saying goes “defense travels,” and the schedule isn’t doing the Spartans any favors. After a trip to Portland for the Phil Knight Invitational next week, MSU will head to South Bend to play another tournament team from a year ago in Notre Dame. 

Following the holidays is a daunting Big Ten schedule which includes trips to the Crisler Center, Assembly Hall, Mackey Arena and Kohl Center, just to name a few. All of these places have claimed their share of victims, including MSU, in recent years. If the Spartans’ defense can travel in the Big Ten, they might be able to steal some wins in the toughest environments.

MSU guard Tyson Walker defends Purdue guard Isaiah Thompson during the Spartans’ 68-65 win over No. 4 Purdue on Feb. 26, 2022/ Photo Credit: Sarah Smith/WDBM

If there’s any MSU team that could have handled a stretch like this one and still be prepared for what’s to come, it’s this one. This team plays with effort and heart. They are led by their defense and reap the benefits in the biggest moments.

“I’m just trying to keep it all in perspective and realize what these guys have been through these past 7-8 days,” Izzo said.  “They’re giving me everything they got, they really are.”

This year’s team is not a perfect team, not by a long shot, but as people are starting to notice, they are beginning to show similar characteristics to some of Izzo’s best teams. That can only mean exciting times are ahead in East Lansing.