The foundation of Spartan Basketball under Tom Izzo will always be Defense and Rebounding. Everyone around the program knows that, and even casual College Basketball fans across the country know that too. While this year’s squad isn’t necessarily a “soft” team like some we saw about a decade ago, their Rebounding numbers now midway through the season are something to keep an eye on. Last night, they out boarded the 8-10 Wildcats just 38-34.
This is not going to be a great Rebounding Spartan team, and perhaps that will be their undoing in the end. Beginning the week MSU ranked 48th in Rebound Margin across the country, a +5.5 average per game over their opponents. That’s far from the dominant numbers we’ve seen in past seasons, and not a number you could feel comfortable with given the team’s Championship aspirations. But where they’ve come up short on the boards thus far, this talented and deep team has found other ways to make up for it.
Offensively the Spartans rank 10th in Assist to Turnover Ratio, a number that tells you something about the chemistry and organization of an Offense. There’s a good bit of credit to hand out to Keith Appling for that, who is shining as a Senior in the spotlight role that is playing Point Guard at Michigan St. MSU is putting the ball in the hoop often under his direction, sitting 22nd in Scoring Offense at the start of this second full week of January. Safe to say, these 16-1 Spartans didn’t get that fine record by accident.
As we head towards February, MSU must find a way to get the ball deeper into the post on Offense, and more importantly find another guy who can become a Rebounding factor right away. Both elements could arise out of one single player because this team is far from short on big man talent. A less talented squad would probably have two or three more losses by this point.
When you look at the MSU roster on paper, you see more than enough beef up front to improve the overall team Rebounding numbers. Alex Gauna, Kenny Kaminski, Matt Costello, Adreian Payne, and Gavin Schilling are all over 6’8, and wide enough to clean some glass. But they may not all have the mentality or under the basket skills to do so. Though there’s nothing wrong with a big man who likes to hang out 15 feet from the rim, there’s much more to the player that have success playing it both ways. Just look at Adreian Payne’s career development as a great example.
Two of the younger guys to keep an eye on are Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello. Last season the Spartans welcomed both talented big men to campus, and now they’re beginning to carve out their footprints in this program’s sand. Kaminski wisely Red-Shirted last year while Costello made a couple waves as Big Ten play carried on. Tom Izzo told us he sees signs from each that they’re starting to become important contributors.
“He can really stretch the Defense, he can shoot it, he gives you a weapon against the “zone”, Izzo said earlier this week about Kaminski. The Freshmen has already hit a bucket of 3’s this season with a shooting stroke that flows as smoothly as we’ve seen around here for a while. He’s reminded some of Goran Suton, and maybe further back of a Purdue Boilermaker who was monster thorn in the Spartans side in his day, Brian Cardinal.
“Well believe it or not, he might shoot it better than either one of those guys,” Izzo explained. “If he’s got the motor that Cardinal had, that would be phenomenal.” Cardinal got better each year of his College career and then practically forced his way into becoming a 10-year pro player. That would be quite the lofty goal at this point for the young Kaminski, but in Cardinal and Suton he’s got a couple of guys to emulate.
“He’s got to rebound better, he’s got to defend a lot better,” Izzo added though nothing this first year player is coming on week by week. If he can add a little more grit to his game on Defense and pull down a handful of boards per game, Kaminski could have the kind of “big impact” Izzo knows is possible this year.
As much of a splash as Kaminski’s 3’s have made thus far, Costello’s production from here may be the “X” factor that determines how far this team ultimately goes. MSU pretty much knows what to expect out of its main four stars: Dawson, Appling, Payne, and Harris, but after that it gets unclear. What is clear is that MSU needs more power down low, which is where the Sophomore from Bay City should come in.
Matt Costello has the makeup of a dominant inside player in this conference. He’s got the size, 6’9, the strength, 240 pounds and building, the High School accolades (Mr. Basketball and more), and the basketball tools to get there. “He’s more rugged,” Izzo explained. “He is starting to come into his own a little bit.” It’s a work in progress that feels a little behind thanks to an early season bout with Mono or another energy zapping illness.
Still, the Spartans need help on the boards and he’s the guy most likely and most needed to step up. “He showed a little bit more (last) week.” Izzo said about Costello’s glass work last week. Costello can do more consistently if he plays assertive from the opening tip. That’s when he becomes a real factor.
“Eventually I think he’s going to be a bit more like Suton where he can shoot a 15, 16 footer,” Izzo said. But unlike that savvy Spartan big man, Costello can move with some speed. “He’s a high energy guy, and high energy guys gotta be in great shape,” Izzo pointed out. “He opens some things up when he runs the court.”
Teams running the open court is about the only time fans don’t have to be too worried about an Official’s whistle sounding off. Right now, developing a game’s flow is College Basketball’s biggest problem, across the country. It’s not the “one and dones” and not even the AAU influence right now. The problem is on the actual court. This isn’t like when the NHL changed its “clutching and grabbing” rules, which took a handful of weeks to be ironed out. We’re deep into January and there’s no sign yet of a clearing of this murky transition.
“The way it’s called, I don’t know anybody that knows the way it’s being called right now, it’s just different,” Tom Izzo told us earlier this week about the direction whistles have blown this year. “Officials are trying to find a happy medium, coaches are, and players are,” he added. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t seem like that happy medium is just around the corner. If anything, I’d expect it to get more inconsistent and determinative as the season approaches crunch time. And once the Big Dance starts, who knows what kind of consistency there will be from crew to crew.
“I keep hearing “coaches want it this way,” and this and that…I must be in a vacuum somewhere,” Izzo quipped. Some believe that vacuum will get smaller and smaller if the Officials begin to play a larger role in a game’s final outcome. Spartan fans can attest to that, they clearly remember the frustrating Duke game from last year’s tournament.
College players are simply bigger, stronger, and faster than they were in the pre-Cleaves era, if you will. The game is more physical now, and any attempts to thwart that appear or be doing more harm than good to date. “I said I’m not a fan of it…I’ll just leave it at that,” Izzo summed up. It’s hard to disagree with him, and if the powers that be aren’t careful with it, the sport could take a major hit from its fans.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind
- If you had any lingering question whether any Spartan should have left early for the NBA after last season, they’ve been pretty firmly answered to this point. Each player made the right choice by returning, which will probably benefit their professional careers more than they realize at this point. Hopefully that kind of wisdom will carry over for the rest of the Izzo era.
- We won’t find out if College Basketball has really damaged itself by the new rules that are driving whistles crazy until March Madness arrives. As readers of this report already know, I’m part of the crowd that believes College Basketball has been slipping for a handful years now (while the Big Ten thrives, ironically), and if they start losing the casual fan, it will show up during the tournament first.
- The main reason fans like College Basketball more than the NBA is that the College game doesn’t look much like the NBA game. If College games are officiated and end up being played more like the NBA, expect the College game to lose fans quickly. That would be an enormous shame. Keep College Basketball the full court-team game that the NBA is not anymore.