The first obstacle for a team facing the Spartans doesn’t involve points per possession or field goal percentage defense. It’s a toughness issue.
The Spartans can bully teams with their brawn. Draymond Green & Co. have embraced Tom Izzo’s philosophy on physicality (38.0 rebounds per game), a mentality that this program lacked last season. Every time that the Spartans have had a No. 1 seed, they’ve reached the Final Four. So their opponents can’t be intimidated by their legacy or their muscle.
They’re not losing without a fight. The teams that shy away from that kind of scrappy basketball won’t have a chance against Michigan State.
But the Spartans were vulnerable in the Big Ten tournament and during the season due to periods of imbalance. They’re a complete team. And the Spartans are bigger than Green.
But when he struggles, it affects the entire squad. The Spartans overcame a two-point first half by the All-America candidate and managed to beat the Badgers in the Big Ten tournament semifinals Saturday. But if Austin Thornton hadn’t hit back-to-back-to-back 3s in the first half, the Spartans would have lost that game. Same thing happened when Michigan State nearly lost to Minnesota a few weeks ago. Green struggled in the second half of that matchup, too. And the lowly Gophers were minutes away from a major upset.
The occasional imbalance works two ways. Sometimes Green (16.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game) is on and everyone else is struggling. That happened when the Spartans lost to Indiana on Feb. 28. Green had 29 points; the rest of the squad combined for 26.
I think Michigan State has a supporting cast that’s capable of complementing Green whether he’s on or he’s off. But the Spartans are a better team when multiple players contribute and they spread the offensive load.
And that’s a more difficult task with talented freshman Branden Dawson MIA due to a torn ACL.
The Spartans don’t have many flaws. They’re tough. They play great defense (No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). And with Izzo on the sideline, they’re always dangerous in the postseason.
But they’ll fall if they don’t get consistent contributions from Green’s teammates. Even if he excels, the Spartans will need Brandon Wood, Keith Appling and Derrick Nix to produce. They don’t have a Scottie Pippen. The responsibility will fall on multiple players.
I think squads will also focus on pressuring Appling. As a team, the Spartans averaged 14.8 turnovers per game in seven losses. Appling has recorded 14 turnovers in the team’s last six games.
The Spartans have had moments when they’ve slipped into a one-man-band mentality. The start of their conference tournament victory over Wisconsin exemplified that. They were lost as Green tried to shake his funk.
Opponents will do what they can with Green, but forcing other guys to become playmakers in the NCAA tourney could lead to a Spartans downfall if those contributors struggle the way they have at times this season.
Green is an amazing athlete. But that could be a curse for this squad in March if the Spartans rely on him too often.