Big Ten Geeks: Left Hanging

America’s High Five was locked out of the Final Four, as both Michigan State and Michigan fell in the Elite 8. And while each team lost for very different reasons, it was peculiar that both games came down to the other team scoring three points after the defense forced a contested heave from 23 feet.

In Michigan State’s case, those three points came at the foul line after Keith Appling committed the cardinal sin of fouling a three-point shooter. It was a nightmare game for Appling, who recorded a mere 2 points to go along with 4 turnovers and 5 personal fouls. Even worse than his ineffectiveness on offense was his lack of confidence, as Connecticut routinely helped off the point guard to cut off drives and shots from MSU’s more dangerous players. UConn normally plays terrific two-point defense, but the Huskies took it to another level in this game. Even though just 37 percent of Michigan State’s shots came from inside the arc, the Spartans managed to convert just 41 percent of them. It was only with solid outside shooting (11 for 29 on 3s) that MSU was able to stay in this game.

UConn, for its part, did not score well on either 2s (44 percent) or 3s (23 percent), but its aggressiveness led to 22 free throw attempts, of which the Huskies converted on all but one. That’s bad luck, even accounting for the fact that Connecticut is one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, at 77 percent.

Gary Harris led the Spartans with 22 points, in what might be his final game in college (depending on whether he wants to make a lot of money now, or later). Much will be made about the fact that The Streak is over, but it’s something that Tom Izzo apparently didn’t care all that much about:

“You know, that streak doesn’t mean anything to me, as dumb as it sounds,” he said. “Sometimes you got lucky. There were teams that we went to a Final Four with that weren’t as good as some teams we didn’t.”

Fair enough, Coach—that’s an impressively level-headed way to think about it. But I do think The Streak meant something. While going to the Final Four in any given season is as much a matter of lucky breaks as it is skill, the very fact that Michigan State was so consistently in a position to take advantage of said breaks is worthy of admiration. In 19 seasons he’s been to 6 Final Fours and has been one win away from 2 more. That doesn’t happen by accident. Congrats, Coach.

***

Michigan also fell in large part to a 23-foot heave, only this one went in the basket. Aaron Harrison’s shot might be a microcosm of the unexpected breaks that went Kentucky’s way yesterday. A 35 percent three-point shooter coming into yesterday, Harrison hits 4 of 6 from deep, including the clincher with Caris LeVert’s long arms in his face. Kentucky gets 10 points and 8 rebounds from someone who wasn’t even on the scouting report.

Those are certainly fair points. But let’s not forget that Michigan isn’t put in a position where it could be beat by an unlikely three with something resembling adequacy on the defensive glass. Yes, Kentucky is a fantastic offensive rebounding team and yes, Lee’s seven offensive boards greatly boosted those numbers. But no amount of rationalization excuses the fact that the opponent recovered 63 percent of its misses. Make no mistake, Michigan’s offense is a thing of beauty with its spaced out shooters, multiple ball-handlers, and superb finishers at the rim. But even the best offenses need to be paired with a defense that can recover the ball by means other than inbounding after an opponent score. Kentucky racked up 1.32 points per possession on Sunday, a figure it had not hit against any other high-major (or major conference, or whatever designation you want to give to the top-7 conferences) opponent. Michigan, meanwhile, has featured a very poor defense over the back-half of the schedule, a fact covered up by its amazing offense. But sooner or later, these things catch up to you.

Michigan’s immediate future is contingent on some early-entry decisions as well, and I suspect there will be some movement on that end. Even if there is though, the cupboard ought to be full enough to keep the team in the NCAA Tournament and quite possibly in the Big Ten title race. I feel like I’m being hard on Michigan here because an Elite 8 appearance seems like such a “waste” of a great offense, but the truth of the matter is that the Wolverines outperformed expectations on the season to get to this point. Beilein has turned this program into a perennial powerhouse, and I suspect it won’t fall from such heights very easily.

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Big Shot Mike on 4/2/2014 @ 10:03pm EDT Said:

Michigan State has been sloppy with the ball each of Appling’s 4 years. In fact, I can even point to all three UConn games during these years as proof. In each game, Appling was picked on throughout (Maui Invitational, Germany Base, Elite Eight). Coincidentally, MSU lost all three despite ALWAYS having more NBA talent each time. The opening play of the game in Germany??? You guessed it, Napier literally steals the ball from Appling after Appling handles the tipoff. Napier then races down the court and lays it in for the easy two point lead. UConn is up two 8 seconds into the game and never looks back. Mind you, this is an unranked probation UConn versus a ranked MSU with everyone on it this year AND Draymond Green.

It wasn’t just Appling turning the ball over all these years. Lucas and Lucious did plenty of that as well. Michigan State has none of Michigan’s smoothness on offense and has lacked an effective ball-handler (Draymond Green the exception, but he was not a guard) since Drew Schneizel (spell check) ran the point.

I actually blame Izzo for this latest loss. Michigan is excused as Kentucky is a loaded team and simply couldn’t miss from deep. A bad call on basket interference (Lee’s 4th putback dunk) and a strange call to change LaVert’s three to a two-pointer was literally the 3-point margin of defeat. Harrison’s somewhat miracle shot should have only tied the game.

Izzo…

The team was too cocky all year. They screwed around as the “favorite” every chance they got. Literally re-watch the Cornell game after beating Kentucky. They were just as asleep then as they opened against UConn. Izzo’s yelling gives them an inferiority complex when the other team has NBA players and they aren’t getting yelled at. MSU has two players projected AHEAD of Napier yet neither one played with Napier’s joy, freedom of movement or willingness to improv confidently during clutch moments. Izzo needs to jump to the NBA. He has now talked about it with two different NBA teams providing offers (Pistons, Cavs). Go.

Blessed freedom to improvise, Gary Harris could have dominated like Napier did all year. NBA scouts agree. Some say the Lakers will let Kobe groom him. That’s how good he is right now compared to Napier. Harris also should have been the primary ball handler after it was apparent that Appling was too-injured to contribute quality minutes against good/great competition. Trice and Harris should have brought the ball up. Appling only to relieve either one for no more than 10 minutes per game.

I tip my hat to Payne though. He is the one guy who overcame Izzo’s constant panic-mode and played without fear in the big moments. Valentine and Trice deserve props too as both elevated their game throughout the year.

Conclusion, future looks bright for Michigan. Michigan State is just going to be stressful to watch until Izzo leaves. I can’t honestly say that Izzo inspires anything other than panic these days. Fred Hoiberg would have gone undefeated with Michigan State’s 2013-2014 roster. Proof? He worked miracles with not one but two Izzo castoffs (Lucious and Allen) literally transforming both into 15 ppg guys and well-rounded players. Imagine what he could do with actual MSU NBA-bound starters!

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