After watching Michigan State's football team struggle on the defensive side of the ball for much of 2021, Spartans fans should take extra pleasure in how well the hoops team is playing on that side of the ball early this baskteball season.
Through eight games, No. 22 Michigan State (6-2) is rated as the second-best team in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced metric system.
KenPom has the Spartans allowing 87.9 points per 100 opponent possessions, which trails only Houston (87.8) nationally in the rating system. What makes this stat even more incredible, is that Michigan State's opponents are currently No. 6 in offensive efficiency (108.1 points per 100 possessions). For reference, Houston's opponent offensive efficiency rating is 103.9, which ranked 79th in the nation.
In laymen's terms, it's not out of the realm of reason to argue that Michigan State has been the best defensive team in the country so far this season.
The Spartans have played a tough schedule through eight games -- KenPom ranks it No. 11 in strength of schedule thus far. Michigan State fell to Top 10 opponents Kansas and Baylor, but have solid wins over Loyola-Chicago, UConn and Louisville.
“If you would have told me we would be up 20 at home against Louisville I would have been tickled to death," said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, whose team held a 63-43 lead over the Cardinals before winning by a final score of 73-64.
“We’re eight games in. We had the three games in a row, which means you don’t practice then. If you told me we’d be 6-2, after the schedule we’ve played, I think I would have taken that."
The effort on defense starts with senior center Marcus Bingham Jr., who is playing like a Big Ten All-Defensive team selection right now. Bingham Jr. is averaging 3.1 blocks per game (3rd-best in the Big Ten), and his 1.4 steals per game (T-10th) is remarkable for a non-guard.
Complimenting Bingham Jr. on the defensive end are Tyson Walker, Gabe Brown and Max Christie, each of whom are averaging better than 0.8 steals per game.
Izzo has been especially impressed with Christie, a true freshman who came to East Lansing with the reputation of a sharpshooter. Christie is only shooting 34.8 percent from the floor, and 28.6 percent from three-point range, but Izzo has been impressed that the freshman hasn't allowed his shooting woes to effect his effort on the defensive end.
“I think he’s a little frustrated – I would be if I was him – but I do see an incredible maturity out of him," Izzo said. "It’s amazing what he’s done…90 percent of scorers let their scoring dictate their defense, and he hasn’t done that one time this year. For a freshman, that’s unbelievable. If you watch him, he is in ‘lockdown mode’.”
Christie's defense is keeping him in the starting rotation, and Izzo is confident that the freshman's scoring prowess will arrive with time.
"If he keeps playing defense like he did, the way he can shoot it, the shots are going to come," Izzo said.
As a team, Michigan State is averaging 6.8 steals and 6.0 blocks per game thus far, which ranks 6th and 2nd in the Big Ten, respectively.
The Spartans have some work to do on the offensive end. KenPom has MSU at No. 60 overall in offensive efficiency, and the Spartans' 16.1 turnovers per game ranks T-322nd out of of 358 NCAA Div. I programs.
But if Michigan State can clean up those miscues on offense, their defense is good enough to win a lot of basketball games and could help the Spartans be a contender in the Big Ten Conference.
“If we can do this with 19 turnovers, whether it’s Kansas, whether it’s Baylor, whether it’s these guys – in other words, good teams – just think what we can do if we stop turning the damn ball over," Izzo said.
“Happy where we are as far as our record, not happy where we are as far as our play. But excited that I do believe what I see in practice, if we can correct just one thing, I think we’re going to be a lot better. I want it to happen sooner, fans want it to happen sooner, media wants it to happen sooner. This is one time we’re all on the same page.”