The visual and performance implications of Michigan State never forcing turnovers

MSU

(Photo: mlive.com)

Michigan State is having one of its best seasons of the last decade, and that’s saying something. The Spartans are 26-3 and on-track for a No. 2 or possibly even a No. 1 seed. MSU also has a shot at winning its first outright Big Ten regular-season title since 2009.

Those are all the hallmarks of a team performing at the highest level, and, more to the point, the Spartans could win a national championship. You likely knew all of the above already, so consider what follows as an explanatory addendum for you, the viewer.

Michigan State is highly strange visually in 2018. This is clearly one of the best interior defenses we’ve seen in recent years. Our eyes know it, and they report that narrative back to us in breathless terms. Just look at Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward altering and swatting away shots. Besides, the numbers back up the eye test. Conference opponents are converting just 40.3 percent of their two-point tries.

Nevertheless, the bottom-line cash value that the Spartans are getting from that historically great interior defense is historically small.

Through games of February 19, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession   Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

Big Ten                   W-L   Pace    PPP   Opp. PPP    EM
1.  Michigan State       14-2   66.6    1.14    0.99    +0.15
2.  Purdue               13-3   65.4    1.15    1.00    +0.15
3.  Ohio State           13-3   65.4    1.12    0.99    +0.13
4.  Michigan             11-5   64.1    1.09    1.02    +0.07
5.  Penn State            9-7   66.4    1.08    1.02    +0.06
6.  Nebraska             11-5   66.4    1.05    1.00    +0.05
7.  Indiana               9-7   67.2    1.02    1.00    +0.02
8.  Maryland              8-9   65.5    1.09    1.10    -0.01
9.  Northwestern         6-10   62.8    0.99    1.03    -0.04
10. Wisconsin            6-10   63.6    1.00    1.07    -0.07
11. Illinois             3-12   69.3    1.01    1.09    -0.08
12. Iowa                 3-13   69.6    1.08    1.19    -0.11
13. Minnesota            3-13   68.8    0.98    1.12    -0.14
14. Rutgers              3-13   65.7    0.87    1.03    -0.16

AVG.                            66.2    1.05

In per-possession terms, this defense is only as good as Ohio State’s and about as good as Indiana’s, Nebraska’s, or Purdue’s. I doubt that your eyes have been carrying on at length about those defenses.

What’s holding MSU’s defense back, relatively speaking, is the fact that opponents never commit turnovers. This is somewhat masked in whole-season numbers, where the Spartans rank down there in the 300s, sure, but are certainly faring no worse in that category than UCLA, Georgia, or Vanderbilt.

The track record of 1,073 Big Ten possessions, however, tells a somewhat more extreme tale. It’s really, really hard to come in under 13 percent with your opponent turnover rate, and in fact it’s happened just five times out of the last 375 major-conference team-seasons.

Lowest opponent turnover percentages
Major-conference games only, 2014-18

                         Opp. TO%
Michigan State     2018    12.3
Washington State   2016    12.3
Purdue             2016    12.4
Vanderbilt         2016    12.7
Washington State   2015    12.7     

This is where I should say Michigan State is doomed, and that the Spartans will surely lose an NCAA tournament game where the opponent records just three or four turnovers. Maybe so, but this is also where I should say that all teams but one are doomed no matter what, and, anyway, college basketball is rarely so very literal in its translations from regular-season quirks to postseason verdicts.

What I will say, however, is that you can’t make sense of Michigan State in 2018 without looking at turnovers, both for and against. In fact, in a turnover-free or at least -neutral world, MSU would be clearly the best team in the country in 2018.

Points per “effective” (turnover-less) possession (PPeP)
Major-conference games only

                         PPeP   Opp. PPeP    EM
1.  Michigan State       1.41     1.13     +0.28
2.  Duke                 1.41     1.21     +0.20
3.  Purdue               1.34     1.20     +0.14
4.  Villanova            1.44     1.32     +0.12
2.  Virginia             1.25     1.14     +0.11
6.  Xavier               1.35     1.27     +0.08
7.  Auburn               1.36     1.29     +0.07
8.  Kansas               1.35     1.32     +0.03

Saying “Michigan State just committed a turnover” or “MSU’s opponent didn’t commit a turnover” doesn’t feel descriptively rich or analytically deep in real time during a game. Those statements, however, carry an unusual degree of value in capturing what’s happening with Tom Izzo’s team right now.