Offense key to Sparty's title hopes

Michigan State's defense is excellent, but can it score enough to win it all?

Updated: January 21, 2014, 12:43 PM ET
By John Gasaway | ESPN Insider

Keith ApplingPat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsKeith Appling is in the midst of a breakout senior season.

It's now been seven weeks since Michigan State lost a game (79-65 to North Carolina in East Lansing). That's not quite as long as the winning streaks currently carried by Arizona, Syracuse or Wichita State, but it's pretty impressive nonetheless, especially when you factor in health.

My colleague Joe Lunardi is currently projecting MSU as a No. 1 seed, and if the Spartans are indeed seeded on the top line, it will mark the second time in three seasons that this has been the case. Clearly these are good times to be a fan of Tom Izzo's program.

It likely won't come as a shock when I tell you that MSU is outstanding on defense. In fact, the Spartans are currently limiting Big Ten opponents to a league-low 0.91 points per possession. In particular, opposing teams have struggled to make 2s against MSU, connecting just 41 percent of the time thus far in conference play.

Indeed, even the Spartans' misfortunes have worked out to be not all that catastrophic. For example, at the moment Adreian Payne is nursing a sprained right foot that has sidelined him for three games and counting. Payne's absence is a loss, no two ways about it, but the senior's injury has also resulted in more minutes for Matt Costello, a sophomore who's proved to be a highly effective rim protector. In the Spartans' 78-62 win at Illinois last weekend, Costello recorded six blocks in 25 minutes.

So while the efficiency numbers for the entire season to date -- including nonconference games -- may tip in favor of the Ohio State defense, before it's all said and done, Michigan State may turn out to have the single best D in arguably the nation's best conference. The Spartans' strength is and will likely remain their defense.

Not that MSU is what you'd call weak on the other side of the ball. At the moment, Izzo's offense is checking in at a solid No. 4 in Big Ten play, scoring 1.11 points per possession. That's lower than the efficiency displayed by Michigan (1.18), Wisconsin (1.17) or Iowa (1.14), but it is a good deal better than any other offense in the league, including Minnesota (1.05) or Ohio State (1.00).

No, the offense isn't a weakness, but it may well vary more from game to game than does the MSU defense. As such, the Spartans' fortunes could rise or fall according to their scoring. Here's my take on what Michigan State, as it prepares to take on Indiana in a Tuesday night home game (7 ET, ESPN) needs to do on offense to win a second national title for Izzo:


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