Trying To Make Sense Of The Disappointment

Trying To Make Sense Of The Disappointment

Crowley Sullivan

Trying To Make Sense Of The Disappointment

Spartans are stymied by Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone and dream season comes to premature close.

Contact @crowleysullivan

INITIAL DISCLAIMER SINCE IT ALWAYS SEEMS NECESSARY

Since there are many Spartans with skin as thin as Shelley Duvall either as Olive Oyl or as Nicholson’s wife in “The Shining,” let me be very, very clear right at the outset so there is zero room for misinterpretation:

Tom Izzo has done more with the Michigan State basketball program than anyone ever dreamed was possible.

Tom Izzo has reached seven Final Fours – an astonishing accomplishment  that will be a source of pride for Spartans for generations.

Eighteen years ago, Tom Izzo won the 2000 National Championship.

Tom Izzo has won eight Big Ten Championships.

Tom Izzo was the hand-selected successor to Jud Heathcote because Jud knew all of this was possible and Jud insisted on this despite virtually no support for his vision of what, indeed, came to fruition.

Tom Izzo led this year’s Michigan State Spartans to an amazing final record of 30-5 that included a regular season Big Ten Championship.

Tom Izzo is a Hall of Fame coach who will always be seen as a man that achieved greatness in his profession and led Michigan State University to heights never before imagined throughout his career as the Spartans head coach.

Now, may I speak candidly about certain things that many Spartans want to pretend aren’t realities?

THE BRILLIANCE OF BOEHEIM

Let’s first address what happened in Sunday afternoon’s Second Round NCAA Tournament game.

Syracuse University veteran puppet master Jim Boeheim played Tom Izzo and the Spartans like a fiddle.

Harsh?

Truth.

Jim Boeheim has run a 2-3 matchup zone for the last 39 years and has done so unapologetically.

There are many who like to denigrate Boeheim for his defensive approach since it’s somewhat easy to point to the scheme and ignorantly critique it for being passively feckless.

The people who critique Boeheim and his 2-3 matchup zone are usually whining about Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone after losing to Boeheim and his 2-3 matchup zone.

The question is fair to ask: did Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone come as a surprise to Izzo and the Spartans?

Boeheim dares a team to beat him with perimeter shooting and successful penetration when he throws out his 2-3 matchup zone.

Boeheim’s thinking goes a little like this:

I’m gonna send my guys – some of whom belong on a YMCA basketball team – out there and have them play a defense that you don’t respect and you don’t like and you’re not used to playing against and it’s going to annoy you and frustrate you and you’re going to get flustered and it’s going to cause panic in your players and you’re going to fall right into my trap by launching a thousand jump shots that are going to be hoisted by players who are panicking and I’m gonna end up sneaking out of the gym with a win over your far-more-talented team and you’re gonna be too proud to do anything other than talk about how all you needed to do was hit a few more shots rather than acknowledge that my defense beat you and you didn’t know what to do and I’m gonna still be loathed by everyone because I’m a little too whiny about some stuff but I don’t care because I just beat your team.

Michigan State attempted 66 shots from the field on Sunday.

The Spartans converted on 17 of those field goal attempts, good for a 25.8 field goal percentage.

More to the point, Michigan State hoisted up 37 attempts from 3-point range, converting on 8 of those attempts – good for 21.6%.

Michigan State’s season field goal percentage entering Sunday’s Second Round game was 49.6%.

Michigan State’s season 3-point field goal percentage entering Sunday’s Second Round game was an even 40%.

Understandably, Izzo alluded to his team’s inability to make shots in his various post game addresses.

As has been the case before, he appeared to be on the verge of losing control of his emotions during his official NCAA post game press conference.

While the shooting was, of course, poor, is it worth considering that at least part of the poor performance was due to the defense deployed by Boeheim?

Is it also worth considering that the 3rd seeded Spartans, favorites to win the national championship according to many ever since Miles Bridges chose to come back for another year, might have considered attacking Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone in a variety of ways rather than deploying a strategy that included hoisting 37 3-point field goal attempts?

I did a somewhat clunky search but perhaps my point might resonate –

Entering the 2017-2018 season, Michigan State’s team record (all time) for most 3-point field goal attempts in a single game came in 2005 against Gonzaga when the Spartans let 34 go from beyond the arc.

Was part of Izzo’s strategy heading into yesterday’s game to set a school record for 3-point field goal attempts?

For the full 2017-2018 season, Syracuse did not rank in the Top 50 across the nation in 3-point field goal attempts or 3-point field goal percentage from a defensive standpoint.  So, perhaps Izzo saw an opportunity to leverage one of his best perimeter shooting teams and figured it would be the best way to beat Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone.

Whether or not Syracuse was among the nation’s leaders statistically in 3-point defensive statistics, Boeheim’s loyal adherence to the 2-3 matchup zone is predicated on a team’s inability to hit enough from the outside while also keeping his opponent from finding the opportunity gaps to allow for productive penetration.

PERSONNEL & OTHER PARTICULARS

Including Sunday’s Second Round matchup, Ben Carter played a total of 178 minutes throughout the course of the season, good for an average of 7.7 minutes per game.

In Sunday’s game, Carter was on the floor for 23 minutes as the main point of entry at the foul line when Michigan State was trying to figure out how to run offensive sets against Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone.

By comparison to one randomly-selected player, Gavin Schilling averaged 9.6 minutes per game this season but played zero minutes in Sunday’s contest against Syracuse.

Jaren Jackson averaged 22 minutes of play per game this season but was on the floor for 15 minutes on Sunday.  On the season, the future NBA Lottery pick had a 51.1 field goal percentage and shot 40% from 3-point range.  True, Jackson had foul problems.  Maybe Jackson was being saved for a potential overtime run.

With a perimeter game that was cold all afternoon, the Spartans were unable to find ways to properly penetrate Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone and Izzo chose to go with Ben Carter with the season on the line.

For the Shelley Duvalls out there – this is, in no way, a knock on Ben Carter.  He played admirably and deserves a pat on the back for the hard work he put in.

The broader point is that it’s, perhaps, fair to ask how and why Ben Carter factored into the tactical approach to breaking Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone that the Spartans never broke.

Speaking of hard work – Izzo pointed to the effort his team demonstrated during his post game commentaries.

He was right to have alluded to this.

The loose balls were one thing – but the 29 offensive rebounds that were a part of a 51-30 overall rebounding edge suggest that the effort was unquestionable.

So, what happened?

Like Boeheim’s overall approach to coaching, the answer doesn’t need any over-analysis.

Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone did exactly what Boeheim designs it to do and Izzo didn’t have the answers.

POST GAME SEARCH FOR ANSWERS 

There is talk of free throws being missed.

Fine.

Perhaps more zone penetration might have delivered more opportunities for in-the-paint convergence which might have led to more free throw opportunities.

For the record, the stat line shows the free throw comparison shaking out like this:

Syracuse: 24 out of 31 from the line.

Michigan State: 11 out of 16 from the line.

That line, among other things, suggests that Michigan State might not have made much of a commitment to getting the ball inside to its bigs – and the 16 free throws are certainly less than the aforementioned 37 3-point field goal attempts made by the Spartans.

There was a reference made by Izzo – in a fairly typically passive aggressive reference during his post game press conference – to both he and Boeheim being “upset about some things.”  That’s Izzo’s way of complaining without complaining about officiating.

I won’t spend time on this.

IZZO BEING IZZO

After the game, as Izzo answered questions from reporters in the bowels of Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena, a question was asked where this ranked among Izzo’s most disappointing losses.

“It’s among the top two or three….”

For whatever it’s worth, I’d agree with Izzo.

While talking a bit about the disappointment that some Spartans may feel due to what some may think is a failure to reach the team’s full potential, Izzo said this:

“Find another team….I’d say I’ve never, ever been prouder of a team than I am of this team.”

In another moment of candor from Izzo, he said, for the second or third time during the various post game interviews that sometimes felt like ramblings, “I don’t speak coach speak. I speak heart speak.”

Spartans everywhere have loved and admired Tom Izzo and have made that admiration and love as clear as the blue sky on a gorgeous Autumn afternoon in East Lansing.

His emotional transparency has always been a part of what makes us all feel closely connected to him.

The passion he has for what he’s built and what he protects with the grit of a Spartan warrior has made Spartans everywhere as proud and as grateful as a fanbase can be.

However, as I’ve attempted to convey in various written offerings, I think it’s okay for people to ask fair questions and not be seen as betrayers.

This has been a very challenging period for the entire Michigan State community.

As hard as this loss is for the Spartan basketball program and all of its very loyal fans, there are other things that have been harder for other members of the Spartan community.

It’s still fair to suggest that there are a lot of unanswered questions related to the way the Michigan State athletic department has conducted its business for many years.

In the current moment, it’s fair to suggest that Michigan State was out-flanked on Sunday by an irritating yet effective 2-3 matchup zone that has been the hallmark of the Jim Boeheim’s program for nearly four decades.

NOW WHAT?

With that suggestion comes the follow up question – what happens now?

There isn’t any hiding from the reality that this ranks as one of the more disappointing endings to a Spartan basketball season in the last 20 years.  I’ll follow that up immediately by reiterating that these last 20 years have been greater than anyone ever could have imagined.

But after a long period that has featured t-shirts and slogans and chest thumping and fist pumping to go along with a ton of banners and trophies, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to suggest that it would be refreshing – and necessary – for the program to enter into a period of less talking and more doing.

Perhaps less hyperbole and more strategic thought.

Perhaps less snarling and more consideration of the bigger picture.

Perhaps less emphasis on a strange combination of Big Ten football and Steph Curry long range shooting and more contemplation about how to enter the Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 matchup zone from the free throw line in order to convert baskets from the paint.

When someone says to me, “Find another team,” I’m somewhat tempted to take the bait.

That won’t ever happen, however, because I love my alma mater far too much and not even a tragic failure of institutional leadership that we’ve recognized recently will get in the way for me.

But when it comes to the leadership of Michigan State’s forever proud basketball program, my hope is that a loss stemming from the 2-3 matchup zone that’s been a part of the national discussion for just shy of forty years introduces more self examination and less fist pumping and gritted teeth.

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