Opposing Bigs’ Foul Stats Against Michigan State Don’t Illustrate What You Think, Spartan Fans
Michigan State basketball is searching for answers after losing three of four and routinely getting dominated down low.
Spartan fans are growing restless, and understandably so. When's the last time we've seen MSU get bullied around the basket the way they have seemingly every game for the last few weeks?
It's not an easy pill to swallow. Especially after we saw what junior center Mady Sissoko was capable of at the beginning of the season against All-American-caliber bigs like Gonzaga's Drew Timme and Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe.
The Spartan fanbase, spoiled by decades of fundamentally sound defense, is searching for answers just like their team. One popular theory among MSU fans on social media and sports radio is foul disparity, specifically an unfair advantage in terms of how the game is officiated.
Here are the stats making the rounds in Spartan circles:
|Fouls by Opposing Starting Center||Fouls by MSU Starting Center|
|Indiana (Trayce Jackson-Davis)||1||3|
|Rutgers (Clifford Omoruyi)||1||2|
|Purdue (Zach Edey)||0||4|
|Illinois (Dain Dainja)||0||3|
|Wisconsin (Steven Crowl)||2||4|
|Michigan (Hunter Dickinson)||2||4|
|Nebraska (Derrick Walker)||1||5|
|AVG. PER GAME||1||3.6|
Many State fans say this data set proves the court is tilted in favor of MSU's opponents, at least over the last seven games. Worse, some suggest it's proof of an outright conspiracy against the Spartans, which is of course completely bat-shit crazy.
Let me be the first to tell those people: These numbers don't show what you think they show.
The stats here don't prove that the refs are stringently enforcing ticky-tack calls against the Spartans while swallowing the whistle for their opponents. There are two sound, fact-based explanations for MSU's bigs committing 3.5 times as many fouls as their competition.
Spartans' Style Of Play Isn't Doing Them Any Favors
Tom Izzo has built one hell of a program and legacy in East Lansing, and at the center of it all are the core tenets of toughness and physicality. Year in and year out, you can count on State to play an old-school, physical brand of basketball.
But that ethos doesn't always translate well to today's day and age, where the game has embraced the "freedom of movement" approach. Michigan State is always going to rack up more fouls this way, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. (See: All of the trophies and Final Four banners at the Breslin Center.)
No Consistent, Reliable Presence At The 5 For MSU
In basketball, if you want to draw more fouls, there's a pretty obvious tried-and-true method for success — pounding the ball into the paint. To do that effectively, though, you need at least one seasoned, savvy big man with the footwork and ability to create his own shot.
Mady Sissoko simply does not have that kind of game. Jaxon Kohler does, but it's going to take more time to develop it to the point where it can be relied upon (although the freshman has shown a ton of progress over the last two games).
The Problem Isn't Just On One End Of The Court
That's the truth, and, although it doesn't fit the narrative that the refs are screwing MSU, it doesn't mean that officiating isn't having an impact. It's college basketball — officiating always has an impact.
The refs in this sport have been atrocious for a while, and it doesn't always affect each team evenly — Michigan State's back-to-back opposing centers from a few games ago are proof of that. Illinois' Dain Dainja and Purdue's Zach Edey both went a full 40 minutes against the Spartans without being whistled once.
Even so, State's most recent seven games paint a pretty clear picture: Officiating is far from the Spartans' No. 1 issue right now. Just take a look at what opposing teams' big men have done to MSU lately:
|Opposing Starting Center Points||Opposing Starting Center Rebounds||MSU Starting Center Points||MSU|
Starting Center Rebounds
|Indiana (Trayce Jackson-Davis)||31||15||9*||6*|
|Rutgers (Clifford Omoruyi)||12||12||12*||9*|
|Purdue (Zach Edey)||32||17||0||8|
|Illinois (Dain Dainja)||20||7||5||6|
|Wisconsin (Steven Crowl)||19||3||6||11|
|Michigan (Hunter Dickinson)||18||7||2||7|
|Nebraska (Derrick Walker)||15||9||5||10|
|AVG. PER GAME||21||10||5.6||8.1|
*These stats belong to Jaxon Kohler, who didn't start. All others belong to Mady Sissoko.
I get it. Blaming the refs is a natural part of being a fan, and it's more prevalent in college basketball than in any other sport. But the numbers don't lie. MSU is giving up a big-time double-double in the paint every night out, while getting minimal return from its own center.
Some are starting to criticize Izzo for not using any of a handful of available scholarships on big men in the transfer portal. It's a fair point, but let's not confuse having an extra big from the portal — and remember, the portal has proven to be just as hit-or-miss as traditional recruiting — with some sort of panacea for State's low-post woes.
Face it — Michigan State is getting worked in the post every single game. Does that mean the officiating has been good? No. But it does mean that the Spartans are taking the court every game at a decided disadvantage at the 5, and the Big Ten is the worst conference for that kind of vulnerability this year.
It's a long season. Things can change. Who knows — maybe Kohler continues developing quickly and takes the starting center role from Sissoko. The freshman couldn't be in better hands than Izzo's when it comes to learning and getting better. And, in that same vein, you can rest assured that Sissoko will eventually come out of his defense and rebounding funk.
But don't pin the shortcomings and losses on the refs. Criticizing officiating is one thing (and certainly well warranted in college basketball). But excusing seven consecutive poor performances and three losses on the refs is the language of a loser.