1. Will Michigan State ever fix their free throw shooting woes?
For years, Michigan State has been among the nation's elite with regards to their team free throw shooting percentage. They almost always find themselves at the top of the Big Ten in this category, and the foul line has helped the team win many close games over the years.
This season has been a nightmare from the line.
Against Maryland, Michigan State was an awful 12-for-27 from the stripe. Had they shot well, it would have been a completely different game.
Senior guard Travis Walton is shooting 50 percent from the line. Senior guard Travis Walton is shooting 50 percent from the line. Before this season, his worst effort on free throws was 72 percent during his freshman year.
The Spartans need better production from their veteran leaders.
Highly-touted freshman Delvon Roe has done most things well—except for free throw shooting. He's sitting at 40 percent.
Goran Suton, Chris Allen, Durrell Summers, and Kalin Lucas have been the only bright spots from the line for Michigan State. Nobody in that group is shooting worse than 74 percent from the line, and Lucas is at 80 percent.
As a team though, dismal. 67 percent isn't going to cut it.
Last season, they shot a shade under 74 percent.
Since the 2001-2002 season, the team has never shot worse than 71.8 percent from the line.
As Memphis showed last year, a team can roll through the tournament seemingly unimpeded and still end up being bitten by free throws. They're a major Achilles' heel. A poor free throw shooting team is a poor closing team, and you can't afford to close poorly in March.
2. Will the Spartans be able to control their turnover problem?
In Michigan State's loss to Maryland earlier this season, the Spartans committed 15 turnovers, five more than Maryland.
When North Carolina blew them out, the Spartans committed 21 turnovers, compared to nine for UNC.
Lastly, Northwestern came away from East Lansing with a huge upset after the Spartans had 18 turnovers to only seven for the Wildcats.
To put it bluntly, all of Michigan State's prowess on the offensive glass means absolutely nothing if they don't take care of the ball. They're giving away the possessions that they gain with their offensive rebounding.
A quick glance at the sidelines during a performance in which MSU mishandles the ball will show any observer that this team gives Tom Izzo fits at times. He can live with a loss where his team was outplayed because the opponent just has superior talent. But he cannot live with a loss that happens because of stupid mistakes on the part of the Spartans.
Kalin Lucas can go a long way towards reining in these turnovers. He has one of the best assist to turnover ratios in the whole country and can offer a steady hand when the rest of the team is struggling.
Lucas has only committed multiple turnovers in just two games this season, a remarkable stat for a point guard who is only a sophomore.
3. Will the role players continue to step up?
Against Ohio State last Sunday, Durrell Summers was instrumental in keeping Michigan State close through a rough first half. His outstanding play allowed the Spartans to eventually come back to beat the Buckeyes convincingly in Columbus.
Whenever Marquise Gray scores in double digits, the Spartans win. When he decides to get involved and play with energy every time he sees the floor, the Spartans win.
In their three losses, Gray has a grand total of seven points. Ugly.
Summers and Gray are key to the Spartans' success. The Spartans have plenty of depth up front, but Gray offers an option that isn't a complete offensive liability *cough* Idong Ibok *cough*.
Summers is a dynamic guard with incredible athletic ability. Very few players can combine his ability to play above the rim with his outside shot. It makes him a difficult man to defend and a dangerous player to deal with off the bench.
Every team that has success in March has players on the bench that can step in at a moment's notice and provide a spark. In 1996, Rick Pitino's bench was good enough to start for most teams.
I'm not saying that Michigan State needs to have a bench that runs that deep in order to be successful. In fact, most teams will never have that luxury.
To be effective, the Spartans simply need a few bench players that can step in and produce when they are called upon. So far, Durrell Summers has been the guy off the bench and looks to be embracing the Sixth Man role.
4. Will the dominance on the boards continue?
Nobody in the country rebounds like Michigan State. Nobody.
In Big Ten play, Michigan State is outrebounding opponents by almost 17, and they're also getting 16.5 offensive rebounds per game.
Put another way, their opponents are giving them an extra 16 chances per game to score. You can't give an elite team that many extra opportunities to score and still hope to beat them. The math just doesn't work that way.
Is there anything more backbreaking than giving up an offensive rebound and then seeing that team hit a big shot with their second chance? What about giving up an offensive rebound on a missed free throw?
Michigan State has to lead the country in both categories.
But, the Big Ten is a very physical league. If a Spartan big man has to take a seat because of early foul trouble or injury, the team loses a big part of their game.
In the two losses that came with Goran Suton in street clothes (Maryland and North Carolina), the Spartans still won the offensive rebounding battle, by seven and three respectively. But they only outrebounded Maryland by a total of two and came up one rebound short compared to UNC.
Conversely, the Spartans outrebounded Kansas by 11 total, and by seven on the offensive end.
If Michigan State keeps rebounding like this, they'll do well in March. When teams are able to close that gap, the Spartans are in some trouble.
5. Who will lead this team in March?
The answer to this question should be Raymar Morgan, but it isn't.
The most physically gifted player on the Spartans' roster is also one of the most inconsistent.
If he starts a game with a quick foul or a couple of early misses, he tends to disappear for most of the 40 minutes.
Travis Walton is another name to throw out there.
Walton is a senior and always brings a great deal of intensity to the floor. He's one of the nation's best on the ball defenders and takes pride in shutting down the opposing backcourt.
But the answer isn't Travis Walton.
It's Kalin Lucas.
While Lucas is only a sophomore, he's already beginning to exhibit all the characteristics of a savvy leader.
He understands the offense, he understands the weaknesses of the opponent, he knows when to pass and when to shoot, he knows when to be aggressive, he makes his free throws, he makes the important "hustle" plays, and he's becoming more comfortable in the playmaking role.
In some of the Spartans' tightest spots this season, Lucas has put the team on his shoulders and carried them through.
In the early minutes against Kansas, Lucas was the only Spartan to hit a field goal in the first seven minutes. It kept them in striking distance and allowed the team to come back and grab a lead that they would never relinquish.
Against Ohio State, Lucas scored all 20 of his points in the second half as part of a big second half comeback in a game that at one time had the Spartans down by 13.
At Penn State, Lucas stepped up at the end of the game despite a poor shooting performance. He hit all of his free throws in the waning moments to ice a tough road game.
Lucas is playing like a seasoned veteran, and it will be his considerable talent that leads the team into March.