Michigan State Basketball: Signs the Spartans Won't Last at No. 1

Doug BrodessCorrespondent INovember 19, 2013

Michigan State Basketball: Signs the Spartans Won't Last at No. 1

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    Michigan State is the No. 1 team in college basketball for the first time in almost 13 years, according to the Detroit News' Matt Charboneau.

    ESPN.com's news services reported that:

    This is Michigan State's first time leading the rankings since a two-week run in 2000-01, when the Spartans reached the Final Four. Their only other time at No. 1 was a two-week stint in 1978-79, the season Magic Johnson carried the Spartans to the national title.

    They opened the 2013-14 season with two impressive wins, destroying McNeese State and then taking down the preseason No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats.

    Their victory against UK at the United Center in Chicago all but assured the Spartans of moving up to the top spot in the rankings.

    But, Michigan State's last two wins have shown that head coach Tom Izzo's squad is less than invincible.

    A close call against Columbia and an uneven victory over Portland raises the question: "How long will the Spartans stay at No. 1?"

    Here are five signs that could foretell a short-term stint for Michigan State at the the top of the polls.

5. Cold Three-Point Shooting from Gary Harris

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    Michigan State's Gary Harris came into the 2013-14 season with high expectations to fulfill.

    He was selected as the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year and a USA Today second team All-American.

    Overall, he is having a good start to his sophomore season, but an area that could be a concern is his cold shooting from three-point range.

    After hitting 4-of-10 threes in the Spartans' season opener, Harris is shooting 23.5 percent (4-of-17) from beyond the arc in their most recent three games.

    Last year, as a freshman, Harris demonstrated his shooting touch, knocking down 41.1 percent of his shots from downtown.

    The Spartans hope this is a temporary slump and not a long-term spiral.

4. Uncertainty at Center

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    Michigan State has one of the best big men in the country in Adreian Payne.

    He has an excellent power game in the paint, but he can also step out and hit the three ball.

    Unfortunately, Payne has to carry most of the interior load for the Spartans because they lack a legitimate player at center.

    Head coach Tom Izzo has to resort to filling his other post position with a variety of players.

    Sophomore Matt Costello started MSU's first three games but has only averaged 12 minutes of playing time with three points per game and 3.5 rebounds per game.

    Junior Alex Gauna started the Spartans' fourth game. He has logged 10 minutes of playing time per game, while scoring two points and two rebounds per game.

    Center is definitely the weakest position for Michigan State.

    While Izzo doesn't necessarily need a high-scoring big man to go along with Payne, the team could benefit from one of these wide bodies being more productive on defense and on the glass than they have in the first weeks of the season.

3. Inconsistency on the Boards

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    Coach Izzo's Michigan State teams have traditionally been ruthless about rebounding.

    The Spartans are usually one of the best teams in the Big Ten on the glass.

    So far this season, MSU has been shaky where they are usually strong.

    MLive's Diamond Leung pointed out after the Spartans' recent close call against Columbia that:

    Michigan State, for the first time in two seasons, got out-rebounded in consecutive games, leading to rare questions about the team's toughness.

    Getting beat on the boards by Kentucky is not a big problem. But, when a team that is picked to finish last in the Ivy League (like Columbia) pulls down more rebounds (31-27) than you do, that is a problem.

    Izzo is absolutely inflexible about his team's attitude towards attacking the glass.

    Lueng quoted the insistent Izzo, who said:

    Rebounding here is a religion, and maybe this team wants to change that, so I've got to make sure it doesn't happen.

    Izzo will not hesitate to alter his starting lineup or rotation if players are not giving maximum effort on the glass.

    In fact, Branden Dawson and Costello were held out of Michigan State's starting lineup against Portland for that very reason.

2. Low Free Throw Rate

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    So far this season, Michigan State is doing an inadequate job of getting to the free-throw line.

    The Spartans have a 25.4 free-throw rate (free-throw attempts/field-goal attempts) and only score 15.6 percent of their points from the charity stripe.

    These frustrating stats would make a lot more sense if MSU was a bad free-throw shooting team.

    But, after their first four games, the Spartans are shooting 77 percent from the line.

    Here is a head-scratcher: How could two athletic players like Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine only have seven free-throw attempts between the two of them in Michigan State's first four games?

    It must drive Coach Izzo crazy because Dawson and Valentine are money from the line, hitting 85.7 percent (6-of-7) so far in 2013-14.

    If the Spartans do not become more aggressive getting to the line, they will forfeit points and fail to get their opponents in foul trouble.

    These are the little things that make a big difference in close games. 

1. Sporadic Killer Instinct

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    Over its first four games, Michigan State has had stretches where it looked like cold-blooded assassins. It has had other stretches where it looked like half-hearted pushovers.

    When the Spartans played Columbia at home, the Lions held a lead for most of the game. This surprising contest was tied at 51 with six minutes to play.

    Michigan State finished the Ivy League squad off with an 11-2 run.

    Against Portland, the Spartans let the Pilots hang around and keep the game close.

    With 12:43 to go in the second half, the score was tied, 46-46, and the outcome was still undecided.

    Michigan State kicked it into gear and finished strong, making the final margin (82-67) look like they had things under control from start to finish.

    It is these "relaxed" stretches of games that will eventually catch up with the Spartans.

    There is no shortage of talent or experience on the Spartans' roster.

    What they need to establish is consistent focus and energy every game from start to finish.