For one night only, the Spartans did away with their entire defensive gameplan. And it worked.

Throughout his career, Tom Izzo has earned the reputation of a fantastic NCAA tournament coach. Izzo and Michigan State have consistently been able to turn mediocre regular seasons into deep postseason runs. The fact that this year’s seven-seeded Spartans survived the first weekend isn’t much of a surprise.

Still, Michigan State did have to go through a very strong Virginia team in the round of 32. The game was a rematch from last season’s tournament, where Michigan State won 61-59. With just two days in between games for preparation, Izzo and the rest of the coaching staff decided to make a major change to their defense.

The changes were not simply minor tweaks based on scouting report tendencies. After the game, point guard Travis Trice stated that the Spartans coaches had ‘literally taught us a totally different game plan from some of the things we’ve been taught for four years.”

Michigan State’s assistants created the game plan in response to Virginia’s Mover-Blocker Offense. In some ways, the offensive system is designed to counter the pack-line defense Virginia coach Tony Bennett (and his father before him) is famous for. The offense takes advantage of sagging defenders plugging the lanes by constantly running guards off flare screens and pin down screens. Michigan State’s normal gaps defense is actually very similar to Bennett’s pack-line, and therefore vulnerable to Virginia’s offensive action.

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First, let’s take a look at Michigan State’s normal defensive principles. In other words, the things Travis Trice was referring that he has been taught throughout his four year career. By way of example, I went back to Michigan State’s Big Ten tournament game against Maryland. That game featured vintage Spartan defense, because the pack-line style is ultimately designed to stop penetrating guards like Melo Trimble and Dez Wells.

The first rule of Michigan State’s defense is to get in the gaps. The Spartans don’t deny when one pass away. Instead, the guards form a pack and focus on limiting the effectiveness of the dribble drive. Take a look at how clogged Trimble’s driving lanes are below:



Michigan State doesn’t create the steals a deny defense does by being in passing lanes, but they instead focus on making opponents take very tough shots. Trimble is free to swing the ball, but driving into the pack is an option the Spartans will likely take away.

The next defensive principle in all Izzo teams is the “jump to the ball” action. This is how the pack is maintained even on ball movement. As soon as the offensive player makes a pass, the now old on-ball defender moves quickly in the direction of the pass. Jumping to the ball not only clogs the lane for the new ball handler, but it also prevents the old ball handler from making a strong side cut to the basket. Here’s an example of Denzel Valentine jumping to the ball:

The first two principles ensure that Michigan State will always have sagging off-ball defenders clogging driving lanes. The next one is to make sure the on-ball defender is forcing the ball into these lanes. Therefore, Michigan State wants to force the ball into the middle of the court. The Spartans looks to avoid baseline drives which due to their off-ball positioning would leave them very susceptible:

All Michigan State defenders force the ball into the middle until Trimble is finally called for travel. Relying on dribble penetration without off-ball movement simply won’t work against Michigan State’s defense.

The final concept Michigan State relies on each year is that guards are the help defenders. If you are one pass away on the perimeter, your job is to help if a player drives into your gap. Helping one pass away is often a risky strategy that can lead to rhythm three-point attempts on kick-outs, but the other aspects of the gaps defense allows Michigan State get away with it. Since the Spartans aren’t denying, players one pass away don’t have to move much at all to help on the ball. This leaves the off-ball guards enough time to help and recover on the kick-out under control:

Trice helps one pass away and easily recovers back to Jared Nickens for a good contest. In this particular example, Trice gets his hand up a little bit late, but ultimately Nickens is forced to take a tight three with the shot clock winding down.

With Michigan State’s normal defense in mind, now we can take a look at the alterations made this weekend for Virginia. Shooting guard Bryn Forbes went into detail after the game:

Usually, we jump to the ball and stay in the gaps. As guards, we weren’t doing that. We were having our bigs being the nail (help) man in the middle. So when their guards would drive, (MSU’s post players) would step up. We changed a lot, and it worked.

The first thing to notice when watching this weekend’s game is the lack of a pack. Michigan State guards chased the Virginia movers instead of plugging the gaps:


London Perrantes’s view in the photo above is much different than Melo Trimble’s. The guards are focused on chasing, while Gavin Schilling’s job is to be in the middle and help as necessary.

Watching Michigan State respond to Virginia flare screens really illustrates the complete change in defensive philosophy. Again, the guards were told to chase while the big men guarding the blockers (screeners) were told to help:

The defensive movements in the play above seem fairly simple, but it must be rememberws that they completely contradict the years of learning these Michigan State players have had under Tom Izzo. Imagine spending practice after practice in shell drill focusing on jumping to the ball. Now, on just two days, notice the Spartans were forced to forget that muscle memory in favor of the new game plan of chasing.

The other part of the Michigan State defensive game plan was designed to anticipate what Virginia’s next move would be upon realizing MSU was taking away flare screens. In the Mover-Blocker Offense, Virginia will immediately re-screen into a pin down when the flare is taken away (or vice versa). This takes advantage of the kind of aggressive off-ball defense Michigan State decided to play. However, Izzo and the rest of the coaching staff came fully prepared for this adjustment:

The on-ball defender anticipates the pin down and shows as soon as the ball is passed. He also knows that a flare screen for his man is likely going to follow, so the goal is to quickly recover after providing enough support for the pin down. This was definitely scouting report dependent, and in the clip above Valentine is able to be a significant help because he is guarding Marial Shayok.

Overall, the Michigan State players looked very prepared for Virginia’s offense. Throughout the game you can see players pointing and communicating in anticipation of the next offensive action. But while the level of execution was impressive considering just two days of prep time, that doesn’t mean it was flawless.

Below is an example of Branden Dawson reverting back to old habits out on the perimeter. Unsurprisingly, the defensive lapse leads to a good look for Perrantes off a flare screen:

Dawson is normally a rim protector for Michigan State, and who knows how many reps he got at practicing the new style of perimeter defense prior to the games. Regardless, his reversion to the normal principles shows exactly why Izzo decided to change the game plan.

Of course, nearly all defensive systems are going to at least slightly adjust for the other team’s personnel. These adjustments would likely be practiced throughout the pre-season. You teach how you are going to play a dominant post player or a lights out three-point shooter. Then when preparing for the next opponent, the players are somewhat familiar with the adjusted game plan. However, completely changing the principles of your system is a totally different story.

Izzo’s comments after the game clearly indicate this was a much more drastic change of play. He said, “Give my staff a lot of credit — they sat down and did it. But to have a team do that in one night … at this time of year, your focus has to be incredible. And that was incredible focus if you ask me.”

This brings up a very interesting debate on coaching and game planning. Obviously the more repetition players get practicing a system, the better the execution becomes. But what happens if the system is not optimal for a given opponent? Now there is a natural trade-off between the execution of the strategy and the validity of that strategy. Change your system too much to cater to the opponent, and the added benefits will be negated due to lack of experience.

Unlike some drastic coaching moves, Izzo didn’t really have to worry about a media firestorm in a loss. The backlash and second guessing of end of game decision making often leads to conservative coaches. In this case, however, Izzo’s bold changes are more or less invisible to the average fan. In fact, there is likely no one even talking about the defensive game plan if not for Izzo’s opening comments following the win. The coaching staff simply decided abandoning usual concepts gave Michigan State the best chance of winning. As a result, tonight against Oklahoma, the Spartans live to see another day.

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Jordan Sperber

Jordan graduated from Villanova University last year. He has analyzed NCAA basketball with advanced statistics and film at since high school.

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