As the 2015-16 college basketball season turns one month old, the sport's defining storyline would appear to be a wide-open national landscape that features plenty of good teams, but no great ones. This should mean that we're in for a bundle of unpredictability between now and the first Monday of April.
With that being the case, it's a bit surprising that there is almost no debate over which team has earned the label of top dog through the season's opening month.
Michigan State (11-0) is one of just eight unbeatens remaining in the country and is about to begin its second weekend as the No. 1 team in both major human polls. With just Northeastern and Oakland remaining on their non-conference slate, the Spartans would seem to be a safe bet to enter Big 10 play with a perfect 13-0 mark.
That's not to say that Tom Izzo's team hasn't been tested. In fact, crunch time prowess is the biggest reason why Michigan State is where it is right now. In five of their 11 games, the Spartans have been in a too close to call situation with five minutes (or five minutes and a little change) to go, and in all five instances Sparty has done what championship teams are supposed to do.
Let's examine the evidence.
Exhibit A: Michigan State vs. Kansas -- Nov. 18 (Champions Classic in Chicago)
Score With 5:00 Remaining: Kansas 64, Michigan State 62
Final Score: Michigan State 79, Kansas 73
How it Happened:
In what would have to be deemed the most impressive overall performance of the five, Michigan State turned a two-point deficit into a six-point win over the then fourth-ranked Jayhawks by hitting all five of their field goal attempts and all four of their free-throws in the game's final five minutes. Kansas, meanwhile, was limited to just 2-of-12 from the field and just 1-of-6 from beyond the arc.
In what would quickly become a theme, senior Denzel Valentine played hero by scoring nine points and grabbing a pair of rebounds in the game's final five minutes. He finished with his first triple-double of the season (he would do the deed again a week later against Boston College), and became the first Michigan State player since Magic Johnson to achieve the feat in a game against Kansas. Freshman guard Matt McQuaid connected on a pair of 3-pointers, including a dagger from the left corner with 53 seconds to play.
Exhibit B: Michigan State vs. Boise State -- Nov. 27 (Wooden Legacy Semifinals in Fullerton, CA)
Score With 5:00 Remaining: Michigan State 65, Boise State 59
Final Score: Michigan State 77, Boise State 67
How it Happened:
Boise State had rallied from a 13-point second half deficit to get back within striking distance at the five-minute mark before Michigan State once again clamped down and salted victory away. The Spartans hit all eight of their free throws down the stretch and limited Boise State to just 2 of 6 from the field in the game's final five minutes to pull away and win by double digits. Valentine again left his mark on the game by burying the team's last four shots from the charity stripe.
Exhibit C: Michigan State vs. Providence -- Nov. 29 (Wooden Legacy Championship in Fullerton, CA)
Score With 5:04 Remaining: Michigan State 57, Providence 57
Final Score: Michigan State 77, Providence 64
How it Happened:
Michigan State was in an absolute dogfight with Kris Dunn and Providence for the first 35 minutes of the Wooden Legacy title game. In the final five minutes of that game, the Spartans connected on 6 of their 8 shots from the field and destroyed the Friars on the glass, snagging 10 of the game's final 11 rebounds. Sparty forced a pair of turnovers and limited Providence to just 2 of 8 shooting down the stretch to make the final score of the game a bit misleading.
The game's key sequence came at the two-minute mark, just after a pair of Eron Harris free throws had put Michigan State up 66-60. The Spartans forced Dunn to miss a heavily contested jumper on one end, and then pulled down a pair of offensive rebounds on the other end before Kenny Goins' layup extended the lead to eight. The sequence totally deflated Providence, who would never get closer than six before ultimately wilting and losing by 13.
Exhibit D: Michigan State vs. Louisville -- Dec. 2 (Big 10-ACC Challenge in East Lansing)
Score With 5:07 Remaining: Michigan State 58, Louisville 58
Final Score: Michigan State 71, Louisville 67
How it Happened:
Louisville led by as many as 13 in the first half before Michigan State found its rhythm on offense and began trading blows with the Cardinals in the game's second 20 minutes. The two teams were still deadlocked at 58 with 5:07 remaining before Valentine started doing the types of things that have made him the early front-runner for national Player of the Year. He buried a 3-pointer to break the tie and then wound up scoring 11 of his team's final 13 points (he assisted on the only other basket) to crush Louisville's upset dreams. The last six of those points came at the free-throw line, where Valentine was perfect in preventing the Cardinals from having a shot to tie or take the lead in the game's final minute.
Exhibit E: Michigan State vs. Florida -- Dec. 12 (In East Lansing)
Score With 5:09 Remaining: Michigan State 51, Florida 49
Final Score: Michigan State 58, Florida 52
How it Happened:
Michigan State's most recent example of end-of-game prowess may have also been its ugliest. The Spartans misfired on six of their final eight field goal attempts in the final 5:09 of their win over Florida, but they held the Gators to just three points on one made shot. Sparty also forced Mike White's team into turnovers on three consecutive possessions when Florida had an opportunity to cut into a four-point Spartan advantage. Valentine and Marvin Clark Jr. were the only Michigan State players to score after the 5:09 mark.
Michigan State Field Goals: 18 for 34 (52.9 percent)
Opponent Field Goals: 10 for 38 (26.3 percent)
Michigan State 2-Point Field Goals: 13 for 17 (76.4 percent)
Opponent 2-Point Field Goals: 7 for 22 (31.8 percent)
Michigan State Free-Throws: 30 for 32 (93.8 percent)
Opponent Free-Throws: 13 for 19 (68.4 percent)
Michigan State Turnovers: 5
Opponent Turnovers: 11
Michigan State Rebounds: 29
Opponent Rebounds: 19
The biggest takeaway here, without question, is Michigan State's crunch time efficiency from the free throw line. This is a group that shot 63.3 percent from the free-throw line as a team last season, good for 336th-best in Division I. Only 15 teams were worse, and only one of those other 15 teams (San Diego State) ended its season in the NCAA Tournament. For the 2015-16 Spartans to basically be automatic from the stripe in the final five minutes of games is pretty remarkable.
Could this all be the product of a veteran team that is simply farther along than its competition during the first leg of a marathon? Will numbers like these mean less once said competition gains experience between now and the NCAA Tournament? It's certainly possible, but until then, Sparty is the unquestioned king of this crazy season where pretty much everything else seems unclear.