LAST SEASON – It was pretty close to a fairy tale, right up until the end. MSU had a marquee national name in Denzel Valentine. It was playing a brand of basketball no one could quarrel with, as the Spartans were both beautiful and efficient on offense and good enough defensively most of the time to win. They held the #1 ranking for multiple weeks through an unbeaten non conference schedule. Then Denzel got hurt in practice. MSU had to play without him and that helped get them off to a rough start in Big Ten play and then it took him awhile to get back into the flow even after he was healthy and ditto for his teammates with him. It took until the Maryland game at Breslin on January 23rd for MSU to find itself again after a month of struggle. From that point forward, the Spartans were 13-1 in Big Ten regular season and BTT play, winning the latter and finishing up 13-5 in the conference for a second place finish and a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Then the roof caved in as MSU hit a hurricane named Middle Tennessee State, and ever factor seemed to go against the Spartans, who also contributed to their demise with uncharacteristically spotty defensive play, especially early, which allowed MTSU to gain confidence and get on a roll. The season ended in shocking fashion with what I consider the greatest upset of a Spartan team in Tournament play (topping the 95 team’s loss to Weber State). It was a crushing defeat in a year in which MSU seemed to have as good a chance as anyone to win a title. However, it doesn’t erase all the great things last year’s team did. They were usually a joy to watch and even in great years at MSU that hasn’t always been the case. This was a fun team, an entertaining team and a very good team, even with the NCAA defeat.
THIS SEASON – With Zel and Bryn Forbes gone, it’s going to be a different deal in the MSU backcourt.
Eron Harris – Harris had an up and down transition to MSU basketball after sitting out a year following a transfer from West Virginia. The 6’3″ senior is the top returning scorer at 9.3 ppg. He did it on 43/44% shooting and was a plus 20 in assists to TOs, a turnaround from his Mountaineer days. Yet, the feeling is that he has a lot more to give. His defense was inconsistent, but he did make progress over the course of the year…he’ll need to make more as a senior as he has the physical tools to be very good on that end if he can use his head. Offensively, he’s a very good shooter but MSU can use more of him going to the basket and finishing or drawing fouls than they got a season ago. At times, he seemed caught between just playing and deferring to guys like Zel. This year, that shouldn’t be a problem. MSU needs him to be aggressive and I think we’ll see elevated play from Eron. He has the physical tools and skills to be an All Big Ten player, but will he have the mindset?
Tum Tum Nairn was injured for much of the season and thus wasn’t able to be a consistent part of what MSU did after Christmas. It’ll be interesting to see how he approaches this offseason, as his work ethic is so strong that it may have contributed to his being hurt, yet he needs to work to improve his jumper. I think he’s a key for this team if healthy. He’s a strong individual defender and his speed makes him a big part of MSU’s transition game. I think because of his defense and his experience he’ll see a significant role this year and I would be very surprised if he’s not the starter early on, and maybe the whole way through.
Matt McQuaid went through something of a typical freshman season. He had some great moments and some average ones. At a certain point, he seemed to hit a wall but found a way to rally past it afterward and help this team. McQuaid is a versatile 6’5″ guard. He’s a good athlete who should get better on defense as he gains more strength and experience. He’s a lethal deep shooter at 41% and he had better than a 2:1 A/TO ratio while filling in as a backup point guard, something he hadn’t done previously. I think Matt will be more exclusively off the ball this year and MSU needs him to be a consistently productive shooter, given all the production they lost with Zel and Bryn leaving. I think we’ll see a step up from Matt.
Many fans had Alvin Ellis out the door at the start of last season. Even into January, you had to wonder what his role would be going forward. Then he began to show why some thought he could be a starter in this program on the wing, as he had a strong February and March, becoming a regular part of the rotation. Ellis is a good defender with length at 6’4″. He shot 40% from deep and actually has a good off the dribble game. He can help in a lot of areas. With him it’s about mindset, keeping his conditioning straight, and proving consistently ready to answer the bell when called upon. I don’t expect him to start but I do think he’ll see a good number of minutes as a senior. Much of the conference and even some of MSU’s own fanbase doesn’t realize how good Alvin could be this season.
Kyle Ahrens did not redshirt as many (myself included) thought he would. He ended up only playing 86 total minutes on the season, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could redshirt this season. Kyle right now looks like a best case is a “3 and D” guy. He can hit the three, he’s good athlete and strong player for a wing, and he has the mentality to go out and check people. I’d say a more physically gifted Austin Thornton is how I’d envision him. If he can add an improved handle, he could be better than that but that’ll have to come.
MSU added two freshmen guards who will make a major impact. The first is 6’5″ Joshua Langford. The McDonald’s All American was a load at the high school level and should push to be an immediate starter at MSU. He is a strong and aggressive player who also possesses a good handle and can create for others. If he has an area to improve, it’s in the consistency of his jumper. He’s a good shooter but not yet a great one. If he can add a 40% + three ball to the mix, he’ll be almost unguardable at this level. I think he’s also got the tools and mentality to be a plus defender but as with all freshmen, we need to see how quickly he grasps the concepts at MSU before we’ll know for sure where he stacks up.
Then there’s 6’1″ PG Cassius Winston. The Michigan Mr. Basketball is a winner and perhaps the most gifted passer of the Izzo era. He’s not as spectacular as Zel was, but I think he’s sounder. He’ll rein in the questionable choices quicker than Zel did, IMO. He’s already made some progress in conditioning and will need to make more going forward. He does not have a textbook jumper but he hits enough to force defenses to respect him. He is outstanding at changing speeds and using that plus his exceptional handle and good strength to get to and finish with regularity at the rim. To me, it’s the defensive end which will likely put him in a spot where he splits minutes with Tum. I think in time his length and smarts will allow him to become a good defender, kind of the way Denzel did, but that progression usually takes some time. For now, I think he’ll end up as sort of a “co-starter” and his ability to make others better and run an offense will definitely open eyes. Over 4 years, I think he’ll be one of the best Izzo’s had at that position.
Up front, MSU lost its two best big men in Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis. Costello was graduating but MSU didn’t think Davis was a likely one and done at the start of the year, though that’s how it ended up. That’s created some holes but also some opportunites for a bunch of new faces as well as some returnees.
Gavin Schilling is probably going to be the starter at the 5. He played very well on the Spartans’ Italian trip last summer and seemed set to take off…and then injuries sort of derailed him and he never quite got back on track even once he was healthy. Schilling has an NBA body and athleticism. What he hasn’t shown yet is enough consistency as a post player and enough judgement to avoid foul trouble. His maturation is a big key for this team. He doesn’t have to become a first rounder but a similar move up in consistency to the one Costello made last year would be a big positive for this team. I don’t rule that out at all. The raw tools are still there.
Kenny Goins was perhaps the biggest surprise of the season for MSU. The 6’7″ preferred walk on ended up leapfrogging several guys to become a starter at the 4 and a big part of MSU’s turnaround, until an injury robbed him of a close out to an otherwise impressive first year of play. Kenny is a versatile defender and has proven to be an effective rebounder, plus he’s got more offensive game than some anticipated (he shot 69% on the year and those weren’t all layups and dunks). I think he’ll be a key rotation guy and is clearly capable of holding others accountable, because he gives Izzo a legitimate option at all times at the 4. He will play and he will play well.
MSU added three new faces inside, two freshmen and a grad transfer. The biggest name is 6’6″ Flint product and McDonald’s AA Miles Bridges. Bridges is probably the most purely talented guy to enter the program since Jason Richardson. He is a plus/plus athlete. He plays with an attacking mindset. He is skilled enough to be a legitimate three point threat. He is a high level rebounder. The key with him is going to be balance…can he find the right offensive balance between attacking and settling? Can he grasp MSU’s defensive concepts well enough to check at the level his physical tools suggest he can? I think Miles will also see some time on the wing but to me, he is going to be most dangerous as an attacking 4 man ala Justice Winslow at Duke. He’s a likely one and done, so enjoy him while he’s here. I think he’ll have a major, major impact for this team.
Nick Ward is a top 50 6’9″ post player from Ohio. Before Davis declared, it seemed that he might be headed for spot duty but that was always going to be a challenge, because I believe his talent and game are VERY legitimate. He’s a big kid and yeah, he can get in better condition, but I thought he was in better shape and moved better than Derrick Nix did as a senior. He is an old school guy on the blocks. Uses his size well to create space and has a nice ability to finish. He’s also shown signs of a face up game, though I don’t think we’ll see Swanigan-esque three point jacking out of him. He’s a strong rebounder. My big question with him is on defense. You just don’t typically see HS big men forced to show the kind of defensive chops they need to at the Big Ten level, especially if they’re not rim protectors. So I don’t have a feel for where Nick’s comprehension or lateral movement will be, but I’m optimistic. I think he’ll play regular minutes and in time, I believe he’ll be one of the two or three best low post scorers Izzo has had.
MSU added Ben Carter via the grad transfer route and he is a MAJOR addition if healthy. The 6’9″ Carter can play either 4 or 5, as he did at UNLV. He is a strong defender with some shot blocking ability. He’s a tough player who can score some but isn’t a three point shooter. He’ll add defense, rebounding and experience to a frontcourt mix that will need some of all of those things. As long as his ACL is healed, Carter could be a big part of this team. I expect to see him in a reserve role but he should still see heavy minutes, probably in the 20 mpg range.
BOTTOM LINE – MSU is going to be a very different team than they were last season. You don’t lose a guy like Valentine, with all he did and the way he influenced his teammates, without feeling it. Yet, I think this team will be better in some ways.
I think it’ll be a more athletic team. Bridges and Langford will up the ante there and if Schilling can prove capable of playing 25 mpg he’s an upgrade in that area over Costello as well.
I think this team should get to the line more frequently and also score more at the rim. The young guys all have that ability to varying degrees and I also think we’ll see more off the dribble stuff from Harris, McQuaid and Ellis.
Yet, there are also downsides. There’s no way this team will top last year’s 43% as a team from three. While I think this team should still be very good in terms of ball movement, it’s difficult to imagne them topping last year’s group in that area either. So there are positives and negatives.
If I had to identify 5 main questions, they would be these:
1. Who’s the Man? Last year, this became Denzel’s team and that was a huge positive. This year, that is a question yet to be answered. Tum will be a leader but can he be *the* catalyst? Can Eron Harris take a larger role?
2. Shooting – Specifically perimeter shooting. MSU has some guys who could step up but they have to actually do it. Harris, McQuaid and Ellis were all good from three but only Harris approached being a higher volume guy.
3. Defense – This team has physical tools to be good defensively but anytime you’re counting on so many young players, it’s a question as to how quickly they’ll grasp things. This team needs to get good on that end fairly quickly.
4. Chemistry – Related to #1 but a broader issue. Last year’s team really seemed to enjoy playing with one another. This is a different group. I expect Tum to be a guy who helps make everyone into a cohesive whole but again, with 5 new faces, that’s an issue until they prove it isn’t.
5. Tempo – I think with this team it will be critical to get into transition as often as possible. I don’t know that I expect their halfcourt execution to be quite as good, so easy baskets will be important. The good news is that the personnel is on hand to be outstanding on the break, but they have to rebound well enough defensively in order to get into it.