No reason to go through all the same detail on MSU at this stage. Lots of time for that. Instead I’ll talk about 10 things I think are either worth playing attention to or make MSU the clear cut favorite to win the league.
1. Miles – Yeah, Captain Obvious here. As most MSU fans realize though, this isn’t a standard issue “return to school” case. He’s a special sort of kid. In terms of the combination of gravity defying athleticism and charisma, he’s as entertaining a player as MSU’s had in a long, long time. Not to be hyperbolic but I think in terms of pure enjoyment generated by watching him play, he’s in very rarefied air. Magic, Skiles, and maybe Jason Richardson would be the other guys I’d put in the same breath.
He’s also clearly a very focused and mature guy, more so than I appreciated when he committed to MSU. That part is at least somewhat responsible for his return. This is a player who really cares about winning, maybe more than anyone thought. He’s going to give this team a player who can take games over in stretches, as we witness him do as a freshman. He’s going to be primarily if not exclusively playing a position where he is going to be physically dominant. I also think that we’re going to see more outward displays of leadership from him. These guys know he didn’t need to come back, but he did, in part for them or rather what the collective whole could accomplish. I think he’s going to feel some urgency and that’s always a good thing.
2. No More Mr. Nice Guy – Here, I’m talking about the post spots. MSU has gone from being small and incredibly fragile in terms of depth to perhaps the deepest frontcourt in America. They’re so deep that a top 100 big man who is physically ready to go at the Big Ten level in Xavier Tillman probably won’t be able to see consistent minutes. It got even better when Ben Carter got his sixth year of eligibility approved by the NCAA…MSU is going to punish opponents again on the glass. I’ve looked at some of the best offensive rebound rates in Izzo’s tenure and you go back to the original group…the Antonio Smith/Dre Hutson/AJ Granger era. I think matching the 98-98 team will be a tall order, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Nick Ward is as good as anyone in the college game in that area, and Bridges at the 3 will be a lethal weapon on the offensive glass. Jackson, Schilling, Carter and Goins as well as Tillman will just add to the fun (or misery for opponents).
It’s also going to matter because now MSU will be able to play Izzo style defense in the post. You could see it eating him up to not have answers for teams like Purdue or Baylor inside…that’s over with now. MSU has size, strength, experience and a whole lot of bodies to throw at anybody. It will be a very different deal.
3. Transition – One function of MSU’s size infusion is that we should see an even more consistent ability of MSU to get into its transition game. Fast break basketball is very much a function of controlling one’s defensive boards and anticipated improvement there will turn MSU’s athletes loose. MSU is fortunate in that all of their big kids can run the floor, so there’s really no combination I can think of where you might have an issue with getting everyone into the frontcourt quickly, running lanes, etc. It will play to this team’s strengths because you have some great athletes and finishers combining with two really good transition point guards. One reason I think MSU’s overall offensive efficiency will improve is I think they’ll be on the break more often, getting easy points with more frequency.
4. Turnovers – The above is one reason I think it’ll improve but beyond that, expected maturation and improvement from 4 freshmen becoming sophomores should have an impact as well. MSU will never be Wisconsin. Single digit TO totals will never be the norm under Izzo. He doesn’t want a team to play as controlled and slow as would be required to get to that kind of number. However, last season’s problem was beyond what’s acceptable even at Michigan State. I think it’s highly likely we see improvement here, maybe even substantially so. MSU should get better, easier shots quicker in possessions, which should help. It should be in transition more, which with this group of players is a positive. I also think experience will help reduce the unforced errors which plagued them at times last season. It does need to happen for this group to reach its potential, though.
5. Free throws – MSU shot 67% as a team last season. That’s not going to cut it. The general threshold of acceptability is the 70% mark and you’d like to see it higher than that. This is an area where experience can and often does lead to improvement, as it’s fairly common to see guys improve over time. Nick Ward made significant improvement within the season. He ended up at only 61.5% but he spent much of the year hovering around the break even mark, so the final number reflected a much better success rate down the stretch of the schedule. I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that he could get around 70% this year. With the frequency with which he draws fouls, that would be a big boost for MSU. Miles was at 68%..he can be better than that. Langford shot 65%…he should be at least 10% higher. Even McQuaid was only at 71%.
MSU doesn’t need to become an elite FT shooting team to win, just like they don’t need to be Wisconsin in the TO dept. They just need to improve.
6. Depth – Right now, MSU has it’s deepest roster in awhile. They’ve got 12 scholarship players and you can make a good case for all of them to be in the regular rotation. That’s not to say MSU is invincible but they’ve got answers for pretty much anything with the way this roster is constructed. That’s the way Izzo wants to play and its really what his approach depends upon. He’s never been a tight rotation guy, so having this many quality options is a big, big deal and a return to form for the program.
7. Jaren Jackson Jr. – I’d make the argument that in terms of perception, no player in the class of 2017 rose faster or higher than Jackson did from say April 2016 to April 2017. He went from a borderline top 50 ish recruit (still good, of course but not “elite”) to a top 10 guy who many think could also be a top 10 draft pick next June if he elects to leave MSU after one year. The reasons for this are obvious. He finally figured out the focus and motor he needed to play with to make good on his considerable physical gifts. Jackson playing hard and with focus is a problem for opponents. 6’10” tall with a 7 foot plus wingspan. Good athleticism for a guy his size. A reliable 3 point shot. A solid handle for a big kid. He’s got all the tools he needs to be a great player. For this year and for this team, it’s going to come down to how quickly he grasps everything and how fast he can play Izzo- approved defense at the 4. It’ll be a challenge for him, as he’ll face some guys who will test him as athletes and shooters in ways he hasn’t been regularly confronted with so far in his career. He’s also going to need to get stronger over this offseason, as he occasionally can lose rebounds in traffic when getting knocked around. I think he’ll eventually be a starter for this team, but I’d be inclined to bet against it happening in early November. Izzo has options and I think there may well be an adjustment period for JJJ. When it kicks in, though, that’s when this team’s potential gets to the highest level.
8. Perimeter defense – I actually don’t worry much at this point about defense from the posts. I think Ward will make strides as a ball screen guy or just generally when asked to guard in space, but MSU also has Gavin Schilling back to hold him accountable at that end. The 4 is well stocked even if Jackson has some freshman growing pains, as Goins will be back to his normal position and Ben Carter has a reputation as an outstanding defensive player as well. So for me, it’s the perimeter spots where MSU needs to make strides to become an elite team. I thought Miles was solid to good most of the time last year, but this will be a different year for him. Langford has all the ability to be a great defensive player but I think he struggled with understanding concepts at times last season…he was as much a feast or famine guy at that end as we’ve seen here in awhile IMO, as he’d have great defensive stretches or games, followed by poor ones. Of the wings, McQuaid was the most consistent defender last season (even including Harris and Ellis) and should be good again. Kyle Ahrens is likely moving back to the wing and thus will need to make good on what MSU coaches thought they had in him when he was recruited. He needs to make improvements here as well. The biggest change has to come from Cassius Winston, though. For as gifted as he is offensively as playmaker and as rapidly improving as he is as a shooter and scorer in his own right, he really struggled to contain opponents on the ball last season. That has to change for him to have the expanded role many wish to see. MSU has a senior in Tum Tum Nairn who is a very good defensive guard and he will continue to play large minutes if Cash can’t make strides. I expect Winston to be better. He’s a sharp kid both on and off the court and guys like that usually figure it out even when they lack upper tier athleticism. Denzel Valentine did it. Bryn Forbes did it. It’s well within Cash’s capability to do similar things. He doesn’t have to become Travis Walton, he just has to be a non-liability.
I don’t think MSU will be terrible in terms of perimeter defense no matter what happens. How much improvement they can make might well be the difference between being very good and being a champion, though.
9. Schedule – While it’s not complete yet, this is clearly an easier ride than last season’s death march through the first month or so. MSU will face Duke in the Champions’ Classic. It then has the PK80 Tournament in Portland, followed by a home game in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. That means they’ll end up with likely 5 high major opponents, and probably at least 3-4 of them will be top 25 type teams (Duke and possibly Carolina could be top 10). The travel is nowhere near last season’s nightmare and this team is just much better equipped for the high level games anyway.
The one fly in the ointment will be the two Big Ten games in early December, forced as a function of the horrendous decision to play the BTT in NYC at MSG, which due to scheduling conflicts meant that it has to be played a week earlier than normal. It hasn’t yet been announced which two opponents MSU will see early on but everyone in the league is getting one home game and one away. Depending upon the draw, that could be a significant early challenge, particularly in the road game.
I’m also watching to see if MSU schedules anything for that now dead week between the BTT and the NCAA Selection Sunday. I have a feeling they’ll look to play a team from one of the other low major conferences who play early tournaments, but nothing’s been said yet, so it remains up in the air. I just can’t see Izzo being comfortable with what could be as much as a two week gap between games (best case scenario would be 11 days if they got to Sunday in the BTT and had a Thursday game in the NCAA Tournament).
10. Izzo – I thought he seemed to find ways to get past the frustration at so many things beyond his control last season and enjoy himself at times. He’s said it was a great group to coach, which certainly helped, but this year’s team should be one where he really starts to have fun. He knows he has the horses to win the whole thing, so that’s one thing which will make it enjoyable. He’s also got so many pieces to use, and he loves the process of finding out what’s going to work for a particular team…sometimes to the frustration of fans, but the man always has the end result in mind.
I don’t know if it’ll always *look* like he’s having fun, because he’s going to feel an accountability to these guys to get the most out of them and when your ceiling is a national title that’s going to require a lot of pushing and pulling. I know he wouldn’t want it any other way, though.