The standards for Michigan State basketball are high, as in Final Four high. That made last season’s jolting end, a 90-81 first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State, all that more stunning. The Spartans were playing as well as any team in the country heading into the tournament and had earned a No. 2 seed, but never led against MTSU.
Gone from that team are seniors Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello and Colby Wollenman. Valentine was the national player of the year and he, Forbes and Costello were the top three scorers for the Spartans, so that’s a lot to replace. They also lost forwards Javon Bess and Marvin Clark, who transferred, and center Deyonta Davis, who opted for the NBA draft after his freshman season.
Good thing for head coach Tom Izzo he’s got the most talented class of freshmen he’s had in his 22 seasons at Michigan State. McDonald’s All-Americans Miles Bridges and Josh Langford are joined by point guard Cassius Winston and power forward Nick Ward. You don’t just swap out four seniors with four freshmen and all is well, but it gives Izzo a great starting point.
There will be new roles for senior guard Eron Harris and junior point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. but the expectations for this program haven’t changed. It chases banners to hang at the Breslin Center.
Here are five keys to the season for Michigan State:
Don’t just survive a brutal November schedule; learn from it
The Spartans will travel more than 13,600 miles before the first month of the season is complete, playing games in Hawaii, New York City and the Bahamas. They’re ranked No. 12 in the AP preseason poll and will face Top 10 teams Arizona, Kentucky and Duke for certain, with the possibility of seeing No. 13 Louisville as well. That’s a lot for any team, let alone one with four freshmen that will play significant roles.
The travel distance is more than normal for Michigan State but the tough nonconference schedule isn’t. It will give Izzo the opportunity to indoctrinate the new players into his system under extreme circumstances. That should benefit the entire team once Big Ten play starts Dec. 27 at Minnesota.
Keep the bags packed
Michigan State has never shied away from playing anyone, anywhere in its nonconference schedule. That theory will be tested this season when the Spartans face at least three teams ranked in the top 10 of the preseason AP Top 25 poll, with a possible matchup against No. 13 Louisville as well. Michigan State will do this while traveling more than 13,600 miles before the month is complete.
|Fri 11/11||Arizona (10)||Honolulu|
|Tue 11/15||Kentucky (2)||New York City|
|Fri 11/18||Miss. Valley State||East Lansing|
|Sun 11/20||Florida Gulf Coast||East Lansing|
|Wed 11/23||St. John’s||Atlantis, Bahamas|
|Thur 11/24||Baylor/VCU||Atlantis, Bahamas|
|Fri 11/25||TBD||Atlantis, Bahamas|
|Tue 11/29||Duke (1)||Durham, N.C.|
Get it and go
Knee injuries to graduate transfer Ben Carter and senior Gavin Schilling hurt Michigan State’s interior rotation and overall depth, so this won’t be the typical Michigan State team that owns the backboard. Last year’s team led the nation in rebounding margin (plus-11.4), but the unexpected departure of Davis to the NBA changed the roster makeup even before Carter and Schilling’s injuries.
The Spartans have only one player (Ward at 6-foot-8) who is taller than 6-7. The guards have to help out more as rebounders, but when they get the ball the Spartans want to run to set up an offense that led the nation in 3-point shooting (43.4 percent) last season. Harris, Winston and sophomore Matt McQuaid are being counted on to provide those shots this season.
Do the freshmen live up to their billing?
This freshman class was ranked No. 3 in the nation. Freshmen have played for Izzo before, but never as many as four of them. Izzo has never had freshmen contribute as many minutes as this group is expected to play.
Bridges is rated the top player of the quartet. He did nothing in two exhibition games to dissuade anyone from that thought. He can play four positions, including point guard, and is versatile enough to play on the perimeter and inside. Izzo says Langford is the best defender, not just among the freshmen but of the entire team. Langford missed the two exhibition games with a hamstring injury and has just returned to practice. The Spartans are hoping this is not a lingering problem throughout the season.
Winston isn’t starting but he’ll be as important as any of player this season. He has the potential to be a reliable scorer off the bench and proficient running the entire offense. He and Bridges have already shown a strong bond on the court. Ward is the surprise of the group. Izzo wasn’t planning on playing him much this season but he has gotten into terrific shape and, with the injuries to Carter and Schilling, Ward will be pressed into service. He can be foul-prone but he works hard around the basket and his size is something Michigan State lacks.
The talent level and potential of these freshmen are high, but they’re still freshmen. At some point they will hit that wall in the season where all the travel and increased competition catches up to them. How they handle that time and if they’re able to persevere and get a second wind will determine if Michigan State will be a dangerous team come tournament time.
Embracing new roles
Izzo has placed the burden of leadership on Nairn, but it’s a role the junior from the Bahamas has accepted. Nairn’s offensive stats won’t tell his full worth to this team. He’s a strong defender and is healthy after undergoing offseason surgery to repair plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He is not a consistent threat to shoot from the outside, so opposing teams will sag off him and take their chances.
Defenses won’t do the same thing to Harris. Bridges is going to be the No. 1 option in the offense but Harris is a good shooter from the outside. He averaged 17.4 points a game as a sophomore at West Virginia before transferring to Michigan State. Izzo wanted him to play more of a defensive role last season, which Harris did. Harris will be more offensive-minded this season. What player doesn’t want to be asked to shoot more?
How deep can this team go?
The five starting for the two exhibition games were Nairn, Harris, McQuaid, Bridges and sophomore forward Kenny Goins. Winston, Langford and Ward are coming off the bench. Who else will earn minutes? The lack of interior depth is most noticeable. Aside from Ward, no player on the bench is taller than 6-5. Can seniors Matt Van Dyk (6-5 F) and Alvin Ellis III (6-4 G) provide any help? Sophomore Kyle Ahrens (6-5 G/F) played sparingly last season but at 215 pounds he’s got the physical makeup to help off the bench.
Michigan State wants to run, but that requires good conditioning and a strong bench.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo