EAST LANSING, Mich. — The exhibition season is over for Michigan State. The Spartans wrapped it up Wednesday night with a 87-77 win against Division II Saginaw Valley State at the Breslin Center. Typical of any preseason game, there was some good and probably more bad than coaches want to see. It’s early November and in the case of No. 12-ranked Michigan State there are four freshmen being integrated into a lineup that lost its top three scorers from last season.
An arduous November schedule begins a week from Friday in Hawaii against No. 10 Arizona in the Armed Forces Classic. Games against No. 2 Kentucky and at No. 1 Duke are definite. The Spartans could face No. 13 Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, where Wichita State, Baylor and LSU are also in the field.
The tough early schedule is nothing new for Tom Izzo’s team. It will have to work through its developmental issues as his other teams have.
So what are those issues?
- Freshman Miles Bridges is the No. 1 scoring option. He’s probably going to be No. 2 on most nights as well. But the Spartans have to find out who will be the consistent offensive threats after Bridges. It could be fellow freshman guard Cassius Winston. It could be senior Eron Harris or sophomore guard Matt McQuaid. All three of those players are capable of stretching the defense with their outside shots. As small as the Spartans are — they have just one healthy scholarship players taller than 6-foot-7 — they will need to be able to score on the fast break and hit jump shots.
- Roles up and down the lineup have to be defined. It’s not just the four freshmen — Bridges, Winston, forward Nick Ward and swing guard Joshua Langford, who has yet to play because of a hamstring injury — but everyone on the roster. Harris averaged 9.3 points last season and is the top returning scorer but he knows he’s going to be counted on for much more than putting the ball in the basket. He had nine rebounds against Saginaw Valley State. “I was just playing basketball. I’ve got to consciously get to that glass. I felt like it was so natural tonight. Just get there it was mine. I’ve got to continue to do that. I feel like I can get more than 10 rebounds.”
- The starting lineup of Bridges, Harris, McQuaid, forward Kenny Goins and point guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr., came out and played with passion and commitment for the opening five-plus minutes as the Spartans built a 13-3 lead. When the second team of Winston, Ward, Alvin Ellis III and Kyle Ahrens entered the game, the same energy wasn’t there and it really never returned. There was a 20-6 run late in the first half that pushed the lead from three points (22-19) to 17 points (42-25) but Saginaw Valley State cut the lead to as little as seven points in the second half.
- Michigan State has 20 assists and 10 turnovers against Northwood, another Division II team, in its first exhibition game. It had 16 assists against Saginaw Valley State but committed 18 turnovers. “We just didn’t execute our stuff very well tonight.” said Izzo. “At the same time, we shoot 54 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, but we had 18 turnovers. Our offense wasn’t good and our turnovers caused some opportune shots for the other team on the other end.”
- The defense is a work-in-progress. Langford being out hurts. Izzo has called him the team’s best defender, but Saginaw Valley State shot 62.5 percent from the field in the second half. Guard Garrett Hall scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half, making 5 of 6 3-pointers along the way. ” Our defense was really good, then really bad,” Izzo said. “The other night we were average on defense, but tonight we were great or terrible. The sustainability is what we need to work on.”
Saginaw Valley State is a top-tier Division II team. The Cardinals went to the NCAA Elite Eight national tournament last March and are ranked No. 4 in the preseason coaches poll. Izzo was happy to have them and Northwood on the exhibition schedule.
“We played two teams that were very good executing their offense,” Izzo said. “I thought Saginaw Valley was a little better because they were a little bit bigger and had more veteran players, but they were very good at running their stuff. We had to cover a lot of stuff. Believe it or not, we covered the actions (motion offense) better than the one-on-one stuff.”
The Cardinals highlighted one weakness in the Michigan State attack: opposing teams don’t fear Nairn’s outside shot. He’s more dangerous going to the rim and finishing there or kicking the ball out for open jumpers but teams will slack off of him to give extra defensive help elsewhere.
“If we played (Nairn) again and had more time to scout, we’d really try to play off of him, honestly,” Saginaw Valley State coach Randy Baruth said. “If we played MSU again, there’s no question we would be doubling the post off of (Nairn), and just see if he can make jump shots. If he beats us by making four or five 3s, God bless you. With (Winston), it’s hard because he’s a really good player. We made the mistake of going under one ball screen, and he makes a 3. He’s not a guy you can play off of, but he’s also not a guy you can really pressure into turning it over, either.”
It’s November. It’s Michigan State. There are always roles to be figured out while facing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. This is new for Izzo because of the talented freshmen, but it’s not new at all. This team has the ingredients to be special when Michigan State is typically special: March. It just might be a little rough getting through this first month.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo