What is the main thing senior guard Eron Harris wants to get out of Michigan State’s exhibition game against Northwood on Thursday?
“We just want to win.”
Wait, really? This is a Division II Northwood team coming off a 15-13 season after which it lost all three of its double-digit scorers. Just a win probably shouldn’t be satisfactory. But Harris understands the process.
“We know over the course of the season, we’re going to get better at things, and this is our first chance to see for ourselves what our potential is,” he said. “Every game’s going to be a fight for us. Everybody wants to get that win under their belt.”
Fans, though, will want more. They’ll expect a blowout. They’ll hope for a show that gets them excited for the brutal nonconference schedule to come.
Here’s what they should watch for on BTN Plus at 7 p.m. EST on Thursday.
How will the expected starting lineup jell?
Two days away, coach Tom Izzo shared his starting lineup as it looks right now: Tum Tum Nairn, Eron Harris, Matt McQuaid, Miles Bridges and Kenny Goins. Nairn runs the show. Harris and McQuaid provide shooting and scoring. Bridges can do a bit of everything.
Goins is a bit of a wild card. Injuries have forced the 6-foot-6 sophomore into a starting spot. The former walk-on dealt with multiple knee injuries during the 2015-16 season, but he appears to be back on track.
“He’s very bouncy and very agile right now,” Harris said. “He’s moving really well, and he’s going to be big on the boards this year. He’s looking good right now.”
Of these five players, only Nairn and Harris have significant starting experience. McQuaid has started one game, while Bridges and Goins have never started. How will they mesh? Is this the group to plan on seeing out there going forward? This game won’t definitively answer the question, but it will shed some light.
How will the freshmen fit in?
With four freshmen, Izzo has a bit of a conundrum. Sometimes they aren’t ready to start, but having started for most of their lives, they may not yet know how to be effective off the bench.
“I’ve got to figure out who plays well together,” he said, “and what I’ve really got to figure out … is who comes off the bench the best. Sometimes it isn’t great to have freshmen starting. Sometimes it isn’t great to have freshmen come off the bench, so you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Izzo anticipates he’ll give his starters some minutes, then substitute all five out at once platoon-style, then mix and match a bunch of different players and lineups from there.
He might not yet feel ready to give all of his freshmen extended minutes together, but with how young his team is, he doesn’t have too many options with great experience, especially not after the loss of senior big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter to injury.
(Schilling, as an aside, met with his doctor Tuesday but has not yet undergone sugery, per Izzo.)
So Thursday’s game, and the exhibition against Saginaw Valley State that follows, serve as bigger games than preseason outings typically would be. Izzo expressed that to his players.
“I told ’em I think this Thursday’s a big game because exhibition games are never a big deal — or usually not a big deal,” he said. “But when you lose eight guys from last year’s team, or whatever we lost, it is a big deal.”
How will this defense be different than a typical Michigan State defense?
Izzo has said his freshmen need to grow up quickly. That includes their focus on film study.
“I never really did that,” Bridges said with a laugh. “We tried film in high school, but nobody ever paid attention. Here, we’ve got to pay attention.”
Much of it focuses on defense: learning the reads, getting in the gaps, etc. A lot of work has to be put into maintaining one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.
That will be especially difficult with the size MSU puts out on the floor. Northwood may be a Division II team, but the Timberwolves have as many players 6-foot-6 or taller (five) as Michigan State does. And that’s including Carter and Schilling in Michigan State’s count.
Now, Northwood’s frontcourt obviously doesn’t compare to the 7-footers of Arizona and Kentucky, but it will serve as a solid preview. Izzo suggested that he’ll go with significantly more zone defense this year to combat size disadvantages.
Ultimately, the Spartans will try to make up for those disadvantages by using their speed on the other end of the floor.
“Arizona’s huge; Kentucky’s pretty big,” Izzo said. “But they’ve got to guard us, too.”