Tom Izzo never thought he would have to apologize for a 30-win season. He’s reluctant to do it now, but he feels his blue-blood program is due for better results in March.
“If we had one regret, I think we had two teams recently that were Final Four-type teams — last year being one and Denzel Valentine’s senior year [2015-16] being the other — and we didn’t get out of the first weekend,” Izzo says. “But that’s why the tournament is the tournament. It happens to Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, and we have to try to get back to being more consistent in the tournament.”
The Spartans have to replace a pair of NBA Lottery picks in Jaren Jackson Jr., and Miles Bridges. “This year, we might not be quite as talented, but [we are] a lot more experienced,” Izzo says.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Tom Izzo
2017-18 RECORD (BIG TEN): 30-5 (16–2)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Syracuse 55-53 in the second round
F Miles Bridges (17.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.7 apg)
F Jaren Jackson Jr. (10.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
G Lourawls Nairn Jr. (1.7 ppg)
Nick Ward tested the NBA Draft waters and opted to return for his junior year, and he’ll be an improved version of the quick-jumping, long-armed lefty who led the Big Ten in field goal percentage last year. Ward has taken some tours in the Izzo doghouse, due partly to foggy defensive lapses.
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“I think he’s quicker and can guard more people now,” Izzo says. “He’s in better shape. He’s thinner. He’s calmer. Nick is a much different player. He’s just had a different focus. I think him testing the NBA helped him realize that some of the things we’ve been saying are things they were saying about his game, too.”
Sophomore Xavier Tillman improved rapidly as a rookie. Izzo loves his smart defensive play and physicality. “His body is just chiseled now,” the coach says.
Tillman and Ward have worked on their face-up jumpers, so that they can play together without clogging the middle. Senior Kenny Goins has deferred to others in the past but is ready to make noise as a heady stretch-4.
Freshman Marcus Bingham, a tall leaper with 3-point touch, has more potential than anyone on the roster, but he is thin and likely a year away from major contributions. If Bingham isn’t ready, freshman Thomas Kithier is capable of scrapping his way into a role as one of the top four big men. Braden Burke, a skilled, 6'11" walk-on transfer from Robert Morris, is also in the picture but needs to get stronger.
Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford will have more responsibility to create, and they’re ready for the task. Winston led the Big Ten in 3-point percentage and assists. He’s added strength and improved his defense.
Langford mixes 40 percent 3-point shooting with a nice medium-range game, but he needs to smarten his shot selection as he becomes a go-to scorer. Langford is emerging as a quality leader and trusted defender.
Streak-shooting senior Matt McQuaid is a proven contributor, yearning for more consistency. Kyle Ahrens, an impressive leaper and shooter in practice, must prove he can produce in game traffic. He missed last year with a knee injury.
Freshman wing Aaron Henry will play a role with a Big Ten-ready body and a basketball IQ to match. Freshman point guard Foster Loyer was a legendary scorer as Mr. Basketball in Michigan. He lacks size and athleticism but has an intriguing feel for the game. He’ll share the backcourt with Winston at times, giving Izzo a tag team of pure-shooting lead guards unlike any he has had.
Freshman Gabe Brown has a lot of bounce and a nice release, but much to learn.
Izzo’s annual goal of a Big Ten championship and Final Four is unchanged. This year’s team won’t have the high-end talent of recent vintages but might offer an intriguing mix of experience, balance, skill and will, making the Spartans dangerous in March once again.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
Big Ten Prediction: 1st