Tom Izzo says he’s considered Michigan State a serious preseason national title contender five times in his quarter century as the Spartans’ head coach. He recalls them one by one: 2000, 2005, 2013, 2017 and …
You can guess the fifth.
“I think we have a legitimate chance,” Izzo says of 2019-20.
All those previous teams had a chance, too, but only one, 2000, claimed a national championship. It remains one of college basketball’s great white whales — Izzo’s hunt for a second title. He’s been to eight Final Fours and won nine Big Ten titles, but he measures himself by what’s missing. “It’s validation of what we do,” he says.
Following in the footsteps of deep, veteran teams like Villanova and Virginia to claim national titles, Michigan State is the latest elite team representing the antithesis of the one-and-done era. Senior point guard Cassius Winston, a National Player of the Year contender, is surrounded by an experienced roster that might go 10 or 11 deep on any given night.
Michigan State At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Tom Izzo
2018-19 RECORD (BIG TEN): 32-7 (16-4)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Texas Tech 61-51 in the Final Four
F Kenny Goins (7.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg)
G Matt McQuaid (9.8 ppg, 2.1 apg)
F Nick Ward (12.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Xavier Tillman returns as an ever-evolving offensive player and perhaps the best ball-screen-defending big man in the country. He averaged 13.3 points on 58.9 percent shooting and 8.1 rebounds after taking over as the starting center for the final 13 games of 2018-19. The Spartans went 11–2 in that stretch, claiming both the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships.
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While Tillman is a known, the 4/5 rotation beyond him will be a moving target. Kyle Ahrens is undersized, but Izzo deeply trusts his defense and rebounding. Thomas Kithier can play both spots and is a reliable screener, passer and post scorer. Gabe Brown is a long, athletic shooter. Marcus Bingham Jr. is a 6'11", 215-pound pro prospect but might be a year away from making a major impact. Malik Hall is a 6'8" shooter, ball handler and multi-position option who could emerge as a starter. Julius Marble is a natural inside-outside 4-man but may consider a redshirt option.
“Could go big, could go small,” Izzo says.
Joey Hauser is the wild card here. The 6'8" Marquette transfer is waiting in the wings as Michigan State’s future 4-man. He’ll sit out 2019-20, unless a waiver is granted.
Winston was the Big Ten Player of the Year despite playing on a shoddy knee. Izzo says he’s “200 percent better.” Winston briefly considered turning pro but returned to get healthy, prove he could be at least an adequate defender and cut down on unnecessary mistakes. He averaged 2.6 turnovers in 32 wins and 4.4 turnovers in seven losses.
Ideally, the wings will be filled by Joshua Langford and Aaron Henry, though Langford suffered a setback and might not return to the lineup (ankle and foot injury) until January. Henry, a 6'6" wing, is an all-league-caliber scorer, rebounder and defender.
Freshman Mark “Rocket” Watts Jr. is a dynamic scorer. He’ll get time at both guard positions. Foster Loyer will see some backup time behind Winston.
The biggest questions facing Michigan State are minutes at the 4, Langford’s health and a loaded early-season schedule. There aren’t many holes here. Even Izzo, often one to downplay, admits, “It really could be one of the more fun teams to coach.”
The Spartans remember what it was like to reach the Final Four. They also remember what it was like to lose. The goal this time is two more wins and a national title.
Postseason Prediction: National Champion
Big Ten Prediction: 1st