Names have changed, and roles have been rearranged at Michigan State, but the Spartans and Tom Izzo will carry their usual knockout power into the important parts of the season. Serious contention for championship belts, however, will probably have to wait a year.
For the first time since 2006, Michigan State is coming off a one-and-done showing in the NCAA Tournament. It’s also the first time since 2006 that the Spartans don’t have a returning player who averaged double figures in scoring.
Based on summer workouts, Izzo believes that this team is better than his original expectations. That’s why he is challenging them to pursue the usual objectives — a Big Ten championship and a Final Four. The Spartans are unlikely to achieve at that level, but Izzo is aiming to surprise again. “Goals are the same,” Izzo says. “I don’t know if people should have us in the top 10, 12 or 14, but I think we can play ourselves in there.”
Michigan State will rely on freshman talent — including two McDonald’s All-Americans in Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford — to help bridge the gap from the Denzel Valentine days into the next chapter of the Izzo era. An intriguing toolbox of veteran skill and toughness will complement the influx of star power.
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Tom Izzo
2015-16 RECORD (BIG TEN): 29–6 (13–5)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Middle Tennessee 90–81 in the first round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Second in the Big Ten
F Matt Costello (10.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg)
F/C Deyonta Davis (7.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
G Bryn Forbes (14.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.5 apg)
G Denzel Valentine (19.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 7.8 apg)
Gavin Schilling is built like an Adonis but has yet to enjoy a breakout season after a turf toe injury hampered him last year. Schilling lacks scoring touch, but he is capable of defending and rebounding up to the Izzo standard. Foul trouble and free throw shooting are weaknesses.
Kenny Goins was occasionally good as a walk-on last year. He can guard inside and outside, and he has a decent face-up game. He must bounce back from a knee injury that Izzo believes was a major factor in the NCAA Tournament loss to Middle Tennessee State.
UNLV transfer Ben Carter averaged 8.6 points and 6.0 boards for the Rebels last year before being lost to a knee injury. He has face-up shooting ability, well-rounded skill and a will to be part of something big.
Bridges will be one of the nation’s best leapers. He’ll be a factor in transition and on the offensive glass. His ball handling and shooting are works in progress.
Left-handed freshman Nick Ward owns his air space with strong shoulders and pogo-jumping quickness. He has nice touch and terrific feet in the post. Izzo calls him Baby Zach, as in Randolph.
Shooting guard Eron Harris averaged 17.2 points per game as a sophomore at West Virginia three years ago and is ready to be an impact player in the Big Ten. He quietly shot 43.9 percent from 3-point range last year and has added 18 strong pounds since transferring.
Michigan State needs Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn to establish a jump shot that opponents must at least honor with a defender. Nairn’s defense, speed and leadership are pluses. A foot injury prevented him from working on his shot during his sophomore season. He has gone from being a non-shooter to a streak shooter. That’s progress. More is needed.
Freshman Cassius Winston excels at making decisions off of ball screens. “He reads the floor as good as anybody we’ve had in a long time, like Denzel Valentine, only better at it,” Izzo says. Defense is a question for Winston. His shooting ability was surprisingly good during his initial practices.
Langford looks like a senior, physically and skill-wise. His medium-range game is terrific.
Sharp-shooting Matt McQuaid can pass and defend. The enigmatic Alvin Ellis III scored 16 at Indiana as a sophomore and shot 40.0 percent from deep last year. He produces when he earns minutes. Strong-bodied Kyle Ahrens is an athletic shooter with defensive potential.
Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford will push for starting jobs. Bridges is an explosive finisher at the 4 and can swing to the 3. Langford is an off-the-dribble virtuoso as a wing. Cassius Winston, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, will ably share time at the point. Long-armed Nick Ward will see time inside, and occasionally impress. Graduate transfer Ben Carter averaged 8.6 points and 6.0 rebounds for UNLV last year and provides depth inside.
The list of areas of need is longer than usual for Michigan State. If the freshmen learn to play proper team defense, Harris emerges as a wing weapon, Nairn establishes a jumper and Schilling delivers a dependable presence, the Spartans will be powerful. However, none of Izzo’s seven Final Four teams needed as much help from freshmen as this year’s team. Heavy reliance on rookies is not part of his championship blueprint. But a little March run is definitely doable.