Tom Izzo has had many optimistic offseasons, but the prelude to his 23rd year as head coach might stand at the top of the list. Michigan State is loaded with talent, versatility, leadership and togetherness.
Miles Bridges turned down first-round NBA money to tend to what he calls unfinished business. He is joined by 6'11" freshman Jaren Jackson, a stretch-4 with a 7'4" wingspan who can shoot the 3, create off the dribble, block shots and run the floor. Bridges and Jackson are projected by many experts as top-10 picks in next summer’s NBA Draft. Izzo has never had a tag team of talent that highly regarded by the pros.
If Michigan State’s point guard picture clears, the Spartans will be as good as anyone. “I thought we had a legitimate chance a few other times to win another national title,” Izzo says, “but this team definitely has skill, toughness, brains and chemistry to be a Final Four team. We have some bigs, so we won’t get stuck with our pants down like last year. We have some advantages that we haven’t had in the last few years, with some depth and the quality of player and the quality of person that we’ve got.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Tom Izzo
2016-17 RECORD (BIG TEN): 20–15 (10–8)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Kansas 90–70 in the second round
G Alvin Ellis III (6.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
G Eron Harris (10.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
Nick Ward is a broad-shouldered, quick-leaping, low-post throwback who has shed fat, added muscle and improved his vertical leap. He would be a go-to star for most teams.
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Jackson moves his feet well on defense and can score from various angles. Izzo will challenge him to rebound better and mesh with team defensive principles. Gavin Schilling started for the 2015 Final Four team and missed last year with a knee injury. Kenny Goins and Ben Carter, a sixth-year grad transfer from UNLV, are a pair of stretch-4s with starting experience.
Ward and Jackson are quality rim protectors. Schilling is a defensive ace, inside and out. Ward’s ball-screen defense must improve.
With talent, length, competition for minutes and no worries about foul trouble — and Bridges taking his brawn to the 3 — the Spartans have the makings of a rebounding juggernaut.
Bridges had to play the stretch-4 last year. He will become more of a factor in transition now as a wing. His ball handling has improved. He is a good 3-point shooter, perhaps the nation’s best dunker and a magnetic leader.
Joshua Langford is more athletic than last year, when he was bothered by a hamstring. He is a smooth operator who can score from deep, create for himself at medium range, or finish with finesse or power. “Langford has a chance to be a big-time player,” Izzo says. “He’s a pro guard, no question about it.”
Point guard Cassius Winston has shed pounds, added quickness and is becoming a dangerous shooter. He’s a gifted passer but must improve defensively. Point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn is a leader, sprint penetrator, staunch defender and may have improved his shooting enough that teams will no longer be able to ignore him and play five against four on defense.
Matt McQuaid is a good spot-up shooter, a plus passer and capable defender. Streak-shooting Kyle Ahrens will push for a role.
The ingredients are present for Izzo to field one of his best offensive teams, with the potential to improve steadily on defense. Defensive solvency — especially from Ward and Winston — will determine whether this team can make a run for the school’s third national title, and second under Izzo.