Tom Izzo is a wizard, seemingly finding a new and ridiculous way to get the most out of whatever team is in front of him. Such was the case this past season, as his team went undefeated in non-conference play only to drop four of the first seven Big Ten games.
In the end, the Spartans still managed to challenge for the Big Ten regular season crown and finished the season 29-6 and 13-5 in B1G play. Heck, the Spartans even hoisted the B1G Tournament championship trophy and received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
That all came crashing down in embarrassing fashion, losing the opening matchup with No. 15-seed Middle Tennessee State.
All of that was last season, and with stars like Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello gone off this roster plenty of questions abound for a team many still believe can be a B1G title contender.
Burning Question: Are Freshmen The Answer?
With the knowledge that Valentine, the all-everyone’s Player of the Year, along with Costello and Bryn Forbes were going to be gone for the 2016-17 season, it appears Tom Izzo has hit a home run on the recruiting trail once again.
He better have, as this team doesn’t have a lot of consistent production or leadership returning. What the Spartans do have are two 5-star recruits and the No.3 ranked recruiting class in the country coming in.
You’ll want to know the names of small forward Miles Bridges and shooting guard Joshua Langford, both of whom were ranked in the top 20 in the nation for the 2016 recruiting class.
They’ll be joined by the likes of in-state point guard Cassius Winston and 6-8 power forward Nick Ward. Combined, this group is the future of the program after some down years on the recruiting trail and in production overall.
Still, this group are freshmen and living by them can also mean dying by them. The hope is that those players in front of them in the pecking order step up and allow these kids to not shoulder most of the burden this season.
Biggest Strength: Versatility
This has been one of the greatest strengths of the Michigan State program under Tom Izzo. Players who could play the wing, also playing like a center. Those who could shoot the lights out from deep, also driving right to the hole.
Last season that was on display as Denzel Valentine was effectively a point-forward for most of the season.
This season, that versatility will come from the addition of the likes of Bridges and Langford. The two are long for their heights and for the positions they have naturally played at the high school level. Having them able to play multiple roles will also be helpful to names like “Tum Tum” Nairn and Eron Harris as well.
Add in UNLV graduate transfer Ben Carter and his abilities on the inside and Izzo has a roster that can work well in different settings. That wasn’t always the case last year, especially when Valentine went down to injury early on in Big Ten play.
Don’t expect an injury to one player to be the death-nil of this year’s Spartans though.
Biggest Weakness: Youth
As good as Bridges and Langford are likely to be at some point, one has to wonder if they will be super stars out of the gate or take some time to fit in to the college game. We aren’t talking about Ben Simmons or the next one-and-done greats for the most part.
Chances are both are around for a couple of years at the very least before any real talk of NBA futures are explored.
Izzo is counting on Gavin Schilling to pull a Matt Costello, and that positive improvement could be a big help to young players on this roster. Still, that may be asking a lot of a player who hasn’t been able to be consistent.
There is also the issue of where perimeter scoring is going to come from and that is where youth also comes in to play. Can Bridges and Langford be counted on to work well on the outside or to provide enough off the dribble to make teams back off of them and shoot over the top?
It isn’t like “Tum Tum” is going to light the world on fire from deep, and there aren’t a lot of expectations that whomever is in at point guard will be a sharp shooter from deep either.
MSU may need the young players to provide that explosiveness from deep or it could be really interesting in East Lansing.
Projected Starting Lineup:
*2015 stats courtesy sports-reference.com.
G: “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.— 2.8 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 3.3 apg, 37.9% FG
G: Eron Harris, Sr. — 9.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 43.4% FG
F: Miles Bridges, Fr. — n/a
F: Ben Carter, Sr. — 8.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 55.6% FG *at UNLV
C: Gavin Schilling, Sr. — 3.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 50% FG (played in just 24 games)
Michigan State surprised some with just how good they were with Denzel Valentine in the lineup. They also surprised just about everyone when he went out injured. That team wasn’t the same, and now that he is gone for good, can this program be the same?
After all, this team expects to win championships (conference or national) and a top recruiting class won’t do anything to change those expectations in East Lansing anytime soon. We’ll see if Bridges and Co. can live up to expectations, but this roster may actually be deeper and better than last seasons and that may mean a team ready to challenge for a deep run come March.
If that is the case, the Big Ten could be in big trouble for 2016-17.