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Michigan State Spartans: Around the Campus 2016

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Welcome back for another installment in Talking 10’s “Michigan State Week” series. Although most of our articles for “Michigan State Week” are focusing on football, this is our weekly chance to check in on all the other athletic success stories going on in East Lansing.

Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of 2015-16 and how that will project forward for Spartan fans in 2016-17. It may not have been a great year across the board for this athletic department outside of football, but there are still a few high points worth recognizing and appreciating.

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Women’s Cross-Country

(Alexis Wiersma at the NCAA Championships, courtesy msuspartans.com)

Although Michigan State did not take home any individual NCAA championships (to date, as some spring sports are wrapping up during MSU Week), Alexis Wiersma was a solid anchor on the women’s cross country team and earned All-American honors this season. Led by her efforts, the MSU women placed well at NCAA Regionals and earned an at large qualification to the national championships.

Wiersma specifically finished 3rd at Regionals by breaking away from the primary chase pack near the end of that race. That was good enough to maintain a top-20 national ranking, and the Spartans lived up to that billing with a 13th place finish out of 31 teams at the NCAA Championships. Wiersma finished individually in 21st out of over 200 runners in this final race, which was good enough to cap a season and earn All-American honors.

Although the Big Ten Championships did not go as well for the team, Wiersma finished 2nd in that race, perhaps setting herself up to be the top finisher in some of these races next season. Still, individual honors are more than good enough to merit mention in this article series when athletic departments are vying for “The Delany” award.

Looking ahead to next season, the top of the line-up for the Spartans remains solid as Wiersma and fellow junior Shelby Jackson (also an all-Region honoree) are back as the top two runners on the squad. That should help overcome the loss of their regular number 3, Katie Landwehr. I would expect an even better finish at Regionals and Nationals next season.

 

Men’s Basketball

(Denzel Valentine, photo courtesy theonlycolors.com)

With how strong Tom Izzo’s basketball program has been over the last two decades, this team can almost always be counted on to show up as a bright spot in this Around the Campus article series. Of course, the monsters of March truly fell on their face in the NCAA Tournament for one of the first times in recent memory, which may sour the reputation of this team.

However, that one bad game simply should not have that effect. The Spartans finished up 29-6 with a 13-5 Big Ten record in regular season play, good enough for a second-place finish. Michigan State finished the season on a huge roll, including winning the conference championship in the postseason Big Ten tournament.

Add to that a couple of huge individual honors as well. Senior Denzel Valentine was a consensus All-American and earned AP and NABC national player of the year honors. On the coaching side, Tom Izzo was elected to the college basketball hall of fame shortly after the season.

With a player and coach duo like that, this team was all set for a repeat Final 4 run. Those hopes were dashed by an incredible effort out of 15-seed MTSU, but as mentioned earlier, this sometimes happens to great teams and it’s the nature of the madness. Still a championship season and some strong individual hardware to be happy about in 2015-16.

Next season Valentine is gone, which will be a huge gap to fill. Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello are also gone to graduation, which will mean other role players like Tum Tum Nairn, Jr. and Eron Harris will have to step up and lead this team next season. Although that looks like a reload in 2016-17, never count out Coach Izzo and this program from being near the top of the conference come February and March.

 

Women’s Basketball

(Aerial Powers, photo courtesy msutoday.msu.edu)

The Spartan women’s basketball team may not have garnered the same amount of attention as the men, but this team was just as much a point of pride for the MSU athletic program this school year. If nothing else, the women can hold it over the men that they went farther in the NCAA Tournament, which is definitely not always the case when Tom Izzo coaches your men’s basketball squad.

A good starting point to discuss is junior Aerial Powers, who was blessed with great ability as well as a perfect name for basketball stardom. Powers averaged 20.9 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, and she ranked in the Top 5 in the conference in both those statistics. That season and her rise over the past three years led to her being picked 5th overall in the WNBA Draft.

The Spartans finished 25-9 overall and 13-4 in conference play, which ranked just behind Maryland and Ohio State during the regular season. Nevertheless, Michigan State knocked off OSU for the second time in four games during the Big Ten Tournament and was only stopped from winning a Big Ten postseason championship by the dominant Maryland Terrapins.

The NCAA tournament appearance started with a win over Belmont, but then a narrow defeat in one of those tight 4-5 seed match-ups occurred in the second round vs. Mississippi State. This program continues to have positive momentum, and the development and WNBA draft success of Powers should open the door to more high-level players to fill the ranks going forward.

Speaking of next season, the Spartans return their top three guards in Tori Jankoska, Branndais Agee, and Morgan Green. However, the big holes to fill will be inside, where Powers and Jasmine Hines were so dominant this season. If the high amount of freshman and sophomores on the 2015-16 roster can develop one or two good inside players, this team should compete at the top tier of the Big Ten again next season.

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Be sure to continue to support and enjoy these other achievements that the student athletes are bringing home to Spartan Nation now and in the near future.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

Michigan State

Spartans to name Bill Beekman as new AD

MSU expected to remove interim tag from Bill Beekman in a press conference on Monday morning.

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Michigan State has undergone a huge leadership transformation following the sex abuse scandal that plagued the athletic department and led to the AD leaving and the university president resigning as well.

Bill Beekman was named interim AD following Mark Hollis’ resignation last January. Apparently he has impressed the Board of Trustees enough in his just about three-month tenure to earn the new job on a permanent basis. This will be his first official job in any capacity within an athletic department.

The Detroit Free Press first reported the Beekman would get the interim tag removed from him on Sunday night. On Monday morning, the Spartans held a press conference and announced that very thing.

Beekman is a name that many on the Board of Trustees would be familiar with, having served on the board himself starting in 2008 until his appointment as the interim athletic director. He also has served as the executive director for the MSU Alumni Association and is a 1989 graduate of Michigan State.

Clearly he has the Spartan blood running through him, but most importantly, he has apparently done a great job of getting the big names behind him in the process. According to sources, both Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo have been impressed by what Beekman has brought to the table in reshaping the department since his arrival.

Additionally, this move makes sense as the Board of Trustees isn’t likely to name a replacement to interim president John Engler until at least this time next year.

The university put out a media notice through the Big Ten of a press conference set for 11am ET for what it is calling “regarding an athletic-related personnel announcement.”

You can see the press conference on BTN or via BTN2Go.

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Spartans Football

Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Reasons to be Optimistic

We continue our look at the 2018 Michigan State Spartans with a look at reasons to be optimistic heading in to the season.

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Michigan State has been a surprising team as of late. First it surprised everyone by going from the College Football Playoff to a 3-9 team in a matter of one season. Then it surprised a lot of people from weathering that 33-9 season and a horrible offseason to return to a Big Ten East contender in 2017.

So, where does that leave the 2018 version of Mark Dantonio’s Spartans? Well, we’re here to break that down all week and today we’ll give you the reasons to be optimistic about MSU.

Holy Experience Batman

One reason why Michigan State has been so successful under Mark Dantonio is that he has a system and sticks to it. That consistency helps his players in a major way, but so does having experienced players executing that system.

So, it should be no coincidence that when the Spartans are at their best it’s with a very experienced team.

The 2018 version of the Spartans return 19 starters, including 10 on the offensive side of the ball. Spearheading that attack is second-year starting QB Brian Lewerke, whose ability to be a deadly passer as well as a deadly runner has added a different wrinkle to the MSU offense.

Defensively, this team is as strong as it may ever be under Dantonio. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams are beasts at defensive tackle and Joe Bachie follows a long line of quality middle linebackers behind that group. In fact, another season like Bachie had in 2017 and he could be the best middle linebacker MSU has seen in the Dantonio era. Those are just three of 9 returning starters for a defense that was No. 2 in the country against the run last season.

That 2017 team was light on experience, but had plenty of potential. Fast forward a season and this is one of the more experienced teams in the Big Ten, and that should help them contend in the rough and tumble Big Ten East division.

Skill Position Depth

This isn’t your brother or sister’s Michigan State Spartans squad anymore. No longer does MSU have to pound you in to submission on offense. Instead, it can be as dynamic an offense as any the Big Ten has to offer.

One huge reason for that is a deep group of skill position players at the ready. MSU has arguably its most versatile group of wide receivers it has had in the 2010’s. 6 foot, 4 inch tall Felton Davis is a matchup nightmare thanks to his size and speed, while Darrell Stewart is perfect in the slot and can kill you with deceptive speed. Both caught over 50 passes last season to prove they belong. Meanwhile up and coming Cody White is another big threat, catching 35 passes as a freshman last year.

Defensively, things look good on the edge with the combo of Justin Layne and Josiah Scott. Layne’s size (6-3) and Scott’s ability to use his hands well makes this combo difficult to pass against. Scott nabbed a pair of interceptions and led the team with 10 pass breakups as a freshman last season, while Layne had eight of his own pass break ups and a forced fumble to go with 40 total tackles as well.

There’s also depth behind them at cornerback and two safeties that are proving to grow in to their roles. Having the skill positions be a strength should only help an offensive line that returns a lot of starting experience but lacked quality run game production a season ago.

Mark Dantonio

Few coaches in the Big Ten get as much out of their talent as Dantonio does in East Lansing.

Any time you have Dantonio on your side, it’s a reason to be optimistic that things are going to be just fine. How Dantonio helped his guys weather an offseason storm and how he took the slings and arrows of the media over the past 18 months is a testament to why the team can be successful on the field.

In a conference that has upgraded its overall coaching talent, Dantonio still stands out as one of the best motivators and teachers in the Big Ten. Don’t underestimate that mattering when the games kick off this fall.

Overall Thoughts

There is certainly reason for renewed optimism around the Spartans program.

While it may be difficult to get all the way back to the College Football Playoff level, at least the Spartans aren’t going backwards as many seemed to think they were heading in to 2017.

Combining Dantonio’s steady system with experienced players who just so happen to be very productive while gaining that experience is a great reason to be bullish on this team. Don’t be surprised to see this formula equal a run towards the East division title and national recognition too.

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Spartans Football

Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Lessons from 2017

What did the 2017 season teach us about the Michigan State Spartans program?

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There was little doubt that 2017 was going to be a defining season in the Mark Dantonio era. With a ton of pressure from the outside world and a crazy 3-9 season in the rearview mirror, either Dantonio would sink his own ship or right it.

It didn’t take long to see that a program in turmoil had banded together in an “us vs. them” mentality that worked well for the Spartans.

The result was a 10-3 season, wins over two of the biggest names in the Big Ten East division and a very different narrative heading in to the 2018 offseason.

But, with so much happening around the program last season, what lessons were learned that would apply to 2018?

Let’s take a look at what lessons we believe will matter going forward.

Adversity Wears Well on Spartans

No team in the Big Ten had a worse 2017 offseason than the Spartans did. There were awful off-field allegations, charges and convictions. There were players suspended, kicked off the team and transfers.

Yet, when the dust settled on the 2017 season, a team that seemingly was in disarray nearly won the East division. A team that won just three games in 2016 and suffered through a very public and ugly offseason managed to right the ship right away and went 7-2 in Big Ten play.

There were wins over rival Michigan and a red-hot Penn Stat program and a massive blowout of Washington State in the Holiday bowl for redemption of not being selected for a seemingly better positioned bowl game.

At every step of the way in 2017 there was major adversity. Instead of folding, Mark Dantonio’s crew rallied together and came away with a season few saw coming from the outside world.

It was certainly a positive lesson for everyone involved — from what not to do off the field to how to grow together in the face of major doubters. By the end of it all, MSU football felt like it was closer to being back in the Big Ten title picture than ever before. The lesson of the 2017 season won’t soon be forgotten.

1-QB System Works Best

If you would’ve told anyone back in the 2016 offseason that Brian Lewerke would be the answer to MSU’s quarterback hopes, few would’ve believed you. Yet, the pattern of quarterback-by-committee not working and then getting a leader to emerge and make the team dangerous the next continued on.

No position seems to hold the keys to success or failure at Michigan State more that quarterback. It’s no coincidence that settling on one quarterback has proven to be the defining factor in offensive success at MSU.

Lewerke looked like the better option in 2016, took hold of the position in 2017 and the Spartans offense was back off to the races. The sophomore signal caller threw for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to just 7 interceptions. Compare that to the three-headed QB monster in 2016 that ended up with just 2,668 yards, completed just 57 percent of their passes and had just 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.

Coming up the ranks from a walk-on to starter in the face of supposed stiff competition from Damion Terry, Tyler O’Connor and emerging as the steadying force showed that picking one quarterback and sticking with them is a recipe for better chances at success in East Lansing.

Lewerke established himself as the starter and has two more years to lead this team forward. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that Lewerke is not to be underestimated, just like the Spartans as a whole.

This Offense has to be More Than Lewerke

As impressive as Brian Lewerke was last season, for large swaths of 2017 he was the only offense that mattered for Michigan State.

In fact, not only did Lewerke lead the way through the air, he was the Spartans leading rusher for much of the year too. Only a late-season surge from L.J. Scott, who only had three 100-yard games on the entire season, allowed him to overtake Lewerke on the ground.

Scott finished the season with 898 yards to Lewerke’s 559 yards, with Scott leading the TD category 8 to 5.

While it was nice to see the team back to winning against quality competition, the Spartans were torn apart by teams who could shut Lewerke down. Ohio State tore apart MSU and more importantly, held Lewerke completely in check. He rushed for just 2 total yards and passed for just 131 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in the 48-3 loss.

Can Scott become the star everyone thought he might have been last season, this season? If MSU wants to become a true East division and Big Ten title contender, it has to re-establish a tough run game that doesn’t rely on Lewerke to be the leading rusher for most of the season.

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Basketball

Is Michigan State’s March magic in danger of running out in 2018?

Michigan State has limped through the start of March, can it right the ship and pull off its usual March magic?

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Death, taxes and the Michigan State Spartans going deep in March under Tom Izzo.

Almost all three of these things are automatic in life.

Usually we’re talking about Michigan State and deep runs in the NCAA tournament. After all, this was a program that went to back-to-back Sweet Sixteen’s and then an Elite Eight and a Final Four in four straight seasons from 2012 to 2015.

But, the last few seasons have ended in much quicker fashion than normal, with a first round exit in 2016 and a second round exit last season.

All seemed right heading in to this March though, with the Spartans riding a 13-game win streak and a Big Ten regular season title.

But, March took on a different tone for this team and those deep runs MSU is famous for may not be worth betting on this time around.

One loss in 15 games may not be anything to worry about, but the devil is in the details as to why MSU may not be the solid bet everyone seems to think they are.

It actually started in late February, with Michigan State being taken to the wire by a lower-half Wisconsin Badgers team in the regular season finale. Five days later, that same Badgers team did it again, making the Spartans work for a 63-60 victory in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.

A day later and MSU found itself out of the tournament at the hands of bitter in-state rival Michigan. The Wolverines played the type of game most expect from the Spartans and won 75-64.

That was the end to a 13-game win streak, but the cracks were clearly there prior to the loss.

Michigan State struggled to score in both games against the Badgers and over the past three games have only been shooting 41.6 percent from the field. Additionally, the Spartans have scored under their conference season average of 76.5 points per game in five of their final seven games.

Of course, one could also see it as a positive that MSU found ways to win six of those seven games despite not playing its best basketball.

But, come March all it takes is one day or night of off basketball and you are bounced from the tournament.

That fact isn’t lost on the team, as guard Cassius Winston pointed out that the upcoming break needs to be about MSU finding its rhythm once again.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get better as a team, just more consistent,” Winston said, via MLive.com. “We were winning games, but we weren’t winning games pretty, and as crisp as we should with as much talent as we have. We still have a lot of improvements left to make as a team.”

Maybe it is a good thing the loss came on Saturday in the Big Ten tournament, giving the Spartans a bit of an extended break ahead of the NCAA tournament. The team certainly sees the extra week of prep as helpful.

“We can sharpen up on a lot of things, understand ourselves as a team more and get better offensively, because we’re not as sharp as we have been,” Spartans guard Joshua Langford said, via MLive.com. “This break is going to be great for us.”

The Spartans have the Big Ten’s most talented starting five and certainly can go deep in to the NCAA tournament, but this isn’t a team that screams classic Tom Izzo tournament run. Something seems off about this team heading in to the tournament, let’s see if they can find the spark to dominate like they have most of the season.

If not, expect this NCAA tournament run to not last very long.

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