Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward talk about Michigan State's upcoming season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — To say the Michigan State roster has a different look this season would be a bit of an understatement.
Sure, most of the names are familiar, but what the Spartans have plenty of this season is size, something that was almost nonexistent a season ago. A big reason for that were the separate knee injuries suffered by forwards Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling only a few days apart during the first week of practice.
That led an especially small lineup for Michigan State, where 6-foot-8 Nick Ward, then a freshman, was the only true big man. At 6-7 on a good day, Kenny Goins was forced to take on players far bigger and even 6-5 guard Kyle Ahrens took a turn or two at power forward.
“We had guys playing center that, God, I could have posted up a couple of those guys,” coach Tom Izzo said on Wednesday. “It wasn’t a good situation. Every time Nick Ward turned around (in practice), he made a shot last year. Now the first two weeks, every time he turns around, he got a shot blocked. We have to learn to adjust.”
The Spartans now have depth up front, not only because the arrival of 6-11 Jaren Jackson Jr. and 6-8 Xavier Tillman, both freshmen, but because Schilling and Carter are healthy.
In other words, life is tougher in practice, and if you’re in the frontcourt, you better get after it or you might see a lot of the bench.
“It’s a lot harder. Everybody is big. It’s not one-on-one no more,” Ward said. “You have to box out. You have to head fake. You have to use moves. It’s only gonna make you better in the games, but practice is a lot harder to score. A lot harder to score.”
As for Schilling and Carter, they’re at different points. Schilling said he’s 100 percent and has been for several weeks, while Carter says he’s fine physically but it’s been more of a struggle to get himself back mentally into a place he feels comfortable.
“Physically I feel great, but right now it’s more mental,” said Carter, a sixth-year senior. “For people who have gone through injuries like this, they can understand. It’s hard to come back to something where the last time you did it it put you in surgery and you were out of basketball for 12 months.
“But I feel great physically. I wake up every morning, get to the gym, put on my sneakers and shoot jumpers and get ready for practice. That’s an amazing feeling.”
Ahrens on mend
Carter and Schilling aren’t the only ones overcoming injuries as practice enters its second week.
Ahrens, a junior guard, suffered a stress fracture in his right foot near the end of summer workouts and is slowly working his way back to participating fully in practice.
“I’m about two weeks out,” Ahrens said. “It is frustrating, but it’s something I have gone through so I know what to expect and I know it won’t all come back just like that.”
When Ahrens was a senior at Versailles High in Ohio, he suffered a broken left leg, an injury that slowed him in his freshman year. But after playing out of position at times last season, he’s eager to get back into the mix as a junior and become the shooting threat he showed he was at times a year ago.
“Last year I kind of caught myself sometimes shooting it, sometimes faking and dribbling,” Ahrens said. “I’ve got to let it fly and I feel like from Christmas break to the end of the year, that’s when it really started clicking and when the shots started going in.”
Izzo said his team has had conversations about the recent protests happening in the NFL as several players around the league have been kneeling during the national anthem.
It’s been something Izzo said they’ve tried to use to have an open dialogue about what’s going on in the world. And as for any demonstration from his players, Izzo was clear.
“We need to be looking at real solutions rather than tearing each other apart,” Izzo said. “I don’t have all the answers. My players didn’t have all the answers. You don’t have all the answers.
“But I can promise you one thing: If our team does anything, ever, it’s going to be our team, it’s going to be all of us, our coaches, our managers, it’s going to be everybody, because that’s what teams do. I can also promise you that it will be something that will be thought out and we’ll look at it as realistically as we can look at it.”