Michigan State, Michigan basketball rankings hinge on unsettled variables

The Detroit News

The start of the 2020-21 college basketball season is still eight months away. But when the new campaign tips off, Michigan State and Michigan should find themselves ranked in the top 25.

At least, that’s according to the way-too-early rankings by CBS Sports, ESPN, NBC Sports and USA Today.

Rocket Watts

While there will be plenty of moving parts throughout the offseason — from NBA Draft decisions and transfers to late commitments and signings — the four outlets unveiled their first predictions for the nation’s top teams come November.

ESPN’s Jeff Borzello has the Spartans pegged to pick up next season where they left off — at No. 9 in the rankings. That’s even after factoring in the difficult task Michigan State will have replacing consensus second-team All-American Cassius Winston.

“Finding a new point guard is going to be issue No. 1 for Tom Izzo,” Borzello writes. “Rocket Watts made plays late in the season as a scorer and defender and ESPN 100 guard A.J. Hoggard enters the fold, but both are better as scorers.”

It’s possible Michigan State could have to fill more than just Winston’s void in the starting lineup. Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry could both go through the pre-draft process, and Tillman announced on Tuesday he plans to test the draft waters. There’s also the question of whether Joshua Langford, who missed last season with a foot injury, will return.

Regardless, the Spartans will still have “plenty of weaponry,” according to NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster, with Marquette transfer Joey Hauser eligible to play, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall and Marcus Bingham all back, and top-50 recruit Mady Sissoko on the way.

“The key, however, is going to be Xavier Tillman,” writes Dauster, who listed Michigan State at No. 6 in his top 25. “I think he’s a first-round pick and considering that he’s a married man with two kids already, he certainly could use the income. He’s the piece that brings it all together.”

Assuming both Winston and Tillman will be gone from a team that shared the Big Ten regular-season title, CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish and USA Today’s Scott Gleeson ranked Michigan State No. 12 and No. 19, respectively. However, Parrish wrote if Tillman returned, the Spartans would move into his top 10.

Isaiah Todd

Michigan, on the other hand, will for certain lose two multi-year starters with Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske graduating. And there’s the possibility that Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner could be tempted to pursue pro options.

But if the Wolverines return either Livers or Wagner — or both — Dauster said they will have “one of the better frontlines in college basketball.”

“Throw in a recruiting class that includes Isaiah Todd and Hunter Dickinson, and the Wolverines will be loaded,” writes Dauster, who listed Michigan at No. 22.

Borzello called Todd, a five-star recruit, “the headliner” of the 2020 haul that is ranked  No. 4 in the nation by 247Sports. The group includes top-100 prospects Terrance Williams, Zeb Jackson and Dickinson, who Borzello noted “all should see extended roles immediately” under coach Juwan Howard.

There’s a good chance five-star guard Joshua Christopher could join the class and Michigan’s backcourt mix with David DeJulius and Eli Brooks. Parrish and Gleeson both factored Christopher’s commitment into their No. 15 and No. 16 rankings, respectively.

“On paper, next season's Michigan team looks like it could be better than this season's Michigan team,” Parrish writes.

ESPN and NBC Sports both ranked Villanova at No. 1, while CBS Sports and USA Today listed Gonzaga as the top team.

Way-too-early rankings for 2020-21

► CBS Sports: Michigan State No. 12, Michigan No. 15

► ESPN: Michigan State No. 9, Michigan No. 19

► NBC Sports: Michigan State No. 6, Michigan No. 22

► USA Today: Michigan No. 16, Michigan State No. 19