Sometimes it’s good to take a break. Whenever there’s a chance to just get away from it all, it might be the right thing to do.
That’s been the case this week for Michigan State. With the Big Ten tournament done a week earlier than usual, the Spartans have used the time off – which coincided with spring break at MSU – wisely by heading to Chicago to take in a Bulls game, practice at the NBA team’s facility and even catch a performance of “Hamilton.”
Now back on campus, the Spartans are dialing in on the court, hitting the practice floor and putting in plenty of film study ahead of Selection Sunday, which will reveal where they’ll be placed in the NCAA Tournament.
The break has, no doubt, been a bit of a reprieve for a team that won the Big Ten regular-season championship and piled up 28 victories before heading to New York for the conference tournament. Things didn’t go as well at Madison Square Garden as Michigan State held off Wisconsin, then got knocked out in the semifinals by Michigan.
Since then, the Spartans have been a popular target for the critics as the constant guessing of what the NCAA bracket will look like continues. Michigan State won’t be a No. 1 seed and the chances it plays close to home the first weekend are uncertain at best.
The Spartans don’t deserve it, the naysayers point out. They don’t have the top wins that other teams do. Their schedule wasn’t as hard in conference and if they had played teams like Michigan and Purdue on the road they wouldn’t have won the Big Ten.
It might all be true.
What’s also true, though, is Michigan State didn’t suddenly become a bad team because it didn’t win the Big Ten tournament. It’s still as talented as any team in the nation and has blowout wins against North Carolina and Notre Dame to prove it, not to mention playing Duke to the wire in the second game of the season.
This week, coach Tom Izzo said those doubting his team and being upset about losing four games were “crazy.”
But there have been reasons Michigan State hasn’t looked as dominant over the last month or so. When the Spartans are hitting on all cylinders, they’re tough to beat. But some of those cylinders have been misfiring at different times lately.
What needs to happen for the Spartans to get on a roll and potentially win six in a row and the NCAA title? Here’s a look at some of the keys.
Time for Bridges to soar
The No. 1 reason Miles Bridges decided to return for his sophomore season was to win a national championship. Well, that time is here and it will be interesting to see how Bridges handles it. There is no doubting his will to win, and he started to take over late in the loss to Michigan as the offense started to work through him in the post.
It might not be fair to put so much on one player, but Bridges can be the one who puts this team on his shoulders. It doesn’t mean he has to score 30 points every game, but he needs to be the star we have seen in flashes. All the off-court stuff affected him for a short time, but he appears to have put that in the past. Now it’s time for him to take over.
More scoring from Langford
Joshua Langford has been one of Michigan State’s better defenders recently, but for the sophomore to truly reach his potential, he needs to score. Since scoring 15 in a win at Iowa – his fourth straight game in double figures – Langford has scored in double figures just once in the last seven games. He scored a total of six points in two conference tournament games and shot 3-for-14.
For Michigan State’s offense to be effective, it needs more from Langford. In the first 15 games of the season, Langford failed to reach double figures only four times. He scored a career-high 23 in the win over North Carolina and followed that with 17 against Notre Dame. The Spartans need that Joshua Langford to reemerge.
Fewer fouls by Jackson
Michigan State is a different team with Jaren Jackson Jr. on the court. It took him a little more than half the season to establish a new mark for blocked shots in a season at Michigan State and at 6-foot-11, few teams can matchup with him at the power forward spot. A likely lottery pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, Jackson had 19 points and seven rebounds against Duke and had a stretch of 11 straight games scoring in double figures.
However, Jackson has had all sorts of problems staying out of foul trouble, which has cut into his minutes. He committed nine fouls in two conference tournament games and has fouled out five times this season. Getting Jackson to stay off the bench could be the difference for MSU over the next few weeks.
Get Winston back on track
Cassius Winston entered the Big Ten tournament as the top 3-point shooter in the nation and had made 16-of-20 over a four-game stretch, including a perfect 6-for-6 in the regular-season finale at Wisconsin. However, the sophomore was just 1-for-11 in two games at Madison Square Garden.
Scoring isn’t the only way Winston helps the Spartans – he averaged five assists over the final four games – but it’s been a big part of Michigan State’s offense. He doesn’t need to be perfect, but the Spartans will enter the NCAA Tournament hoping Winston’s shooting last weekend in New York was an aberration.
A little help, bench
There might not be anything that fans freak out about more than Izzo’s rotation. Nick Ward should play more. Why is Jackson on the bench? Tum Tum Nairn should never play. You hear it all, and sometimes, there are legitimate reasons to second-guess.
But the bottom line is the Spartans have depth. Matt McQuaid has been one of the team’s better players over the last few weeks while Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins bring upgrades on the defensive end. Add in the continual progression of Xavier Tillman, and MSU has options. Should the starting five seen the bulk of the minutes? Yes, and they do. But any long tournament run will almost certainly require some huge minutes from the bench.