Working youngsters in with veterans is Izzo's preseason focus
East Lansing — Tom Izzo admitted on Wednesday he’ll miss the shot-blocking presence of Jaren Jackson and the athleticism of Miles Bridges.
The former Spartans superstars are in the NBA, both lottery picks in last June’s draft. However, that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare for the Michigan State coach as the defending Big Ten champions opened practice for the 2018-19 season.
“The biggest goal of the next couple weeks for me will be how we mix the five freshmen in with the veterans,” said Izzo, beginning his 24th season as the Spartans’ head coach. “But unlike last year where we had probably a little more talent than we have right now, but right now we have a lot more experience than we had last year. We’re gonna probably start three juniors and maybe a senior and I think the chances of that experience paying dividends for us is gonna be important.
“I still felt at times last year we were a little inexperienced and I think for the most part we’re gonna be a lot more experienced.”
That’s for sure as guards Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford as well as center Nick Ward — fresh off an offseason when he tested the NBA waters — are all back and should be the core of the team. Senior guard Matt McQuaid — voted a team captain along with Langford — will also have a big role along with senior forward Kenny Goins and sophomore big man Xavier Tillman as Izzo and his staff work to integrate the freshman class.
Guard Foster Loyer will likely be used to spell Winston at point guard while 6-foot-11 Marcus Bingham will work into a rotation with Ward, Tillman and Goins. Wing players Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown also figure to make an early impact while forward Thomas Kithier is coming off a senior season in high school when he was ineligible at Clarkston.
It’s a roster that offers Izzo plenty of options.
“I think that is the biggest question and whether we go real big with X (at the four), whether we go a little smaller with Kenny,” Izzo said. “We also have a freshman or two that has impressed us. The Aaron Henry kid and Gabe Brown have both been guys that have played real well.
“But the other guy that has kind of been a lost guy is Kyle Ahrens, and we’ve always loved his athletic ability. He’s got the highest vertical on the team, and he’s finally healthy, and he’s shooting the ball like he always did.”
Ahrens missed all of last season with a foot injury and could be the wild card for the Spartans. But ultimately, Izzo believes he’ll be counting on the guys who have been around and have logged the minutes on the court.
“I’ve got some guys that spent a lot of time (working) in the summer, maybe disappointed in how last year ended and enough veterans that they can help lead the freshmen,” Izzo said. “And the freshmen have been really good. They’re not quite as highly ranked as some years have been but at the same time, collectively, when you got young guys, they want to learn. When you got veterans, they already know. So it makes it a little easier to coach veterans that are knowing.”
While there were some new faces on the court Wednesday, the difficulty from last season has not been forgotten. Only part of that includes the loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The more far-reaching issue was the program being dogged by accusations of mishandling sexual assault cases in the past. In August, the NCAA cleared Michigan State’s football and basketball programs of any wrongdoing.
“I always believed I followed every procedure and policy to the Nth degree,” Izzo said. “If anybody ever thought or ever would think that we’re gonna sit here and put up with, condone or tolerate sexual abuse when it’s so prevalent in our society, on college campuses and in the program … I think it was one more outside agency that kind of confirmed, really, what I had told you. I don’t know. It wasn’t like I went out to dinner and celebrated or anything. For me, it was something that I had dealt with the whole time. And yet, I was pleased that they found exactly what I thought they’d find.”