MSU banking on veterans Winston, Ward, Langford
East Lansing — It wasn’t that long ago that four freshmen stood on the court at the Breslin Center, posing for group photos with the world at their fingertips.
The highest-rated recruiting class in Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State was surely going to win a national championship. The only question seemed to be if it would come right away and, if some of the guys stuck around, how many?
Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford — two five-star McDonald’s All-Americans — joined by four-stars Nick Ward and Cassius Winston, Michigan’s 2016 Mr. Basketball. It was quite the collection of talent. They didn’t win big that first season, but they all came back last season and were joined by All-American Jaren Jackson Jr.
That group, surely, would at least find themselves in the Final Four. Only, there are no guarantees in life, especially college basketball. Michigan State, the outright Big Ten champions, didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season. The 30 wins all seemed to go for not and the second-guessing began.
A couple weeks later, Bridges and Jackson were on their way to becoming NBA Lottery picks.
The super team that many thought would bring Michigan State its third national title was losing two of its most talented pieces.
On Thursday afternoon at the Breslin Center, a new group of freshmen posed for the cameras during Michigan State’s media day. They come with plenty of optimism, if not the same level of hype as the group two seasons before. As they mugged for the camera, there was Winston, Ward and Langford, now the old guys. They were fielding plenty of questions, most about how much the loss to Syracuse last March still lingered.
“I didn’t even realize we lost until like two weeks later,” Langford said. “I couldn’t believe we actually lost. It’s hard to think back and know the team we had definitely could have won the national championship, hands down.”
The expectation of championships has rarely been altered at Michigan State since Tom Izzo took over nearly 25 years ago. He’s won his share, including 13 Big Ten regular season or tournament titles to go along with the 2000 national championship.
As Michigan State gets set to begin the 2018-19 season in less than two weeks against No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic, the expectations remain, only this time the Spartans will attempt to meet those expectations differently than they have the past two years.
“There's also a new sense of optimism because sometimes talent doesn't win out over experience,” Izzo said. “This different group maybe isn't quite as star powered, but, again, the experience is there. … Our expectations haven't changed any from previous years.”
Experience over talent. That, essentially, is what Michigan State is banking on.
Of course, it’s overly simplistic because that would imply that all the talent on last season’s team was possessed by Bridges and Jackson. That, clearly, isn’t the case. Winston led the Big Ten in 3-point shooting, Ward is one of the most efficient low-post scorers in the game and Langford is as good a two-way player as there is in the Big Ten.
So yeah, the Spartans are still plenty talented. But it’s that experience that feels different from the past two seasons. Winston, Ward and Langford have it, to be sure, but so do seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins — two likely starters — as well as junior Kyle Ahrens, who is coming off a foot injury that kept him out all of last season but has been the start of early practices.
“The longer you play the experience is almost everything,” Winston said. “Talent wins some games, but experience is what wins championships.
“Definitely there were a lot of games where we were the more talented team and we gave up an offensive rebound or a backdoor cut, little things like that. If we would have seen it before or we had been through it before it probably would have never happened. That’s where experience comes in.”
It helps that Michigan State’s experience lies with arguably its three best players. McQuaid will start and be counted on to shoot as well as be a solid defender while Goins is a versatile forward that could be a starter, as well.
But it’s Winston, Ward and Langford that will carry this team.
“Cassius and Josh and Nick, those three guys have made significant jumps,” Izzo said. “This year we have seven returning rotation players who have played for a combined 188 starts. So that experience, I'm hoping will help us. We return three of our top five scorers … we also return 60 percent of our scoring, and that's not bad considering who we lost and what we lost.”
Winston has worked hard to become a more consistent player after seeing his shooting go cold late last season. Langford is pushing to be like Gary Harris in terms of his effectiveness on both ends of the floor and Ward came back from a summer of NBA feedback as part of draft workouts ready to prove he can make it to the next level.
It’s all got Michigan State right where it’s comfortable — a favorite to win the Big Ten and ranked No. 10 in both the preseason Associated Press and coaches’ polls.
“Expectations are still the same,” Langford said. “We still want to win national championships, Big Ten championships, Big Ten outright and still have great seasons. Nothing has changed. Of course, we don’t have those guys anymore so it’s different, but the goals are still the same.”