Michigan State out to prove it's one of nation's top teams
East Lansing — It’s clear from the moment you walk into the Breslin Center, walking past the trophies and into the arena where a glance to the rafters reveals banner after banner.
At Michigan State, the expectation every season is to play for a championship. And as Tom Izzo begins his 24th season as the Spartans’ coach, that isn’t about to change.
But there is a different feeling this season. The first game is Tuesday night against No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic and that, of course, brings plenty of anticipation. So do later non-conference matchups with the likes of UCLA, Louisville, Florida and potentially North Carolina. After that, it’s on to defending the outright Big Ten title from last year.
However, even as the Spartans enter the season ranked the No. 10 team in the nation, there’s something different.
Maybe it’s the fact they won 30 games and a conference title in 2017-18, but failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season. Perhaps it’s because two NBA Lottery picks — Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. — are no longer around.
Whatever it is, the Spartans enter the season almost under the radar. Some are picking them to win the Big Ten again, but few mention them when it comes to who can make a deep run in March and reach the Final Four, a place Michigan State hasn’t been since 2015.
The Spartans notice it and if they needed any more motivation, well, you can bet they’ll use it.
“Definitely. Definitely,” junior Cassius Winston said quickly when asked if he felt his team had something to prove this season. “You lose those kinds of players and people are almost doubting us or throwing us off. We feel like we’re still in that same conversation as one of those top teams, so we’ve got to go out there and prove it. We don’t want any handouts, we don’t want anyone to give it to us, we want to go out there and show it.”
They’ll have plenty of opportunities to show it. And, like most seasons, there’s no easing into things for Michigan State. It got its first dose of reality before the real games began, scrimmaging No. 3 Gonzaga last weekend and playing the Bulldogs close but giving up a couple of late runs to lose two 20-minute halves.
It was an eye-opener for the five-member freshman class that will be counted on this season and it was, too, for the veterans. But Winston believes it showed the Spartans aren’t far off from being a championship-level team, something that will start to build over the next two months.
It’s certainly what the head coach is banking on.
“Our expectations haven't changed any from previous years,” said Izzo, who won his ninth Big Ten regular-season title last season. “Last year, it's hard to look at a 30-win season and say we fell a little short, but we did — of your expectations, meaning the fans, and probably my expectations. But coming off one of the best regular seasons in the history of this school and winning 30 games, I think there's a lot of things we could build from there.”
Even without two superstars, Izzo has plenty of ingredients to build with. Winston led the Big Ten in 3-point shooting last season (49.7 percent) as well as total assists (241) while ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8). Big man Nick Ward is back after flirting with the NBA in the offseason before deciding to return for his junior season. He had eight double-doubles last season while reaching double figures in scoring eight times. Ward also led the Big Ten in field-goal percentage at 64.8.
And fellow junior Joshua Langford continues to show flashes of being an outstanding two-way player, but still seeks the consistency that can take him from a solid player to a great player. Add in seniors Matt McQuaid in the backcourt and the versatile Kenny Goins, and the experience is there.
“There's a new sense of optimism because sometimes talent doesn't win out over experience,” Izzo said. “Right now, I think we're pretty experienced.”
How the freshmen work into things is the biggest unknown, but could be what makes the difference.
Forward Aaron Henry will contribute immediately and comes from a winning background at Ben Davis High in Indianapolis. He’s physically ready, can get to the basket and is a solid defender. After Henry, the freshmen are all variables.
Guard Foster Loyer will have to play to spell Winston at point guard when that responsibility doesn’t fall to McQuaid, but at 6 feet — a generous listing — and 170 pounds, he’ll need to get stronger to defend some of the guards he’ll see. Strength is also the key for 6-7 forward Gabe Brown, who can shoot but needs to be better defensively. And forward Thomas Kithier brings size at 6-8, but missed his entire senior season in high school because of an eligibility dispute.
That leaves 6-11 Marcus Bingham Jr., arguably the most talented of the group. He showed that in a quick stretch against Northern Michigan, scoring 11 straight points with a couple of 3-pointer and a put-back dunk mixed in. He has all sorts of skill, but at 215 pounds, he’s wire thin, meaning it will take some time for him to be ready against the best teams.
“He's not afraid to compete,” Izzo said. “He's not afraid to get knocked around. So he's got that in him. That's a good quality to have, and I think that's really going to help him as we get going.”
It creates a rotation that will certainly evolve as the season progresses, but out of the gate, it might be shorter than it has been in some years. That’s a product of the strength of the schedule.
But however the rotation works, this group of Spartans is eager to prove they shouldn’t be an afterthought.
“Our approach is just going as hard as we can every play of the game and finishing out the game strong,” Ward said. “Last year I feel like we didn’t finish out strong. We were 30-5 and in the tournament we didn’t finish out the season the right way, so we’re emphasizing this year really finishing.”
If the Spartans do that, the expectations they set have a good chance of being met.