East Lansing — Frontcourt depth wouldn’t have fallen under a strength for Michigan State in any preseason magazine.
After having all sorts of options up front last season, the Spartans entered the 2018-19 season relying heavily on Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman with some help from the versatile Kenny Goins. After that, any depth would be lacking significantly in the experience department.
So, when Ward went down with an ankle injury on Wednesday night in a victory over Louisiana-Monroe, it was a bit of a baptism under fire from freshmen Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier.
“Well, it was a tough game for Marcus because even though he blocked a couple nice shots, those guys are moving so quickly,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Thomas figured it out a little bit better, but we're about seven deep right now.
“Thomas has got to improve. Marcus has got to improve. So, you know if we have Nick, it really changes the rotation, but it's probably good that those guys are getting some time to be honest with you. Now is the time to get them some time.”
Whether Ward is ready for No. 11 Michigan State’s matchup with Tennessee Tech at 6 p.m. on Sunday remains to be seen, but odds are the Spartans will play it safe and keep the junior big man on the bench as they get set to head to the Las Vegas Invitational next week with games against No. 20 UCLA and, potentially, No. 7 North Carolina.
That means more minutes for Bingham and Kithier, but the bulk of the responsibility will fall on Tillman and Goins. Each played well in the win over Louisiana-Monroe as Tillman scored 11 points and grabbed 13 rebounds — both career highs — while Goins had a career-best 15 rebounds.
“I wouldn't say this was a breakout game, but this was a game where coach challenged me to have more of an inside presence,” Tillman said. “I think I responded well, and now I got to keep that in the back of my head and not have to force coach to yell at me, but instead start the game with the mentality that I need to have more of an inside presence.”
The key for Tillman will be to stay on the floor. He committed four fouls on Wednesday which limited him to just more than 18 minutes. It led to some interesting lineups.
At one point, the 6-foot-7 Goins was playing center, with 6-6 wing Kyle Ahrens playing at the four spot.
I wasn’t conscious about it at all,” Tillman said of his foul trouble. “I didn’t think about it until coach said I had four and I said, ‘Oh.’ I didn’t know. I was just focused on the game. But if the opportunity comes again if Nick gets in foul trouble I’ll be more conscious of it because I know they need me on the court.”
Even with Tillman and Goins playing well, expect both Bingham and Kithier to get minutes, especially of Ward remains out of the lineup for any length of time.
Bingham, who blocked two quick shots on Wednesday, still needs to add plenty of strength to his 6-10 frame, but he has offensive skill that can help the Spartans. Kithier, too, needs to get stronger, but he can get up and down the floor and rebounds well.
For all of Michigan State’s big men, Wednesday at least offered a glimpse at life without Ward.
“That’s real,” Tillman said. “There are some big games where Nick might be in foul trouble and me Kenny, Thomas and Marky got to step up. Today was the first taste of how it would be if we play without Nick.”
Expect more of the same on Sunday.
Beyond that, the Spartans can only hope they’re ready to fill the void.
Tennessee Tech at Michigan State
Tip-off: 6 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Tennessee Tech 0-3; No. 11 Michigan State 2-1
Outlook: Tennessee Tech is in the midst of a tough road swing, taking on Michigan State two days after playing at North Carolina. … Michigan State has won the previous three meetings, winning at home in 2005, 2010 and 2016. … Tennessee Tech hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 1963 and its last Ohio Valley Conference championship came in 2005.