John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins preview the Michigan and Michigan State basketball seasons, which get underway on Tuesday. The Detroit News
Expectations are sky high in East Lansing, where Michigan State has earned the No. 1 ranking in both the Associated Press and coaches' preseason polls.
How will things unfold for the Spartans? Here are five bold projections for Michigan State's 2019-20 season:
No. 1 team, No. 1 player
It’s the most obvious key to the season but it can’t be understated — Cassius Winston needs to be everything that is expected. He needs to be the best player in the Big Ten. He needs to be among the best players in the nation. He needs to be exactly what he was last season when he led the Spartans to the Big Ten championship and a Final Four — the best point guard in college basketball.
Even with the injury to Joshua Langford and the departure of Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, there’s little reason to think the senior won’t meet those expectations. In order to do so, the Spartans will do their best to keep Winston fresh. After averaging 33.5 minutes a game last season — even more in the postseason — the goal will be to not run Winston into the ground. Getting solid minutes from sophomore Foster Loyer will be important, as will the development of freshman Rocket Watts, who can back up the point guard at times.
With the loss of perimeter shooting, the Spartans will also need Winston to be a primary threat from 3-point range. He saw his percentage drop from 49.7 percent as a sophomore to 39.8 percent last season, though he took 60 more 3-pointers a year ago. Expect Michigan State to play Winston off the ball from time to time in order to free him up to be more of a shooter, making Loyer and Watts even more critical. Get all that from Winston and Michigan State will right where it expects to be at the end of the season.
While Michigan State enters the season as the No. 1 team in the country and one of the favorites to win the national championship, there are holes to fill. The hole at shooting guard was already significant with the graduation of Matt McQuaid and grew even bigger with the news Langford would be out until at least January. That’s two players that each shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range and played solid perimeter defense. Filling that hole now falls almost completely on the shoulders of Watts, the highly touted freshman who is suddenly thrust into a starting role much sooner than most expected.
Watts will likely struggle to be the shooter that both McQuaid and Langford were, but he’s a dynamic athlete with quickness and explosion that allows him to attack the basket. He’s also not afraid to take the shot, which means he’ll miss his share but he’ll also make some big ones, too. The Detroit native is also quickly showing he’s a tenacious defender who can also back up the point guard spot, making him a versatile piece for the Spartans.
Heat on Henry
Michigan State feels like it knows what it’s getting with Winston and center Xavier Tillman, two players that will play critical roles in the Spartans’ success. However, the Spartans also know they need another player to take a big jump, and that player is sophomore Aaron Henry. The versatile wing showed flashes throughout an up-and-down freshman season before breaking out in the NCAA Tournament. His run was highlighted by a career-high 20 points in the Sweet 16 win over LSU as Henry’s importance was clear based on the fact he averaged 33 minutes over five tournament games.
Henry is not a great shooter, but he’s improving and adding that to his athleticism and ability to get to the basket with ease makes him a dynamic piece to the Michigan State offense. He can play several positions, is a solid perimeter defender and runs the court, all things that have many believing this is the season Henry becomes a star and proves the NBA is in his future.
Shoot to win
The Spartans were the best shooting team in the Big Ten last season, hitting 48 percent of their shots while making 37.8 percent of their 3-pointers. However, entering this season a big chunk of that shooting is gone with the graduation of McQuaid and Goins. McQuaid was a 42 percent 3-point shooter while Goins was just 34 percent. However, Goins had the knack for making the big shots, including the win over Duke to reach the Final Four. Where Michigan State gets that sort of production this season remains a bit of a question mark considering Winston is the top returning shooter, at least until — or, if — Langford returns.
That means Michigan State will need to get more shooting from the likes of sophomore Gabe Brown, who looks to be one of the first players off the bench for the Spartans. He was streaky as a freshman but isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. Fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens is also a good shooter who simply hasn’t shot the ball much, while Tillman has worked hard to a solid option on the pick and pop. Forward Thomas Kithier has also improved, but it’s clear the Spartans could use someone to take the same significant jump that Goins did a season ago.
To the four
Probably the biggest question mark for Michigan State throughout the entire offseason is who steps into the role as the primary power forward, the same position Goins excelled at in his final season. It looks like the solid bet to start the season is Kithier, who is coming off a freshman season where he proved to be versatile backup at several positions. He’s a good rebounder, solid defender and is always in the right position. Rotation issues could arise as Kithier is the primary backup to Tillman, as well, meaning the Spartans will need more than just Kithier at the four.
They were hoping 6-foot-11 sophomore Marcus Bingham Jr. would be ready for more regular minutes, but if his performance in the exhibition game against Albion was any indication, that might be pushing it. Freshman Malik Hall could slowly move into more significant minutes at that spot while Michigan State could also go with smaller lineups that include Brown, Henry or Ahrens at the four. The wildcard remains the status of transfer Joey Hauser. Michigan State continues to await a decision from the NCAA on Hauser’s status. If he can play, he immediately becomes the starting power forward and solves many of MSU’s questions regarding the rotation.