John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins preview the Michigan and Michigan State basketball seasons, which get underway on Tuesday. The Detroit News
New York — Interesting what passes for an experienced team these days in college basketball.
In the era of the one-and-done player, a roster with a supply of veterans isn’t terribly common. But when a team has experience blended with talent, it often ends up in the Final Four and playing for a national championship.
No. 1 Michigan State is in that category this season, but as the Spartans prepared to take on No. 2 Kentucky to open the season Tuesday night in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden, a closer look shows they have some experience, but they’d hardly be classified as an experienced team.
“For all the talk about experience,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, “we have some, but we also are going to start one freshman, probably we could have started two freshmen, and maybe we're going to be playing some sophomores that don’t have a lot of experience.”
Of course, it helps when one of the veterans happens to be senior Cassius Winston. The point guard was last season’s Big Ten player of the year and enters his final season as a preseason All-American. Paired with junior big man Xavier Tillman, the duo is what has many talking about Michigan State’s experience, especially considering that duo was a bit part of last season’s Big Ten championship team that reached the Final Four.
Add in the play of sophomore Aaron Henry, who emerged during the NCAA Tournament, and Michigan State has the core pieces to be a champion.
However, the Spartans also expected to have senior guard Joshua Langford back, but a setback in his recovery from a broken foot has him out until at least January. His injury and the hole at the power forward spot is why Izzo isn’t feeling great about “experience.” The result is freshman Rocket Watts will be in the starting lineup in place of Langford with sophomore Thomas Kithier at power forward after being seeing sporadic playing time last year.
“I don't know what Rocket will do,” Izzo said. “A month ago, he thought he'd be the backup to Josh and somebody else, and now he's going to start — three weeks later — and I think he's tough enough to handle it.
“I have been really pleased with how he has done, how he has practiced. I’ve really enjoyed his competitiveness and how he’s picked things up. That’s a positive, but you look at him being a first-year guy and Josh being a fourth-year starter and I need him to do the same thing. I need him to score and I need him to be one of our best defensive players because that’s what Josh was.”
Adjusting to filling that sort of role is difficult enough, something that might have come later in the season if not for the ankle injury fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens suffered in mid-October during a scrimmage against Gonzaga. But getting his first taste against one of the best teams in the nation at the most famous arena in basketball is another story.
But Izzo believes the experience of playing in a marquee event will be good in the long run for Watts and the other newcomers.
“I hope I get in there and their eyes pop, I really do,” Izzo said. “I had to tell him yesterday, this is a privilege, this is an experience, this a memory of lifetime. … So I hope they are nervous, I really do, and I hope they are excited. That's the privilege you get playing a schedule like this. You could have gone to a million other schools that never play in these kind of games, so I'm not worried about it.”
Adjusting to mask
Kithier, who was expected to get his first career start Tuesday against Kentucky, will be playing for the first time while wearing a protective mask after breaking his nose during practice last week.
It was an inadvertent elbow from Julius Marble that clipped Kithier, who is doing his best to adjust to the mask.
“We did a couple of shooting drills together and he said it was kind of difficult at first,” Tillman said. “It’s just hot and muggy underneath there. But as of now he's getting better with it. He tells me that his vision is better now, his hands are a little bit better now with it, so there's some positives to go with that, but he's getting used to it for sure.”
Entering Tuesday's game, Michigan State had a 3-5 mark in the Champions Classic after losing three straight. It has a 1-1 record against Kentucky, beating the Wildcats,78-74, in a 1 vs. 2 matchup in 2013 before losing to the Wildcats, 69-48, in 2016.
… Tuesday's matchup is the second time in NCAA Division I history the AP Top 25's top two teams meet to start their respective seasons.
… Kentucky coach John Calipari is 5-4 vs. the Associated Press No. 1 team in his career, including 2-2 at Kentucky.