Michigan State mailbag: Tackling mysteries surrounding basketball, football

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

There’s a lot of on the minds of Michigan State fans, and after Tuesday’s loss to Duke on the hardwood and the culmination of a difficult regular season in football, not much of it is positive.

In this week’s mailbag we tackle a lot of basketball worries, from the development of freshman Rocket Watts to whether or not the Spartans are even a contender in the Big Ten.

Cassius Winston is easier to double when a team doesn’t have to guard the 3-pointer.

As for football, we take a stab at how much the coaching staff might change and where Michigan State will be playing in a bowl game.

Q. Michigan State, preseason No. 1, is probably 5th or 6th best in B1G right now. Overreaction? — @RickDarnell8

A. Yeah, probably. They’ve got a real issue shooting the ball right now, and that makes life miserable for Winston because he’s easier to double when a team doesn’t have to guard the 3-pointer. So that is a big deal. However, most of the defensive issues seem like things that can be corrected, especially over the next few weeks with no real high-level games on tap.

There’s no doubt the idea of Michigan State running away with the Big Ten seems a little far-fetched now, but let’s not get carried away. I love what Ohio State’s done so far, and Michigan, too, even with the loss at Louisville. Penn State has been impressive and I wouldn’t discount Illinois and we’ll see what happens with Maryland when they play a road game. Still, Michigan State hasn’t suddenly become a team looking for scraps.

Q. What are the odds that Izzo inserts a surging Gabe Brown into the starting lineup to replace a scuffling Rocket Watts? — @Tim_Goergen

Q. How is Watts starting over Brown? Brown can clearly handle playing the wing, is defending well, rebounding, making shots, etc. Watts has gotten 8 lay-up attempts blocked. Make him the backup PG. — @SFLGT

A. I combined these two questions because they’re essentially asking the same thing. The answer to the idea of Brown replacing Watts in the starting lineup is — don’t count on it. It’s not that Brown isn’t seeing increased minutes, he’s just seeing them mostly at the small forward spot, a role that has grown as the coaching staff has become increasingly frustrated with Aaron Henry. If there was a move to take Watts out of the starting lineup — something I don’t see happening — it would more likely put Henry at the 2 with Brown at the 3.

Watching Watts struggle through his first eight games is understandable, but let’s remember it’s exactly that — eight games, and it’s for a guy who was fully expected to be playing backup minutes to Joshua Langford. The Spartans need more production from Watts, but the growing pains in terms of consistently shooting the ball will be something they’ll have to live with. Another reason Brown at the 2 is the less desirable option is defense. Watts, and Henry, for that matter, are both better defenders. So, for now, most of the backup shooting guard minutes will likely go to Kyle Ahrens or Henry, depending on the rotation at that moment.

Q. Can we talk this 2 fouls and sit the entire half deal? It’s getting us in huge holes that we can’t dig out of and the players never foul out. We miss out on valuable minutes by overestimating end of game. Just a very uncalculated play when we need Cassius and Tillman out there. — @Run_GRP

A. Can we talk about it? Sure, that’s why we’re here. I completely understand both sides of this, and you don’t have to go back too far to find a case of a guy fouling out killing MSU. It was at Louisville last year when Winston fouled out and MSU lost in overtime, complete with a front-end miss from Foster Loyer that would have iced the victory. Has that made Izzo gun shy? Perhaps. In fact, he admitted as much in Maui when he kept Winston out for a huge chunk of the Virginia Tech loss.

That said, Tillman got two early fouls against Duke and came back in the first half. Granted, he only played 10 minutes in the first half, well below what is typical. It’s a tough call either way, but the idea that the player never fouls out isn’t exactly correct and don’t discount how much that affects how hard a player goes once they know they’re in foul trouble.

Q. How did Stephen F. Austin manage to beat Duke and score 64 points in the paint, when MSU had seemingly every shot blocked in the paint for the first three-quarters of the game? — @RickDarnell8

A. That’s actually a fair question, especially considering Stephen F. Austin made only two 3-pointers in that game. I only saw highlights and read a few quick stories on it, but it sure sounds like the Blue Devils figured they’d roll the ball out and that would be it. They looked far more aggressive and dialed in on Tuesday.

Q. Is this a less talented version of 2016-17, that they’re just extremely soft? — @mikev971

A. I don’t know if I’m ready to make that sort of sweeping declaration only eight games in. They were soft against Duke, no doubt. But I’d argue they hadn’t been yet to this point. No, they haven’t played great, but they sure didn’t look soft. Were they soft at Seton Hall? And I don’t think a guy going off — Anthony Edwards in Maui — is the same as a defense being soft. We’ll see how things play out, but I’m betting that’s not how you end up describing this team come March.

Q. I'd ask about Aaron Henry, but I'm not sure anyone other than Aaron knows the answer. So, instead, what is your guess as to how many assistant football coaches are back next season? — @WaiteMarc

A. That’s probably the right way to approach it. I mean, how does Henry take only two shots against Duke, the first not until late in the game? Anyway, let’s get to football.

This is a tough one. Common sense would be to revamp the entire offensive staff, though I’m just not confident that is going to happen. I could see a way everyone is gone but Brad Salem, but my gut says you might only see a couple of changes, perhaps if Jim Bollman retires or Dave Warner gets another shot as a coordinator somewhere. Defensively I think most are safe, though you wonder if Harlon Barnett finds his way back to the staff, especially after the MSU secondary was hardly impressive this season. My general guess is there will be change, but likely not enough to make most fans happy.

Q. Without a strong AD in place, is there any indication Dantonio will make staff changes? If he does, are their familiar (or for that matter unfamiliar) names we should watch for? What indications have you gotten on this front? — @pnfnewmedia

A. Hit some of this in the previous question, but relating to the situation in the AD office, I agree that I don’t think there’s a ton of pressure on Mark Dantonio to make changes. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be changes. Dantonio is no dummy. Stubborn? Sure, but not dumb. He understands the landscape, which I believe will lead to some changes. Maybe not wholesale like might be necessary, but certainly something. As far as familiar names, Barnett, as I mentioned, would be one name to watch. Outside of that, we’d simply be guessing.

Q. What bowl will MSU and UM end up in? Against whom? — @azk02568

A. It seems much clearer for Michigan State than Michigan. For the Spartans, it’s either the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit or the Pinstripe Bowl in New York. There are plenty of factors in play, including how many conference teams make the New Year’s Six games. That would bump everyone up as long as it’s not the Orange Bowl. I’ve seen no projections and talked to no one who is looking at any other bowls besides those two for MSU. As for opponents, North Carolina, Pitt and Florida State seem like possibilities.

As for the boys in blue, that’s much tougher. I’ve seen them all over, but I’m leaning with my colleague, Angelique Chengelis, who is saying Citrus Bowl.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau