New season brings healthier outlook for Michigan State women's basketball

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Before last season began, Michigan State’s women’s basketball team was one many believed had a shot to capture a Big Ten championship.

However, it wasn’t long before the injuries set in and things went the wrong direction. Even with a late surge in the regular season – five wins in their final six games – the Spartans managed only a .500 record in Big Ten play and were bounced in the first round of the conference tournament.

The injuries had gotten so bad there was some talk about not playing if a bid to the Women’s NIT was offered. Of course, COVID-19 shut down the season and coach Suzy Merchant never had to make that choice.

Nia Clouden had 15 points in Michigan State's 92-52 defeat at No. 7 Maryland on Thursday.

Now, seven months later, things are starting to look up as practice officially began on Wednesday. The Spartans have some new faces via recruiting and the transfer portal, and fifth-year senior forward Mardrekia Cook is back for her final season after rupturing her Achilles in January.

The injury was one of several that have hampered Cook throughout her career, including a torn ACL that ended here sophomore season. Merchant admitted she thought the Achilles injury would be the end for Cook, but the 6-foot forward vowed she’d be back, and she’s made good on that. Now, Cook is in position to provide key leadership for the Spartans.

“She's leaned out and she really looks good in terms of conditioning,” Merchant said. “She's eight months out and she's basically full practice. She does more than I thought she would at this time. So, she's been able to really dive in and be a good, positive leader for us because she can physically do the things that need to be done.”

In addition to Cook, Merchant is expecting leadership from junior Nia Clouden. The guard was co-MVP last season and led the team by averaging 14.5 points and 4 rebounds, and collecting a team-best 52 steals.

“She’s gonna be a big focal point to what we do this year,” Merchant said.

Merchant also singled out sophomore guard Alyza Winston. After averaging 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman, Winston has made significant improvement in the offseason with the specific goal of becoming a bigger part of the rotation.

“Alyza has leaned out, dropped some weight, got herself in incredible shape, spent a lot of time in the gym,” Merchant said. “She’s shooting the ball as well as anybody on our team right now. She really has been committed.

“I would say that growth between your freshman and sophomore years is probably the biggest you'll have as a player because you have the understanding of the grind and of what happened your freshman year and how to manage that. Also, I think the other piece of that is she didn't like sitting there. She didn't play. She wasn't in the rotation as strong and as much as she wanted, and so one of her goals this year was to be a starter for us.”

Merchant said Michigan State is applying for a waiver from the NCAA in hopes of gaining immediate eligibility for junior Janai Crooms, a transfer from Ohio State.

“We're hopeful that maybe we will see her this year," Merchant said. “Step one has been completed and we've got a thumbs up on that. We're hopeful that maybe we will have an opportunity to see her in a uniform at some point here, and sooner rather than later.”

Crooms is one of four transfers, joining graduate transfer Lauren Rewers from Hawaii, as well as junior forward Alisia Smith and sophomore forward Jayla James, both transfers from Penn State who will sit out this season.

Merchant added that Matilda Ekh, a native of Sweden who was to be part of the freshman class, has decided to defer her enrollment and will join the program in 2021 because of difficulties in sorting out her visa.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau