Michigan State basketball embarks on new season with plenty of questions

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

On one hand it seems odd that college basketball is about to start.

On the other hand, it is Thanksgiving week, and in a normal season, teams would be a couple of weeks into the season and many of the marquee early season tournaments would be filling up the airwaves.

Michigan State's Gabe Brown will be counted on to help make up for the scoring lost with the departures of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.

Of course, almost nothing in the world of sports seems normal at this point. The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging since last March when one of its first victims in sports was the NCAA Tournament.

Roughly eight months later, Michigan State gets set to take the floor for the first time since beating Ohio State on the final day of the regular season to clinch a share of its third straight Big Ten championship.

And, like most things, the Spartans look and feel a lot different. Only part of that has to do with the fact coach Tom Izzo just got back to work over the weekend after testing positive for COVID-19 and being forced to isolate at home for nearly two weeks.

What’s more significant is the fact No.13 Michigan State enters Wednesday night’s home game against Eastern Michigan without guard Cassius Winston and center Xavier Tillman, both of whom are now in the NBA. The Spartans have multiple options, many of which will be unveiled in the opener. It could be either junior Foster Loyer or sophomore Rocket Watts at point guard to start while the center position could be a group effort.

That’s not where the uncertainty ends. Can junior Aaron Henry have a breakout season? Can junior Gabe Brown find consistency? Will transfer Joey Hauser become the player everyone expects him to be? Will senior Joshua Langford be healthy, and will he look like his old self? Where does sophomore Malik Hall fit after a solid freshman season?

Associate head coach Dwayne Stephens, who has been running things in Izzo’s absence with the help of associate coach Dane Fife and assistant coach Mike Garland, said he feels like there are seven starters right now with Henry and Hauser locks.

“You’ve got Rocket and Josh and then Foster, and all those guys can be starters,” Stephens said of the guards. “We're just going to kind of play it day to day and put the team out there that we feel is going to be best for us.”

As for the center spot, it looks like juniors Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham are in the mix to start while sophomore Julius Marble and freshman Mady Sissoko are also getting time.

“I feel like they all have their moments,” Stephens said. “there's days where Marcus looks unbelievable. There's flashes that Mady Sissoko has shown in a short time and Thomas is probably the most solid and the closest thing that we're gonna have to Xavier in terms of being in the right place defensively.”

Straightening out the rotation likely will last well into the season, but when Michigan State takes the court on Wednesday, it believes it will be ready.

“I feel like that's one of the things that Coach prides himself on, having his team prepared,” Stephens said, “and I feel like this team is as prepared as anybody that you're going to see in the country to this point. Obviously, we're trying to get better every day, but we feel pretty comfortable with how the guys have been working.”

Included in that work is preparing for the 2-3 zone played by Eastern Michigan. The Eagles have always played it under coach Rob Murphy, a former Syracuse assistant, and it has given the Spartans troubles at times. But the Spartans believe they’ve done the work and Stephens says they have the shooters to come out on top.

Of course, it’s just one game. How many Michigan State ultimately gets to play this season is anyone’s guess. The Spartans are scheduled to play 27, including Saturday’s matchup with Notre Dame, and they hope the obstacles they’ve already navigated will have them ready for whatever comes next.

“There's no question it's going to be a different type of season,” Stephens said. “We’re just trying to take it day-by-day, do the things that we have to do. We feel like our medical staff has been unbelievable and they have us prepared and we have been safe. If we do what we're supposed to do as coaches and players, we feel real comfortable with where we are.”

Eastern Michigan at No. 13 Michigan State

Tip-off: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: First game for both teams

Outlook: Michigan State has won nine in a row over Eastern Michigan, including a 101-48 victory last year. … Fifth-year senior guard Ty Groce returns for EMU after staring all 32 games last season, averaging 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists a game. The Eagles return four other players who started at least 15 games each.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau