MSU mailbag: Spartans missing NCAA Tournament, once unimaginable, now is possible

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s only the middle of January, but there’s already plenty of March Madness talk.

For Michigan State fans, that means worry is starting to take over, and for some, it might even rise to panic. With the Spartans off to a 2-4 start in the Big Ten — a fact made worse by losing a 17-point lead at home to Purdue last week — and now with two games postponed because of three positive COVID-19 tests, folks are starting to do the math and wonder if Michigan State will make its 23rd straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

In this week’s mailbag, we tackle that question while also looking at potential transfers in football, scholarship limits moving forward and a quick take on the state of the men’s hockey program.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo gets physical on the sideline calling out to his players.

Question: Sure wish COVID would wipe out this year's NCAA Tournament instead of last year's. What are the chances MSU doesn't make it this year? Signed Debbie Downer. — @daveholz

Answer: Sorry, Dave. That is some bad timing considering Michigan State sure looked like a Final Four team last year when the tournament was called off. The Spartans hardly look like that now, but let’s be honest, they’ve been in some tough spots in the past when it comes to reaching the NCAA Tournament and have still managed to make it 22 straight times, the third-longest active streak behind Kansas (30) and Duke (24). There’s still a long way to go, but Michigan State needs every win it can get at this point, and it doesn’t help that two games will need to be rescheduled. The Big Ten will do its best to get them in, but there’s no guarantee. That means MSU’s margin for error at this point is razor thin.

More: Michigan State-Indiana basketball game postponed because of COVID-19 issues

Q. Traditionally the ‘Might-not-make-March Madness’ Izzo teams are pretty dangerous March Madness teams. My eyes tell me this is a sub-.500 squad but history says Sweet 16. Can this happen? — @Plop04090445

A. This question included something about Betty White that I’m too slow to pick up on, so we’ll just focus on the meat of the question, which is, if Michigan State makes the tournament, can it make something happen? First off, I understand the concern, but we’re a little early to determine a team’s fate for March. That said, the Spartans are still a team that could likely win any night it takes the court. Sure, there are a lot of things that need to get figured out — turnovers, offensive identity, etc. – but if that happens over the next couple of months and the Spartans make it, getting out of the first weekend isn’t out of the question.

Q. New transfers in for football? A certain 5-star LB perhaps? — @Aurelius291

A. Not a lot of movement at the moment, though you can bet Michigan State isn’t the only team interested in the Palaie Gaoteote, the Southern Cal linebacker that I’ll go out on a limb and assume you’re referencing. Obviously, the Spartans have an in with the former five-star recruit and top-ranked linebacker in the 2018 class considering his younger brother, Ma’a Gaoteote, signed in December as part of coach Mel Tucker’s first recruiting class. However, plenty of top programs will be pushing to land Palaie Gaoteote, who will have two years of eligibility remaining and be able to play right away. UCLA and Miami are potential landing spots along with Michigan State, and there’s always the chance he returns to USC, where injuries have limited him at times. In 17 career games with the Trojans, Gaoteote has 105 tackles with 7.5 for loss, including two sacks.

Q. Interesting to see Marcus Freeman entertain offers from LSU and then signing as DC at Notre Dame. We were told last season he was turning down MSU because he and Luke Fickell were "best friends.” What happened? Seems like a missed opportunity. — @pfnnewmedia

A. Michigan State and Mel Tucker reportedly made a Freeman a fairly significant offer last year, so I’m not sure how much of this was an opportunity missed. Actually, considering when the offer was made — mid- to late-February, well after most staffs had been finalized – and the fact he couldn’t be swayed, I’d say there was little to no opportunity. So, it’s hard to say an opportunity was lost if it never existed. As for his decision now to head to Notre Dame, the timing is better and, let’s be honest, it’s Notre Dame. Freeman just went from a team that went unbeaten and couldn’t get in the playoffs to one that was just there.

Q. Can you explain the scholarship situation with football and basketball? If players are allowed to come back for an additional year then how many in total can the team carry in each sport next year — and beyond? In other words, if the new football total for 2021 is 100 does the team have to get back to 85 in a 2022? Are the players opting to come back going to get an additional university paid scholarship year or do they have to pay for themselves? — Steven A. Kandt

A. As of now, the only thing we’re certain of is that scholarship limits for next season won’t be in place, allowing for players to come back for another season. However, nothing beyond that season has been decided on by the NCAA, which means roster management will be one of the most difficult things coaching staffs will have on their plates. Remember, though, that just because an extra year is available, it doesn’t mean a player will take or that the team will offer it. For example, right now only three MSU football players are coming back with a couple more up in the air. At most, it might be five players, so the roster management might not be that difficult. And if a player is on scholarship, the school is paying.

More: Green Room podcast: Is it too early to panic about MSU's 2-4 Big Ten start?

Q. Will the 2021 football schedule be played as now published? — Louis Moore

A. The short, easy answer is, no. The schedules published now were done before there were any changes made to the 2020 schedules — either the first version in August or the conference-only version that was ultimately played. The one move that will carry over for Michigan State is that the Michigan and Ohio State games will no longer be played both at home or both on the road. That was why Michigan State played at Michigan again in 2020 to stagger the schedule. So, that aspect of the schedule is known for 2021 — MSU will host Michigan and travel to Ohio State. As for the rest of the schedule, a new version will come out before the season.

Q. What do you make of the slow but steady progress Danton Cole has made with the program? Does he have what it takes to get them back to the Frozen Four? — @pfnnewmedia

A. I’m not going to try and come across as being dialed in to what his happening in Big Ten hockey and around the nation. What I can say is that yes, there is a feeling around the program that Cole has things headed in the right direction, and with the upgrades at Munn Arena hopefully being completed in the spring, it will help push the program to higher levels.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau