MSU starts 'audition' process for next season, with NCAA streak ending

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State has a primary objective when it hits the court Saturday afternoon at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana.

That, of course, is to win the game. And in a season that has been short on victories, it seems like an obvious goal to achieve.

However, as reality has been creeping in for the better part of the last two weeks — the notion that Michigan State’s 22-season NCAA Tournament streak is likely to come to an end — there is another objective that is starting to battle for that primary position.

Michigan State forward Gabe Brown.

Instead of scrambling for every victory possible in the moment, an eye has to start to look toward the future. And that means players are competing not only for minutes over the last seven games, but trying to secure their place for next season and beyond.

“Guys are up for an audition right now,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “You’ve got to see some progress made, or there’s got to be changes. And maybe they feel the same way, that’s the way it is in the world right now.”

Changes could mean several different things, from entering the NBA Draft to jumping into the transfer portal. However it shakes out, it would seem like a stretch to think the Spartans’ roster won’t see some sort of turnover before the 2021-22 season.

Aaron Henry, who entered his name in the NBA Draft last summer only to return for his junior season, is a candidate to do the same thing this season. And while Michigan State hasn’t had a player transfer out since 2016, there’s a logjam at several spots on the floor that could end that run.

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With three high-level guards signed — five-star wing Max Christie as well as four-stars Jaden Akins and Pierre Brooks — playing time will be tough to come by in the backcourt where Henry, Gabe Brown, Rocket Watts, Foster Loyer and A.J. Hoggard all have eligibility remaining.

And while there’s no big man coming in next season — at least not now — it potentially could be just as crowded next season as not a single player in the frontcourt is set to graduate. In fact, the only senior on the roster is guard Joshua Langford.

So change is coming, and the next few weeks will be a chance for the current players and the coaching staff to figure out where everyone stands. Add in the fact the Spartans don’t appear to be headed to the postseason and it gets ramped up.

“It's always on the table at this time of year, to be honest you, winning or losing,” Izzo said. “More so when you're losing.”

It also doesn’t mean players are being pushed out the door. But, as Izzo pointed out, players have goals and expectations and they can come to the realization it might not be happening at Michigan State.

“The scholarship is a two-way street,” Izzo said. “We have an obligation to you and you have an obligation to us, and that's always the way it is. … There’s a happy medium but I feel very comfortable about what we've talked to our players about.”

It also doesn’t mean Izzo or the Spartans (10-9, 4-9 Big Ten) are giving up on the season.

Logic says it will be tough for Michigan State to play itself into a position to start thinking NCAA Tournament, but the opportunity is there, beginning with Saturday’s noon tip at Indiana.

“I'm not sitting here writing off the year,” Izzo said, “because I know where I've been before and I know how fast they can change.”

If a quick change is coming, it will have to start against the Hoosiers (12-9, 7-7), who have won three of their last four after knocking off Minnesota on Wednesday. And like so many other Big Ten teams, Indiana features a high-level big man playing in the low post.

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Sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis is third in the conference in scoring at 19.6 points a game and his 9.6 rebounds a game are second-best in the Big Ten. It will be the latest challenge for a Michigan State frontcourt that just gave up 28 to Purdue’s Trevion Williams on Tuesday.

“He has turned himself into a very, very good player as time has gone on,” Izzo said of the player he once recruited. “He’s very good in the low post and he's become a pretty good passer.”

The Spartans have lost three in a row in the series and three of the last four at Assembly Hall. And after the loss at Purdue on Tuesday, they’re still trying to find a way to limit their mistakes at the most important part of the game.

Doing that not only increases the chances to win, it could help form next year’s roster.

“We put ourselves in a position to win a game and now we’ve got to find a way to do it,” Izzo said. “This is the first of four games (in a) week, so the road doesn't get any easier, especially in this conference.”

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo watches his players from the sideline in the second half.

Michigan State at Indiana

Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Records: Michigan State 10-9, 4-9 Big Ten; Indiana 12-9, 7-7

Outlook: The Hoosiers have won three of their last four games. … Sophomore Trayce Jackson-Davis is coming off his 21st career double-double on Wednesday when he had 20 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Minnesota. … Senior Al Durham needs 30 points to become the 53rd player in Indiana history to score 1,000 points or more in his career.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau