MSU women to chase Big Ten title behind Nia Clouden, experienced cast

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — It’s hard to put a value on experience.

For Suzy Merchant and Michigan State’s women’s basketball team, the hope is a veteran roster will be the difference between having a decent season and making an NCAA Tournament run.

Michigan State senior guard Nia Clouden.

With more than 80% of their scoring back, a bona-fide star in senior guard Nia Clouden, and their top seven players returning, along with a solid infusion of talent, the Spartans could be in strong position to chase their first Big Ten championship since 2014.

“I think that's one thing we were lacking last year,” Merchant said Friday during Big Ten Media Days at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. “I think we had a really good system, we adjusted some things, they really bought it and we had success. But nobody outside of Nia had tons of minutes and you can't just make that up. You don't manufacture wisdom and experience and understanding.

“I think we recognize where our weaknesses were last year and these kids are really bought into working hard. Great leaders lead great programs and we have great leaders. Nia is a four-year starter for me, but with all those numbers back, I really feel like everybody's bought into improving every single day. And everyone recognizes when we have to get better and where we have to get better.”

More: Men's, women's basketball programs share stage at Big Ten Media Days

Michigan State finished eighth in the Big Ten last season, going 8-7 in the conference and 15-9 overall. The Spartans lost to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

But key victories, including an upset over No. 2 Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, were indicative of positive momentum.

“We have a lot of veteran juniors and seniors, and then we have a mix of some of the freshmen and new players, but the experience has definitely helped,” Clouden said. “Just being able to have experience and be able to play based off of the prior knowledge we have is definitely important in a league like the Big Ten where all the teams are good and all the teams are returning a lot of good players.”

Clouden averaged 18.7 points and 3.9 assists as a junior, starting all 24 games and averaging more than 33 minutes. She was named first-team All-Big Ten, the third straight season she earned all-conference honors after being named second-team as a sophomore and honorable mention as a freshman.

Merchant is hoping for more, especially with the women’s 3-point line moving from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1.75 inches. That's the same distance as in the WNBA and international play.

“She’s exceptional off the bounce, but everybody knows that,” Merchant said of Clouden. “So in ball-screen action she does a lot of things really well that are hard to guard. She does have a nice three, she can shoot the ball, but I think now that additional length from the arc is definitely something that she's got to just rep out, just more reps, more legs. She does play a lot of minutes for us, so at the end of fourth quarter, can you hit that shot, and does that distance become a factor?”

Clouden will have some backup as the Spartans’ top seven scorers are back. Clouden and Tory Ozment are seniors while Alyza Winston, Taiyier Parks, Moira Joiner and Julia Ayrault are juniors.

A recruiting class highlighted by five-star guard DeeDee Hagemann and Purdue graduate transfer Tamara Farquhar fortifies the Spartans.

“Absolutely. I think we can definitely compete for the Big Ten championship,” Ozment said. “I think we have a lot of momentum coming off last year that we can build off of and make some big strides. But I have confidence that we can compete for a championship.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau