MSU women have depth, and they'll need it with two starters lost for season

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Big Ten sent a record-tying seven teams to the 2021 NCAA Women's Tournament, and most of the conference's teams have most of their key players back this season.

Michigan State is no exception  — but two of its key players who are back won't actually play.

The Spartans lost two starters from last season's team to season-ending injuries: senior guard/forward Tory Ozment and junior guard Julie Ayrault. They combined to average nearly 16 points and more than eight rebounds last season.

Michigan State guard Nia Clouden

Ayrault suffered a foot injury, one that's actually more common in football players than basketball players, the first week of practice and had surgery. Ozment tore her ACL the day after Big Ten Media Day in October, and also has had surgery.

"Those are two starters for us, junior and senior, very veteran kids," said head coach Suzy Merchant, who was set to kick off her 15th season Tuesday in the opener against Morehead State at Breslin Center.

"At the same time, we do have some young kids that I think are going to be able to step in."

One of those who will see more minutes will be freshman guard Deedee Hagemann, a top prospect out of Detroit Edison. Another is guard/forward Matilda Ekh, from Sweden. Those are two of Michigan State's five freshmen.

Junior guard Moira Joiner (Saginaw Heritage) and graduate-transfer forward Tamara Farquhar (Purdue) also provide depth at those two positions, including a smaller-than-normal four spot which Michigan State has utilized dating to last season.

"We're gonna be OK there," Merchant said. "Other kids will pick up the slack."

Michigan State was 15-9, 8-7 Big Ten, last season, finishing eighth in the conference, but earning one of those seven NCAA Tournament bids. It marked the Spartans' 10th NCAA Tournament appearance under Merchant, in 13 eligible seasons (the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled).

And Michigan State does return its biggest piece, senior guard Nia Clouden, who was first-team All-Big Ten last season, after earning second-team and honorable mention honors her first two seasons. Last season, Clouden averaged a team-best 18.7 points, with 3.9 assists and 1.6 steals. She is on the preseason watch list for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which goes to the nation's top point guard, and on Tuesday, she was placed on the watch list for the Naismith player of t

Despite the loss of two key players to injuries, Merchant said Clouden still will have more around her this season, so she won't have to carry the load every night. Among those, junior guard Alyza Winston (Muskegon), who was second on the team averaging 11.1 points last season. Five players scored in double figures in an exhibition win over Northwood.

"I think she feels real good about who's around her," Merchant, who opens the season four wins from 300 at MSU and three from 500 as a Division I head coach, said of Clouden.

Clouden was named first-team preseason All-Big Ten by both the media and coaches, while Michigan State wasn't listed in the preseason Big Ten rankings. The conference only lists the top five teams.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984