John Niyo, James Hawkins and Matt Charboneau preview Michigan and Michigan State's 2016-2017 basketball season.
In today’s college basketball, having a talented roster that also happens to have experience is a luxury. It’s rare that a team wins conference championships and makes Final Four runs with a predominantly veteran lineup.
Michigan State has been one of those exceptions. In the era of the one-and-done and riding supremely talented but young rosters to the top, the Spartans were still in the business of developing talent and creating a team that was battle-tested and prepared for the biggest games in March.
It happened in 2014-15 when Michigan State reached the Final Four behind seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson as well as a group of juniors that included Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes.
And last season, despite a crushing loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament game, it was Valentine that won several national player of the year awards for a team that won the Big Ten tournament and was a favorite to reach the Final Four.
Fast forward a year and everything has changed.
As Tom Izzo gets set for his 22nd season leading the Spartans, the dynamic has been altered dramatically as one of, if not the best, recruiting class in Izzo’s tenure has taken East Lansing by storm. Forward Miles Bridges is the star, but he is just one of two five-star recruits, joined by fellow McDonald’s All-American guard Joshua Langford. Guard Cassius Winston – Mr. Basketball in Michigan last season – and forward Nick Ward, both four-stars, round out the class.
It’s enough to have Michigan State ranked No. 12 in the preseason with expectations as lofty as ever.
And as Michigan State gets set to tip off the season Friday against No. 10 Arizona in the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu, it will be relying heavily on the unknown. From the four freshmen who have yet to play a regular-season college game to the veterans who are taking on much bigger and more important roles, it’s all a bit of a mystery.
“I don't know where we are right now. I do not know yet,” Izzo said a couple of weeks ago. “I do know this. We got a lot of really good parts and a lot of neat parts, a lot of guys that are on a mission. We got some older guys that I don't know if embarrassed is a good word but were hurt by the loss last year. We got some coaches that are. I'm one of them.
“It's just a little more unknown this year. I don't know how freshmen are going to respond. This is new territory. … Very seldom are we left with I don't know what's going to happen. I can see us starting four freshmen sooner or later. It could happen. That's not the norm at 98 percent of the schools, so it's a little bit of new territory.”
There’s no doubt Michigan State is in uncharted waters with its roster, though the expectations are right where they’ve always been – to compete in the Big Ten and make a run in March and take a shot at Izzo’s second national title.
The Spartans have gotten to seven Final Fours and their most recent success has been as much because of the team chemistry as it has been about the talent. Adding in a large dose of young talent could be a volatile element to a culture Izzo has worked hard to create.
However, to this point, everything that’s been established appears to be intact.
“This is where our culture has to be,” Izzo said. “It will be tested. It will be tested the next month. This is where it has to be strong because everybody gets along until you lose, until someone goes 1-for-11, until something happens, and then you’re really going to need all hands on deck. Everybody’s got to be in this together. We’ve got a rough road ahead of us, and I’m kind of enjoying the fact that we’re going to be doing it this week.”
That road is a daunting one. After the Arizona game, Michigan State takes on No. 2 Kentucky at the Champions Classic in New York on Tuesday and the following week could see No. 13 Louisville at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. At the end of the month, it’s a trip to No. 1 Duke for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“That’s the reason we came to Michigan State, to play the top competition,” Bridges said. “When we play those teams it will be on a whole other level. I want to win so bad, but whether we win or lose we’ll still figure out what type of team we have.”
That much is certain as Michigan State becomes more like the Kentucky teams it has played and beaten in recent years. It also hopes to have that perfect blend of old and new, and to that end, the Spartans will be counting heavily on senior guard Eron Harris to be a scorer in addition to a solid defender and for sophomore guard Matt McQuaid to bounce back from off-season hernia surgery.
Sophomore forward Kenny Goins will also play a critical role after the loss of seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter to knee injuries, while senior guard Alvin Ellis is a steady player and junior guard Tum Tum Nairn is the emotional heart of the team.
So far, everyone is buying in. Izzo has been impressed that none of the freshmen have been entitled and have worked hard. It helps having Nairn, the ultimate program guy who could end up sacrificing minutes to Winston.
But that’s how it is at Michigan State – everyone is on the same page.
“Point guards who I haven't even played with – Travis Walton and Mateen Cleaves – give me pointers and advice all the time, so it's only right for me to do the same and I want to do the same thing,” Nairn said. “This is a part of our culture. Being great teammates, being with each other off the floor. It's a part of what we do here, so when you have leaders, you have to have guys who are willing to follow you.
“These guys coming in have done an excellent job of listening and buying into what we do here. It hasn't been hard at all to get these guys to do what we do at Michigan State.”
What they usually do is win, it’s just things might look a bit different this time around.
And Izzo can’t wait.
“I love the chemistry of the team, I love the togetherness,” Izzo said. “It’s gonna take a little time to do that but, mmmm, I like where I think we can get to.”
Breaking down the Spartans
Coach: Tom Izzo, 22 seasons (524-205)
2015-16: 29-6 (13-5 Big Ten)
Returning: G/F Kyle Ahrens (1.2 points), G Alvin Ellis III (2.6 points), G Lourawls Nairn Jr. (2.8 points, 3.3 assists), G Eron Harris, (9.3 points, 2.1 assists), G Matt McQuaid (3.5 points), F Kenny Goins (2.0 points, 2.9 rebounds), F Matt Van Dyk (1.1 points), F Gavin Schilling (3.8 points, 3.1 rebunds), G Connor George (redshirted)
Can’t have a bad season — Eron Harris: The senior guard became one of Michigan State’s best defensive players, but showed he can be a dynamic scorer, too.
X-factor — Miles Bridges: He came in with all the hype, and through two exhibitions, the forward did not disappoint. He had freshman moments here and there, but at 6-foot-7, Bridges has the size and athleticism to play nearly any position.
Surprise — Matt McQuaid: The guard played out of position at point guard as a freshman last season and went through offseason hernia surgery. Now healthy and playing off the ball, McQuaid is more in his comfort zone and has the chance to stand out. An outstanding outside shooter, McQuaid also can stretch a defense and can keep teams from focusing one one player.
They win the Big Ten if ... : Harris becomes the all-around player he has the potential to be and the other freshman — Gs Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston and F Nick Ward — develop.
They won’t win the Big Ten if ... : Ward has trouble staying on the court because of fouls and the lack of frontcourt depth becomes a liability.
Toughest game: Wisconsin, late February