How promising Spartans sank so quickly
East Lansing – It’s been a little more than two months since Michigan State began practicing for the 2016-17 season, the 22nd for coach Tom Izzo.
Back when the calendar turned to October, the optimism was abundant. The Spartans were bringing in arguably their best recruiting class under Izzo, as well as a graduate transfer and some key components from a team that won the Big Ten tournament a season ago.
They were highly ranked in the preseason polls and a run at the Big Ten title -- and possibly more -- certainly seemed like a reachable goal.
It hasn’t taken long for that optimism to fade, however, and with just one game left in the non-conference portion of the schedule, Michigan State finds itself sitting at 7-5 with a depleted roster and likely already looking at scenarios to keep a 19-year NCAA Tournament streak alive.
How did it get to this point so quickly? Here are some of the key reasons:
Hurting out of the gate
It always comes off as an excuse to anyone who doesn’t support Michigan State, but injuries have completely changed the makeup of this team. In fact, almost every reason the Spartans are in the position they are now stems from this one issue.
It began as soon as Michigan State started practicing as 6-foot-9 forward Ben Carter, a graduate transfer from UNLV, injured his knee over the first weekend of workouts. It was the same knee he injured last season at Las Vegas and it has put him on the sidelines for the entire year. Carter had offensive skill and could venture away from the basket to hit the open jump shot or attack the basket, something the Spartans coveted.
And even with that option lost, it seemed like an injury the Spartans could overcome. However, just a couple of weeks later, fellow big man Gavin Schilling injured his knee, the second frontcourt player to go down before the season even began. The senior was expected to be the starting center this year, and while he’s not a huge offensive option, Schilling is a talented defender who rebounds with tenacity.
Those two injuries juggled the lineup right out of the gate, guaranteeing significant minutes for freshman Nick Ward and forcing 6-6 sophomore Kenny Goins to go from role player to starter. It also made the Spartans remarkably thin up front, something that has been made even more difficult with freshman Miles Bridges on the shelf the last four games with an ankle injury.
Bridges established himself quickly as the star of the team, but when he went down after the loss at Duke, the Spartans were left with virtually no size outside of Ward and Goins. In the games since Bridges has been out, 6-5 sophomore Kyle Ahrens has been playing plenty of minutes at power forward, a spot even 6-4 guard Alvin Ellis has been forced to play.
Michigan State’s depth amounts to former walk-on Matt Van Dyk, a 6-5 forward who works hard but is limited offensively and is usually smaller than anyone he guards.
Getting Bridges back will be crucial, but there’s still no concrete timetable there. He could be back by the time Big Ten play begins on Dec. 27, but there will be an adjustment when he does return. Even with him, the frontcourt depth likely won’t change as Carter is out for the season and the likelihood of Schilling returning is slim.
Michigan State has long been a team that relies on veteran leadership. Two seasons ago on its run to the Final Four and even last season when they were ranked No. 1 in the nation for a time and won the conference tournament, it was juniors and seniors who led the way for the Spartans.
While Michigan State has supremely talented young players this season, it’s getting very little from its veterans. Senior guard Eron Harris has been wildly erratic, scoring 31 one night against Florida Gulf Coast then two games later managing just three in a loss to Baylor. In the final minutes of Michigan State’s loss to Northeastern, Harris was on the bench because, as Izzo said, Harris simply didn’t play well.
“He’s sitting next to me because he didn’t play very good. Period,” Izzo said. “He didn’t guard, he didn’t play very hard, he didn’t play very smart, he took a couple bad shots, and he wasn’t playing the way he has to play. So I mean, if Harris doesn’t do that this week, then he won’t be playing this week either. If he does, he will. It’s not all on Eron Harris, but seniors have to rise up.”
That includes Ellis as well as others who’ve played in the Final Four, including junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn.
Development time lost
The early-season schedule also didn’t do Michigan State any favors. To be clear, Izzo has said several times he would not change which teams Michigan State played – Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke were all in there – but he would like to spread them out. Instead, MSU played those teams in a little more than three weeks and traveled 14,000 miles, leaving little time for the young roster to practice.
They’ve gotten that time over the last few weeks, but now they’re doing it with five losses on the docket, four before Sunday’s setback.
The Spartans have proven they can play with the best, but they still haven’t proven they can win on a consistent basis, either.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Michigan State, especially when you consider the long-term health of the program. Yes, the NCAA Tournament streak will be one to watch this season and it’s vitally important to Izzo.
However, in the midst of the last couple of weeks, Ward has made huge strides while freshman Cassius Winston is proving to be Michigan State’s most valuable player. He scored 21 and handed out 10 assists against Northeastern and has been the catalyst for nearly all of Michigan State’s offensive success recently. And fellow freshman Joshua Langford is finally looking healthy after an early season hamstring issue.
Another top recruiting class is set to come in next season, and there is plenty of size with it, as well. So whether or not Bridges comes back, the Spartans will be in fine shape.
This season, however, looks like it’s going to be a grind on a nightly basis. The injuries have created that, so have high expectations on players who are struggling to handle it. But small signs of progress have been evident, none more crucial than the development of the freshmen. If the veterans start picking it up, it could be another interesting March for the Spartans. If not, the disappointment for Spartan fans could continue.