East Lansing — Michigan State practices won’t be for the faint of heart this season, not that a practice run by Tom Izzo ever really has been.
But coming off a season when depth was an issue, especially in the frontcourt, things look far different for the Spartans this season. The size is much more significant and depth – barring the sort of injuries that plagued last year’s team – will be a strength.
What it also means is players better come to practice ready to work, something assistant video coordinator Doug Herner bluntly pointed out to Izzo recently.
“My good friend Doug Herner, he said it best to me after the first three days,” Izzo recalled this week. “He said, ‘You better be prepared for some ugly practices.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean? You don’t like the team?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I like the team a lot. You got a lot more guys now that are playing for their lives.’”
Playing for their lives in the rotation, that is, as Michigan State prepares to enter the 2017-18 season as a Final Four favorite and one that might not have enough minutes to go around.
It’s quite a change in the frontcourt where last season, then freshman Nick Ward had it easy in practice. After seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter were lost to knee injuries in the first week of practice, Ward was the only true center as 6-foot-7 Kenny Goins was forced to play center while even the now-graduated Matt Van Dyk played some there at 6-5.
“We had guys playing center that, God, I could have posted up a couple of those guys,” Izzo said. “So it wasn’t a good situation.”
With Carter and Schilling both healthy and the arrival of freshmen 6-11 Jaren Jackson Jr. and 6-8 Xavier Tillman as well as 6-11 sophomore transfer Braden Burke, the practice intensity has picked up as each knows they have to prove they belong on the floor come game time.
“We go a lot harder,” Ward said. “It makes everybody better at the end of the day. We have seven, eight bigs, so this is going to make us better at the end of the day and makes us go harder. It’s a lot more competitive. It’s a lot harder to score. A lot more rebounds. Everything’s much more intense because of the number of bigs we have.”
Finding the right rotation might take work, but in the long run the benefit of depth should go beyond making each player better. It will give Izzo a lot of options.
“That’s one good part about having so much depth,” Schilling said. “We’re just gonna have so many different lineups we can play with and we’ll be able to really run people out of the gym. It’s a positive, really. It definitely makes practice harder than games with everybody fighting for a spot. Nothing is set in stone and it’s a battle every day in practice.”
The depth doesn’t end up front, either.
With more big players on the roster, 6-7 Miles Bridges will now be freed up to play on the wing and even at the two-guard, a spot the Spartans have plenty of options. Most believe sophomore Joshua Langford is primed for a breakout season while junior Matt McQuaid and Ahrens, a junior, will also push to see significant minutes.
It’s at point guard that things are straightforward with senior Tum Tum Nairn and sophomore Cassius Winston handling the duties.
“They’re going to play together some,” Izzo said. “Cassius is shooting the ball really well. If he ran as hard at the point as he does at the wing, he’d really take his game to another level.”
The Spartans are hoping the entire team takes it to another level, and they feel like they’ve got the players now to do it.
“I think it’s great to be able to have practices like a game, where you go against each other in the offensive scrimmages and defensive scrimmages,” Langford said. “It’s like we’re playing against a whole different team, so it’s good that you have guys being able to push each other every play. You can’t take a play off. It’s really competitive now, and that’s great for our team.”