MSU mailbag: Big Ten East chances, SI cover jinxes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

You can tell basketball season is close to tipping off for real when questions on that team outnumber football with November now upon us.

That doesn’t mean football is off the radar with a shot at winning the East Division still out there. We dive into the Spartans’ chances in this week’s Michigan State mailbag, along with plenty of inquiries on the basketball team as one more exhibition awaits against Hillsdale on Friday before things become official next week.

■ Question: What is your estimate of MSU’s chances to the win B1G East? 10 percent at best? — @JimIngalls9

■ Answer: I’d say 10 percent is being optimistic at this point, and the loss last week at Northwestern only affects that a little bit. Getting that first loss before facing Penn State and Ohio State simply means Michigan State MUST win each of the next two games to have a shot at the division. I’m not sure I see a way that happens. If the Spartans can win one of these games I’ll say it’s this week, and that’s simply because the Nittany Lions might still be stinging over the loss to Ohio State.

If Michigan State plays both Penn State and Ohio State tough, wins the final two over Maryland and Rutgers and adds a win against a solid opponent in a bowl game, I can’t imagine many will be complaining after last season. And, more importantly, it could be setting up for a 2018 when the division title becomes a far more likely proposition.

■ Q. Where will Lewerke end up in the Dantonio era of MSU QBs? — @OPHTHO10

■ A. That’s a pretty good era when you consider Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook all come from that era that spans 11 seasons now. All three are in the top five in program history in passing yards with Cook and Cousins 1-2 in passing yards and touchdowns. Will Brian Lewerke get to that point? Let’s say this, he’ll certainly have the opportunity considering he saw time as a freshman and will likely start all 12 games this season with a bowl game to come.

And considering he’s already added one record to his resume — 445 passing yards against Northwestern is a single-game mark at MSU — you’d have to think he’s got a good shot to be right there at the top. He’s got some of Cook’s gunslinger attitude with the cerebral nature of Cousins. Add in the running ability of a guy like Drew Stanton, who came before Dantonio, and you’ve got a quarterback who will likely have plenty of success.

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■ Q. Do you see basketball struggling more offensively or defensively? How do you see Jaren Jackson performing as a frosh with the season opener coming? — @drewparm

■ A. That can be a tough question to answer, but considering the amount of talent on the roster, you’d have to think the Spartans will have few nights where they’ll have trouble scoring. Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be games a particular player or two struggles — see Joshua Langford in exhibition opener against Ferris State — but with the depth it should make it a bit easier to score.

The real issues will likely come on the defensive end, which isn’t all that surprising with a young roster. Throughout last season, Tom Izzo was constantly pushing Nick Ward to improve his ball-screen defense while limiting Cassius Winston’s minutes not because of his offense but because of his defense. Both have gotten better and the fact senior Gavin Schilling is back will improve the ball-screen defense immensely. The defense, overall, will be a work in progress. Jackson will be a star but he’s a freshman, so there will be growing pains, especially on defense. We saw that a bit against Georgia as he faced a physical team that pushed him around a bit. But not many teams are that physical and the key was that Jackson recognized his mistakes before even Izzo could get on him. Bottom line, he’s gonna be good at both ends of the floor.

■ Q. Sparty and Miles Bridges on SI Cover. If we snap Sparty’s ankle, will that protect Bridges from the cover jinx? — @randypitler

■ A. That seems like the perfect answer, though I’m not sure Sparty would love it. Maybe we’ll see him at the next game in a walking boot. I’ve seen Sparty wearing all sorts of stuff, might as well add that. It’s OK to joke, but let’s be honest, if Michigan State lost Miles Bridges it would be in big trouble. It’s not that there’s no talent left on the roster. That’s not it at all. But the Spartans play differently without Bridges. When he went out vs. Ferris State there was a different feel, as if the Spartans were wondering what direction to go. That’s something that’s hard to replace.

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■ Q. Hoops struggled against Ferris and seemed much better against Georgia. Is Ferris that good? Just shaking off rust? — @lucaswestblade

■ A. There was some rust, sure, but let’s remember Ferris State is picked No. 9 in the Division II preseason poll and won a school-record 28 games last season. With a couple of Division I transfers on the roster, the Bulldogs can play. And don’t discount the fact how big the game was for them while it was simply an exhibition game for Michigan State. I’d look more at the Georgia game when judging Michigan State’s progress. You saw the Spartans shore up a lot of the issues for the Ferris State game against a bigger team with a standout player.

■ Q. Do you think Tum Tum Nairn should spend 32 minutes a game filling up water bottles for Cassius Winston and the other players? — @AJPerun

■ A. Now, that’s not nice. Look, Winston will play the majority of the minutes but you can’t ignore Tum’s value. Not every piece of a good team will score. He’s the heart of that team. Everyone follows him and if you told him MSU would win the national championship but he’d have to sit the entire season, he’d do it.