The Spartans basketball team is two games into a five month season, which means it’s time to start breaking down what we absolutely know about this team, without a doubt... probably.
In the first week of the season, MSU played North Florida at home in the opener then followed with Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago. The Spartans split the first two games, but the arrow is definitely pointing up for this young, talented team.
The Starters: A-
MSU ran out Jaren Jackson Jr., Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford as starters in both games. This starting lineup feels much more set than the group at the start of last year. Jackson and Bridges are already looking like bonafide stars. Bridges is showing an ability to score however he wants and Jackson is a game changer on both sides of the ball.
Ward is playing a lot like the player who finished last year, but with a deeper bench behind him he has plenty of room to grow. Winston appears to have made the biggest improvement from last year to this year so far. With so much talent around him, he’s looking like a point guard who can average double-digit assists. He struggled against the Duke zone, however. Langford is still the x-factor on this squad. He’s a strong defensive player who has shown an ability to slash to the basket with success. His shot is still streaky and fixing that could be what puts MSU over the top.
This bench is DEEP. Unlike the team last year, the bench has already shown it can go six deep. Tum Tum Nairn is going to get a lot of playing time, the senior captain is still limited in his ability, but he can pick up a lot of the starters shortcomings.
Gavin Schilling, Kenny Goins and Ben Carter make up an experienced front court that can all take big minutes in any game. None of those guys are stars, and have already shown how dramatically different the team looks with them on the court instead of Ward or Jackson. They will need to pick up their scoring. Against Duke, the Spartans went through long scoring droughts that shouldn’t happen with the experience this group has.
Matt McQuaid still hasn’t shown any reason to believe he will be a consistent sharp-shooter, but against UNF he was able to score a little. If McQuaid can find his rhythm from deep, this team will be able to survive one of their stars hitting a slump. The final question mark on the team is Xavier Tillman, who Tom Izzo has shown a limited amount of trust in already, getting a few minutes in both games. Tillman is raw and looks a lot like Ward from a season ago.
Izzo has been able to go full Izzo so far this season. He’s looked over-the-top angry in a blow-out win, scheduled an elite program and had his team ready to at least compete against Duke. That being said, there is no such thing as a moral victory for a team as strong as this year’s Spartans, so the loss is a mark against.
There is enough talent on this team to carry the Spartans through this season. But Izzo will be the difference in how deep they will go in the tournament.
The Spartans are as good as everyone could hope and put a lot of that on display through two games. They can get better, however, and still need to. Duke is as good as any team in the country, and has something MSU doesn’t, a senior star. Bridges needs to grow into that role if the Spartans are going to do all that they can, but he isn’t there yet.