The Michigan State basketball team enters this season with one goal, hang banners. Big Ten, conference tournament, Final Four, and National Champion. Those are the banners this team wants to hang in the Breslin Center. Anything short of a Final Four will be seen as a disappointment.
We know this team is loaded with both talent and depth. We know it is more experienced than last year’s squad. We know that Coach Izzo will do his best to keep the team grounded despite the lofty pre-season expectations. And we know that the on court leadership will be tested as the year grinds on.
This team is being picked by many to win it all and deliver Tom Izzo that elusive second national title. So with that in mind, what are some of the keys to making that happen? Well I’m glad you asked. Here are some of what I believe, are the biggest factors for MSU this basketball season.
Langford was the second highest ranked recruit of the four freshman from last year behind Bridges. He came in as a five-star McDonald’s All-American. But his season was somewhat derailed by a pre-season hamstring injury. While he didn’t miss any games, the injury clearly nagged throughout the season, and likely slowed his development.
As the season wore on however, and the hamstring healed, Langford started to show flashes of the player many expected. In the first 24 games of the season Langford averaged 5.8 points, two rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game, while shooting 50% from the field. He scored in double figures just three times, with two of those coming against Youngstown State and Tennessee Tech.
In his final 12 games of the year, Langford averaged 9.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 0.8 assists per game while shooting 49.4% from the field, but 60.9% on two pointers. He scored in double figures five times, including three of MSU’s four post-season games.
Langford is a 6-5, 210 pound shooting guard. He has a chance to be a huge beneficiary of the matchup problems that this MSU team can create. With Bridges moving to the three and the depth in the front court, Langford should find himself getting a lot of good looks this year.
To me, Langford needs to be a double digit scorer. He needs to be an offensive threat that must be accounted for and a guy that can step up and make some baskets when Bridges is struggling.
He also needs to play solid defense, especially because MSU is somewhat thin in the shooting guard/swing player area.
Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston will probably be the two most important, and likely prolific, players in terms of production. But Langford needs to be in the mix and playing like the player he was at the end of last season, and even better, if MSU is going to be a championship level team.
Working out the rotation
This is something that will likely take a while to get worked out, as it did last year. The difference being that this year, Tom Izzo has a wealth of riches in the front court, as opposed to the M.A.S.H. unit he was working with last year.
Still, it will be up to Izzo to figure which pieces fit where, and who plays well together. He will have to piece together rotations that include Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Jaren Jackson Jr., Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter, Kenny Goins, and Xavier Tillman. That is a lot of front court pieces to fit together.
Now with Bridges moving to the small forward spot, that opens up some room, but there will still be plenty of combinations to explore.
Ward and Jackson might be the most offensively talented, but how will they work together and will they play enough defense? Schilling and Carter are savvy vets, but both coming off knee injuries. Will they serve as Izzo’s defensive specialty unit? Maybe some combo of senior and underclassman is the way to go. And what do you do if you need to go small and Bridges moves back to the four?
These are all things that will need to be worked out, and Izzo will have to find the roles and rotations that work best for the team as a whole. Now this isn’t Izzo’s first rodeo, and as I said, this is a much better problem to deal with than the one he had last year. But it isn’t without its own challenges, and you really hope to be able to get into a consistent rotation by the time Big Ten play starts.
If and when Izzo can find the right way to tetris all these pieces together perfectly, this team will be really tough to beat.
With the slew of bigs that we just talked about, I feel pretty good about MSU’s frontcourt defense headed into the season. They have the depth and the size and the length to deal with just about anything anyone can throw at them.
What I am not so sure about yet, is the perimeter defense. This includes both guard spots and the small forward position.
The Spartans best perimeter defender is probably Tum Tum. But at 5-10, 175 lbs., Tum is pretty much limited to guarding point guards.
Tom Izzo has praised Josh Langford in the past for his defensive game, but much like his offense, it was something that was inconsistent. Oftentimes, when one was bad, so was the other. I believe Langford can be a solid defender, but we need to see it more consistently than we did last year.
The real question marks come with Winston and Bridges.
For Bridges, the question is how he adjusts to guarding small forwards, after spending most of last year guarding power forwards. Size wise, there were maybe a few times he was giving something up, but his length and strength usually helped balance that out.
This year, Bridges will find himself guarding players that are likely quicker and more apt to shoot from the perimeter. Instead of worrying about getting posted up on the block, Bridges will need to be sure not to allow too much space outside, and close out quickly on threes. It will be a whole new set of defensive situations for him, and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts.
As for Winston, his defense remains a work in progress. However, his offense seems to be really coming along. You are going to want him on the floor late in games for his offense, but you also don’t want to sacrifice too much defensively. The other factor here is that we have heard talk to Tum Tum and Winston playing together. While I like the offensive possibilities of that duo, the defensive liabilities are terrifying. Having two players on the floor at or below 6 foot is going to give you problems on the defensive end.
Izzo prides himself on playing good, tough defense, so I am not worried about the effort on this front. What is concerning is the possible matchups and the overall lack of depth. Beyond the players mentioned, the only other real backcourt rotation player is Matt McQuaid. Kyle Ahrens injury hurts your depth in that area.
Defense wins championships they say. And while that might be somewhat clichéd, MSU teams have always needed to play good defense to win championships. This one will have to too.
Playing Old School
The three point shot is more important and prevalent in basketball than it has ever been before. The game has changed and shooting is the new hotness. MSU has had plenty of success being a perimeter oriented team in the past. And while this team isn’t going to be a bad three point shooting team, it is not going to be their biggest strength.
This team is a potential matchup nightmare offensively. With Bridges size at the three, Ward’s touch down low, Jackson’s athleticism, Winston’s court vision, and Langford’s skillset, they should be able to pick out the weak spot on the other team and exploit it.
Most of the time though, that weak spot is going to come inside the arc. Or at least, it will start there. The front court should be a beast, and there should be a lot of baskets made inside of the paint. Post-ups, put-backs, lobs, it should all be there often for this MSU squad.
When it’s not, there should be plenty of mid-range opportunities for Bridges, Langford, and Jackson. Especially for Langford, who shot 57% inside the arc last year. I love his mid-range jumper and it’s a weapon he needs to use, rather than floating around the arc waiting to shoot a three.
That is not to say there won’t be three-pointers to be taken and made. Langford, Winston, and McQuaid should all see plenty of good looks on kick-outs from their big men when teams start doubling down. Bridges will get his share of looks from the long line, but if he is being guarded by small forwards, he may not get as many good looks from outside as he did last year.
I want this team to beat people up inside, and soar over the opposition. There should be plenty of easy baskets in transition and in the paint. Sure, shoot your threes, especially when they are open, but I don’t really want to see this team fall in love with the three.