It’s no secret that 2016-17 was a weird year for Michigan State basketball. It featured exciting breakout performances and, unfortunately, some pretty big let-downs. Add those together and you get a #9 seed and a second-round exit.
Well, now that the dust has settled a bit, it’s time to take a look back and unapologetically judge some 18-22 year old’s by giving them generalized letter grades.
Who was teacher’s pet and who wore the dunce cap? You’re about to find out. Now ring the bell, cuz school’s in, sucka.
(In order of class, because INTRIGUE)
G Eron Harris (6’3” 190 - Sr)
The hopes for Harris entering the season were sky-high. He was expected to take over as a leading scorer and the go-to upperclassmen on a young roster. In some games, like against Florida Gulf Coast (31 points), he was just that but others, like against Baylor (3 points, 1-9 shooting), he was nowhere to be found.
His biggest contributions may have been after he went down with a late-season knee injury, when he became the vocal and emotional leader his team needed. He never became the star Spartan fans expected when he transferred from West Virginia, but was still a double-digit scorer and competent defender who will be missed.
G Alvin Ellis III (6’4” 210 - Sr)
Ellis deserves a ton of credit for his persistence and determination. Several times throughout his career, many wondered if he would transfer and look for greener pastures, but he stuck around and ended up playing a sizable role in his final campaign.
Ellis was similar to Harris in that you never really knew what you’d get from him on a game-in game-out basis. His scoring against Minnesota (20 points) and Northwestern (16 points) helped MSU secure two of their biggest wins of the year, but his streaky shooting also made him tough to rely on.
Defensively, he was asked to guard players he had no business guarding, ending up as a stretch-four far too often. He gets a C+ for slightly outperforming some admittedly low expectations.
F Matt Van Dyk (6’8” 250 - Sr)
MVD joined the prestigious Austin Thornton, Mike Kebler and Colby Wollenman group of guys you simply never expected to see playing in actual meaningful games. But he proved to be a capable contributor during Miles Bridges’ December absence, playing double-digit minutes in seven straight games. His nine rebounds against Youngstown State and seven points against Rutgers were career-highs.
He was also responsible for one of the most “wow, this team is outmatched” moments in basketball history when he guarded Purdue’s Isaac Haas, who stands at 7’2”. For that alone, he gets a passing grade.
C Ben Carter (6’9” 225 - Sr) / C Gavin Schilling (6’9” 240 - Sr)
Carter and Schilling had their seasons end before they even started, both going down with knee injuries last summer. Schilling will return next year and be a major upgrade on defense and the glass. Carter, though, is probably never going to suit up in green, as he faces an uphill appeal process in order to get a sixth year of eligibility.
As has been mentioned ad nauseam, had either of them been healthy MSU’s season would have looked a whole lot different and this article probably wouldn’t be written for at least another week. Sigh.
PG Tum Tum Nairn (5’10” 175 - Jr)
This is probably too harsh of a grade for Tum Tum if you consider his leadership and off the court qualities. He’s a two-time captain and a phenomenal representative of the program, but this is basketball and he still struggles to do a lot of basketball things well.
Tum Tum’s lack of offensive development in his junior season was very disappointing. He was more aggressive driving to the basket on the fast break, which was nice, but his lack of shooting led to cramped spacing and made him a liability more often than not on the offensive end. He figures to be the backup to Cassius Winston next year, but if he can develop even a marginal offensive game (unlikely, I know) Nairn can go from minutes-stealer to game-changing bench piece.
F Kenny Goins (6’6” 230 - Soph)
Grade: C+ for execution / A+ for effort
There has perhaps never been a Michigan State player easier to empathize with than Kenny Goins was this season. Kenny G was way out of his depth guarding centers all season and it showed. At one point, he was rocking a massive knee brace and a facemask, looking like he could crumble at any moment. But, man, did he battle.
There wasn’t much flash on either end, but he did end up third on the team in rebounding (4.5 rpg) and if there was a grade for #grit, would have been the runaway leader.
In the span of a little under two years, Goins went from walk-on forward to unexpected minutes-stealer to first “big” off the bench. His role in 2017-18 will much more closely resemble his freshman year than his sophomore one, but no one should forget how much of himself he (literally) gave to the team this season.
G Matt McQuaid (6’4” 200 - Soph)
If you’ve listened to The Only Podcast this season, you probably expected an F- here, but I’ve softened my stance on McQuaid considerably.
My major qualm was the he was supposed to be a 3&D wing but couldn’t hit three’s or play D for most of the season. But — and this is a pretty major but — McQuaid did undergo double hernia surgery last summer which sounds both extremely painful and difficult to recover from. Frankly, it’s impressive he even played this year.
He clearly improved as the season wore on, and a healthy off-season in the gym and in weight room should do wonders for him. Look for a big bounce back campaign from the baby faced assassin.
G/F Kyle Ahrens (6’5” 215 - Soph)
From a player, I’m too low on to a player I’m probably too high on, Ahrens had a pretty decent showing this year. He gets a C because he wasn’t able to cut through a very “meh” group of guards playing in front of him and create a bigger role but there’s a lot of promise here.
With Harris and Ellis gone and some actually big big men entering the fold, Ahrens will have the chance to play his natural shooting guard/small forward role instead of masquerading as a “stretch four”. There are minutes to be had and Ahrens stands to benefit as much as any player from a more defined rotation in 2017-18.
F Miles Bridges (6’7” 230 - Fr)
There was a point in time where getting Miles Bridges to come and play in East Lansing seemed like a luxury. A nice thing to have, but not a necessity. Turns out the exact opposite was true.
Simply put, Bridges was the best player on the team despite being asked to play a bit out of position. The numbers prove it, too. Bridges led the Spartans in points (16.9) rebounds (8.3) and blocks (1.5 — tied) per game and it’s scary to think where this team would have ended up without him.
He’s likely bound for the NBA Draft where he figures to be a top 10-15 pick. He still has parts of his game that need to cleaned up (ball handling, defensive awareness) but he’s also 19 years old. Miles is a star and it won’t take long for that to shine through at the next level.
F/C Nick Ward (6’8” 250 - Fr)
As brilliant as Bridges was, Ward was the most crucial cog in MSU’s season.
It seems almost funny now, but when he committed it was widely expected that Ward would redshirt during his first year on campus. But after Deyonta Davis declared early for the NBA Draft and both Schilling and Carter went down, that was no longer an option.
Instead, Ward was thrust into a key role as the team’s only big man and asked to carry the load offensively — especially when Bridges was out in December — and defend the opponent’s best big every night. He exceeded all reasonable expectations averaging 13.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg and winning Big Ten Freshman of the Week four times.
So, why not an A? Ward gets a tiny ding because of his inability to stay out of foul trouble but that’s all he can get knocked for. He has Big Ten Player of the Year potential and will only benefit from having more help down low in the future.
PG Cassius Winston (6’0” 185 - Fr)
When Tom Izzo recruits a point guard for four years, you have to figure the kid is special. After one season, it appears Winston is just that.
He has his flaws, which get him a B. There’s a small hitch in his jumper, he’s prone to some lackadaisical turnovers and is um, slow, on defense, but those are things you can fix with time and confidence.
What makes him so special is his “basketball sense” and feel for the game. You simply can’t teach those traits and he has them in spades.
Offensively, the difference between Tum Tum and Winston was staggering this season, both on the fast break and in the half court. Winston made at least one play a game that made your jaw drop and ask “how did he see that?”, even flirting with a triple-double (10 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds) in MSU's huge late-season win over Wisconsin.
He's your starter next year and, like Ward, could compete for a couple B1G Player of the Year awards before he’s done.
G Josh Langford (6’5” 210 - Fr)
Last, but far from least, is Langford, who improved as much as any player from the start of the season to the end of it.
Early on, the former five-star recruit was nagged by a hamstring injury and looked like he might be in a bit over his head at the collegiate level, especially on defense. But by the end of the year, he was the best offensive option at guard and it was obvious his issues were more about the injury than the competition.
He was especially big after Harris went down with his injury, averaging nearly 10 points over the last eight games, and scoring 10+ in three of he last four contests. Langford also led the team in 3-point percentage (41.6%), flashed major rebounding potential and a sophisticated off-the-dribble game.
He will probably be a starting off-guard and has the chance to take a huge step forward with a year of experience and a healthy off-season under his belt.