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MSU Basketball: Four Game Assessment and Las Vegas Preview

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NCAA Basketball: Champions Classic-Kansas at Michigan State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

What is this thing?

Hey gang, I figured I would do a four-game review of the basketball season thus far, and a preview of the three other teams in the main-event of this Las Vegas tournament. This four game review, obviously, can only draw on a limited sample in terms of data/film/game-play, and only includes one high-level opponent, but hey that’s what I got to work with! I will try to do another of these in late November or early December - kind of a state-of-the-basketball-season check in!

The Season thus far:

General impressions:

#11 (AP), #11 (USA Today/Coaches), #12 (Kenpom)
Kenpom team numbers: #10 (Ortg), #25 (Drtg), #23 (Pace), #44 (Offensive turnover% - surprising to all of us - raw numbers inflated due to pace it seems (and the 1 awful TO game vs Kansas)), #25 (Orb% allowed on defense - of available Orbs, we concede only 21%!!! That’s great defensive rebounding)

Four games into the season and, already, we know this team should have a successful season, and has the potential to be really good. The team has some clearly defined weapons and some clarity on roles for everyone in the rotation. Ward, Winston, and Langford form a terrific trio and each one has been consistently aggressive and engaged on both ends. Ward has been his same aggressive self looking to score in the paint, and has demonstrated some up-and-down passing in the early going (mostly up, after that Kansas outing), an important thing for him to consistently demonstrate both for this team’s success and for his NBA future (the NBA is a passing leauge - this ain’t the mid-00’s anymore). Langford has, apart from the first half against Kansas, been consistently aggressive in both taking 3’s (even if they are slightly contested) and driving to the rim (he still needs to get to the line more), he has also, noticeably, cut down on his long-2’s and pull-up jumpers (still some, and more will be taken and need to be taken, but his shot chart balance is right where it needs to be/should be). Winston has been pretty darn good, despite not shooting the lights-out quite yet (46-43-78 percentages), and has been assertive on offense looking for his own shot, while still setting up his teammates and cutting down on the turnovers. The trio of talented juniors appears to have taken another step forward - these next two games will provide another significant litmus test for them.

Goins, Tillman, and Ahrens, the front-court “secondary” players know their roles - take open shots with confidence, set great screens, defend well, communicate, and crash the boards like crazy - and have taken to them with aplomb. Loyer, McQuaid, and Henry have similarly taken to their tasks - facilitate the offense, push the ball in transition, take open shots, limit straight-line drives with help and good footwork (both freshmen have been up-and-down on this a bit, but both appear to understand what they should do even when they fail to succeed), and, especially for McQuaid and Henry, drive the ball to the paint consistently and with real intent.

Bingham jr, Kithier, and Brown have all had some limited minutes, and it will be fascinating to see how the rotation shakes out over the rest of the season. Izzo has kept the rotation pretty tight to start the season, which has been an interesting change even from earlier years with experienced teams. Bingham jr, especially, appears to have a stroke from 3 too-pure to keep off the court.

Izzo has also clearly been emphasizing all of his favorite points: push in transition, crash the glass, attack the paint, and defend like crazy. The returns have been mostly positive, and the team should feel confident heading into their showdowns with UCLA and Texas/UNC.

Game-specific comments:

Our Spartans started out with a frustrating loss against Kansas. The team turned it over 18 times, missed 12 fts, saw Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman play poorly on both ends (but for a few possessions), Cassius Winston have a mediocre performance given the expectations put on him by fans, the coaches, and himself, and Josh Langford lay an egg in the first half. But not everything was bad: each freshman who played (in limited minutes) showed some form of promise, McQuaid, Langford, and Ahrens all had good-to-great second halves, and Kenny Goins played the best game of his career.

Concerns after the 5 point loss proved plentiful: would Ward ever show the improvements in his game that he and the coaches promised (namely competent passing, reading of double-teams, solid defending, and more-judicious shot-selection), would this team ever learn to reduce turnovers (especially Winston), would Langford be able to consistently perform like he did in the second half, and would the “others” (Tillman, McQ, Ahrens, and Goins) be able to consistently and relatively-uniformly be able to provide points, rebounds, and solid defense?

Florida Gulf-Coast, at home, gave us an initial response from the players and coaches after the frustrating Kansas game. It was a winning response. Nick Ward had an outstanding bounce-back with 25 pts, 10 rbs, and 4 assists (6 misses from the ft line - boo)!!! Winston and McQ scored double-digits, and Langford had another solid 18 points. Tillman, Ahrens, Henry, and Bingham jr all chipped in solid efforts with Henry and Bingham jr hitting all three of their combined 3pt attempts. The team defended well in the first half after giving up some early points to Troy Baxter (20 pts for the game), which got Kenny Goins in trouble with Izzo (Goins didn’t play great defense all night, but still recorded 6 pts, 5 rbs, and 5 assists). But the team didn’t defend all that well in the second half (when Christian Carlyle got to the line a bunch, he also finished with 20 pts for the game), which saw the teams even in points at 47-47. Still a solid bounce back, with 7/9 players finishing with Ortgs higher than 115.

Louisana Monroe was a different story. Ward got injured after a solid early start, shots weren’t dropping (Langford and Winston finished the game 5-18 from 3pt range), and ULM competed well and hung around. Up 6 at the start of the second, Winston took over early scoring 14 points in the first 5 or so minutes (including 3 triples, after going 0-5 in the first half he went 3-5 in the second, regressing towards his mean). Langford stayed aggressive when he wasn’t in foul trouble, and Goins and Tillman locked down the middle combining for 17 pts, 28 rbs (!!!), 5 assists, 3 stls, 2 blocks, and only 3 TOs. Despite Winston and Langford being forced into volume shooting with their open looks not falling, the team defended quite well throughout the game holding ULM to 32.5% from 2, and 26% from 3 (on 19 attempts, which indicates that MSU did not allow them the air-space to feel comfortable jacking 3’s, which is an essential key to upsetting good teams on the road). Henry, Ahrens (especially early in the second half), Loyer, and Kithier (towards the end of the game), provided good energy, a bit of scoring, and got to the ft line. Another good performance given the circumstances, and Ward’s ankle sprain was reported as not too-severe.

Tennessee Tech gave the team their final tune-up before the Vegas tourney, and demonstrated that MSU could dominate a bad team, providing very little indication as to how the team will fare in the Vegas games. The good guys won the game, with a dominant performance against one of the least-best teams in the country. Ward showed his ankle was 100% with 23 pts, Winston and Langford got 19 and 16 respectively, and combined to shoot 9-16 from 3pt range. The team dominated from start to finish and everyone who played played well.

Individual player assessments:

Kenny Goins (sr): After showing out against Kansas, Kenny has settled into a very solid role of adding some points, cleaning the glass, moving the ball, and defending solidly. Goins hasn’t taken many 3’s since his opening barrage, so it will be interesting to see if his offense is called upon more in the next two games (especially with Ward likely needing to kick out of doubles and pressure from length).

Matt McQuaid (sr): McQ has been very solid, not shooting much from 3, and driving to the paint a ton more with mixed results. MSU will need his offense and his outside stroke if it is going to win the next two. Izzo needs to find him more shots from 3, and for McQ to take them with confidence, which he seems to be lacking a bit right now.

Cassius Winston (jr): Cassius has put his game on full display thus far this season, and will have another couple of tests in Vegas against some very solid guards. Winston has locked back in from long-range, and he has done really well at moving the ball and minimizing turnovers in the last couple of games. The biggest question with Winston is always on the defensive end, and the Vegas games will give him another shot to prove himself against the talent and athleticism of UCLA and Texas/UNC.

Nick Ward (jr): Nick is a talent, he is also “mind-erasingly” frustrating at times. After a torrid outing against Kansas, Nick had a great follow-up against FGCU before getting injured and missing out on the ULM game. Hopefully Nick is fully healthy and fully mentally locked in for these Vegas games. Nick will be tested by NBA length in both games and will need to be patient against the length and size of Brown and Brooks/Manley, or Hayes/Osetkowski/Sims.

Joshua Langford (jr): After a dreadful first half against Kansas, Josh has been really good for the rest of MSU’s early schedule. His aggressiveness going to the hoop is consistent (though he hasn’t drawn enough fouls - get to the line Josh!), his willingness to take contested and open 3’s is too. Most importantly his energy, engagement, communication, and desire have been on display every game. Many were interested that Josh was elected captain before the season; well, the early returns have been very strong based on his on-court leadership and emotional investment.

Kyle Ahrens (r-jr): Ahrens has provided a real spark on both ends - finishing plays, hitting some shots, grabbing rebounds and keeping balls alive, and defending solidly. He appears to really have regained his quickness and athleticism (by which I mean lateral agility, and confidence in planting hard and pushing off of his now-healed feet). Ahrens will continue to play an essential role for the team as a veteran wing, and I get the sense that he may have some chances to play vital, game-turning minutes this season.

Xavier Tillman (so): Tillman started the season slowly, but has found his groove a bit in the last couple of games. He will have to show much better in the next two than he did against Kansas. Tillman will have to continue to get double-doubles (or close to it), and will have a monumental task in helping to contain Moses Brown (who I think will be a lottery pick by the time the summer rolls around).

Aaron Henry (fr): The kid is really going to be a favorite of Spartan fans for the next few years. He competes, has real savy, attacks the paint, uses both hands to handle and finish, and has a very solid lefty stroke from 3 (he needs to be willing to take those open 3’s with confidence in Vegas). He still needs a bit of seasoning on defense as he can get a bit behind in his shuffle, but he clearly wants to be a defensive stopper and will have some stern tests against Kris Wilkes and (if we play UNC) Nassir Little and Cameron Johnson.

Foster Loyer (fr): Has shot the ball terribly from range, but has looked solid handling the ball and getting the team into sets and has hit his few pull-ups (he will need to perfect his pull-up game over the next few years, as driving all the way into the paint just won’t work well for him at this level). On defense he is physically over-matched, but has done well in sticking with his technique (good feet-sliding, good positioning, etc. even if he gets beaten by stronger and faster guys who have been in the weight-room and have more burst than he does at this point). Loyer will need to find his stroke to keep teams honest when he is on the court, and will have some great opportunities to do so in Vegas.

Marcus Bingham jr (fr): Tantalizing talent, beautiful stroke, and at-risk in the face of a stiff breeze. Bingham jr’s length will definitely be needed vs. UCLA and UNC/Texas and he will be put to the test. He will need to compete and try to fight for position defensively, if he can do this and not get destroyed physically, while still stroking from deep and chipping in a few blocks and rebounds, then he may continue to carve himself a bit more of a rotation role.

Thomas Kithier (fr): Limited minutes, limited production; an old-school Izzo freshman though, doing his job and showing decent awareness on defense and solid boxing-out.

Gabe Brown (fr): Brown has seen the least amount of playing time among the freshmen, so the jury is still out on him, and it looks like he won’t feature much this year unless there are injuries or until he really steps up his level. The kid has some real length, his stroke looks good from range (can get a bit flat at times - he needs a bit more “dip” in his jumper, and to elevate his release point a bit), and he clearly loves being a Spartan - the future is bright for him.

The upcoming Las Vegas tournament:

General Preview:

Three very good teams for MSU in Vegas to play against (MSU will play UCLA and then one of Texas or UNC). UNC is clearly the best team (and a better team than MSU at this point), but UCLA, MSU’s first opponent has a lot of talent (and a lot of talent on the IR). Texas also has some very good players especially in the front-court. MSU will need Ward, Tillman, and Goins to play out of their minds, not get in foul trouble, and for the wings to really help on the defensive and offensive glass (Ahrens, Henry, Langford, and McQ need to have BIG rebounding games in Vegas collectively). MSU will also be reliant on getting out in transition and on Winston and Langford to make contested shots.

Team-by-Team Scout (with player comments as necessary):

UCLA: #17 (AP), #17 (USA Today/Coaches), #39 (Kenpom)
My pre-season evaluation:
“I am too high on this team, but, hey, so too are the press and coaches (we are all falling for the same joke again!). They weren’t great last year, Hands wasn’t efficient enough, and they have Alford as their coach. But I can’t help it. Wilkes and Ali are back, and Brown is a freak of nature and sure-fire top-10 pick - I don’t think that even Alford can screw up with this much talent.”

Kenpom numbers: #33 (Ortg), #61 (Drtg), #306 (FT% - 60%!!!), #6 (Blk% - defense), 60% of pts from 2-pt shots

Scouting report: Very young team (1 jr, 3 so, 4 fr in rotation) that turns it over a bit, and doesn’t have the right guys taking the right shots right now (unsure whether that is a coaching issue, or an execution issue... although... Steve Alford... so...). Wilkes and Hands are their highest usage players, but really the offense should flow through Brown. There is a lot of length and talent on this team, except at the FT line where they are shooting under 60% for the season! Keep an eye on Ali (who is a better shooter than his current percentage from 3) and Singleton (who is a pretty good shooter, but has only taken a handful from 3). If Hands can play like a point guard and distribute the rock (or take more of his shots from 3), then this team gets more dangerous. They are long and defend the rim and paint well, but give up a lot of 3pt fg attempts: MSU will have plenty of chances to hit from deep.

Key players: Wilkes (109 Ortg, 24% Usg rate and 30% of shots taken when he is on the court), Hands (100 Ortg, 26% Usg and 26% of shots taken when he is on the court), Brown (128 Ortg, #29 block rate in the nation).

Depth chart (functional rotation):
1 - Hands, Singleton
2 - Ali, Bernard
3 - Wilkes
4 - Hill, Smith
5 - Brown

UNC: #7 (AP), #6 (USA Today/Coaches), #3 (Kenpom)
My pre-season evaluation:
“Little might be the best player in the country, and if one of Brooks, Manley, and Huffman step forward then they will be really good. They will also need White to provide consistent minutes at the 1 and for Maye to do his best Kevin Love impression on offense. They can definitely win the ACC if White plays consistently well.”

Kenpom numbers: #4 (Ortg), #8 (Drtg), #2 (av. offensive possession length - they play fast), #7 (Orb rate)

Scouting report: This team is really good. Johnson (143 Ortg, 56% from 3!!!), Little (142 Ortg, #64 in the nation in Orb rate), and Maye (125 Ortg) are an outstanding trio, and Coby White (105 Ortg, 29% from 3 on a team-leading 24 attempts) has been good enough at the point to keep the train rolling. Outside of Johnson only Maye and Little out of their main 3pt shooters (with 10+ attempts) are shooting better than 30%. This team pushes the ball, pounds the glass, and out-talents people inside the arc and around the paint.

Key players: Maye, Johnson, Little, and White. White has to be good for this team to be great, he has been solid so far, but Texas and MSU/UCLA will really test him (White was distinctly not-good against Stanford, UNC’s best opponent to-date).

Depth chart (functional rotation):
1 - White, Woods
2 - Williams, Robinson, Platek
3 - Johnson, Little, Black
4 - Maye
5 - Brooks, Manley

Texas: #NR (23 votes, AP), #NR (13 votes, USA Today/Coaches), #27 (Kenpom)
My pre-season evaluation:
“I love this team, and I am still pulling for Shaka Smart to break-through, again, either to win the BIG XII or get back to a Final 4 (he went to my alma mater!). Liddell, Cunningham, Ramey, Hayes, and Hepa are all amazing additions to this team (a similar but maybe more-talented 5-some to MSU’s). I will definitely be watching this team some and am, frankly, surprised that they didn’t get more votes in either poll.”

Kenpom numbers: #48 (Ortg), #10 (Drtg)

Scouting report: Coleman has struggled shooting at the start of the season, but the other guards - Ramey (42% from 3), Mitrou-Long, Roach, and Febres (45% from 3) - are all contributing, and, as a position group, they do a great job of limiting turnovers. Osetkowski is a fun play-making 5; Sims, Hayes, and Hepa, a trio of young, long, and talented bigs have provided length, rebounding, and defense - Hayes in particular has been very good around the basket on offense.

Key players: Coleman, Ramey, and Osetkowski are the barometers of this team. When they are good on both ends the team performs well. If Coleman can find his scoring touch this team gets much better.

Depth chart (functional rotation):
1 - Coleman, Ramey
2 - Roach, Mitrou-Long
3 - Febres
4 - Sims, Hayes, Hepa
5 - Osetkowski

Predictions:

Rd 1:

MSU vs UCLA: Moses Brown is a beast, but I think MSU is the better team and will win this game. Ward will have to play very smart, and be very patient: Brown has way more size and length, so Nick forcing the issue simply will not work. MSU will need Langford, Henry, and McQ to play well against Kris Wilkes, who is UCLA’s #1 guy, but mostly a jump-shooter (force him to take contested 2pt jumpers). UCLA is not a very good shooting team from deep, so look for MSU to deny penetration and try to dig down on Brown (Ward and Tillman will have to get low and use their leverage advantage to keep him out of the deep post). Winston and Langford will need to hit from deep, and will need to finish on their mid-range game so as not to feed Brown with easy blocks. If MSU can clean the defensive glass and get out and run, the Spartans will run away with it.
MSU 80 UCLA 66

Texas vs UNC: I like this Texas team, but they are a year away from being really good (next year they will probably knock off Kansas for the Big XII title - you heard it here). Texas doesn’t match-up well against UNC and has no one who can cover Nassir Little or Cameron Johnson. Look for UNC to play small and for those two, plus Luke Maye to win the game for the Heels. Texas’ win condition looks like 4+ made 3’s, each, from Febres and Ramey (expect UNC to give up some looks to them because Roy Williams DOES. NOT. SCOUT. OPPONENTS), and for Texas to win the point guard battle in dominant fashion; they will also need Hayes and Osetkowski to stand on their heads against UNC’s imposing front-court.
UNC 84 Texas 70

Rd 2 (“championship or 3rd place”):

MSU vs UNC (“championship or 3rd place”): UNC should be favored, but MSU’s win condition is not totally crazy. They need Ward to get the UNC front-line in foul trouble, and for Winston to win his battle with White (who is a talent and an athlete, but not a great point-guard at this stage - I think Winston will show better here than he did against Dotson and Kansas). Goins is a great defensive match-up against Luke Maye, the real question is how Langford, McQ, and Henry hold up against the dynamic duo of Johnson and Little. If they can draw even with those two then MSU should have a great shot. Look for Winston to take over down the stretch.
MSU 80 UNC 75

MSU vs Texas (“championship or 3rd place”): This is a Nick Ward game. He should be able to consistently win his match-up against Osetkowski and I would not be surprised to see Nick have a 20+ game. Winston and Langford should also win their match-ups. I see this one as a comfortable win.
MSU 82 Texas 68

Bonus predictions:
UCLA 73 Texas 68
UNC 84 UCLA 75