fIn all reality, there are two very different sections of the college basketball regular season. No, not out-of-conference and in-conference, not even before and after New Year’s Day. The real breaking point comes at some point in late January or early February.
The biggest difference in the two parts of a season are the involvement of freshman in a team’s rotation.
Now, we aren’t talking about freshman phenom that will go during the NBA Lottery. Instead, it’s the next tier of players, the ones who will spend three to four years at their school, playing at a high level. And it’s at this point of the season that those players need to take over a bigger role and replace some of the upperclassmen who currently own starting jobs simply because they know the college game and their team’s system better.
For Michigan State, that means some of their young players need to start taking playing time away from the likes of Kenny Goins.
Don’t misunderstand, Goins will always play a big role in this year’s team. The 6-foot-7 senior is probably the team’s best rebounder and knows the offense well. But he is far from the most talented player the Spartans have, and every moment he’s on the floor not only restricts the development of the freshman on this team, but also holds back the team’s potential for winning this year.
If the Spartans want a real chance at making a deep run in March, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham Jr. will need to play more important minutes. They will need to take be ready in some of the biggest moments of the season.
For now, Goins is averaging more than 26 minutes a game and only 6.6 points. Henry, on the other hand, has started to emerge as a true scoring option. Despite both being forwards, Goins and Henry clearly don’t play the same position. Giving up an inch and 12 pounds to Goins, Henry can’t bang in the post the same way. But he can spread a defense and shoot from deep. Not only does this provide an opportunity that Goins just doesn’t have, it also clears space for Nick Ward down low.
Henry played only 14 minutes against Ohio State, but used that time to hit a crucial three. He was rewarded the following game with 22 minutes against Purdue.
“This was huge for me,” Henry said to the Detroit News. “I wanted to show [Izzo] what I can do and I’m happy he put his trust in me and obviously I put my trust in him coming here. I’m glad I got to play.”
The transition isn’t that simple, unfortunately. What Henry brings on offense, he gives up on the boards. Maybe Henry will be able to establish himself as a strong rebounder, but someone like Bingham should eventually be an absolute force on both sides of the ball in the front court. Unfortunately Bingham has done less to earn playing time early in the season.
In the next four games, Michigan State plays Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa (with Maryland mixed in the middle). Those three teams have all struggled in conference play and give Tom Izzo a chance to put some of the freshman in bigger situations. It would be crazy to expect a coach like Izzo to play the young guys in game-winning situations, but he should absolutely have them playing with the game still in the balance.
Foster Loyer is getting some of this experience already. However, that has more to do with a lack of depth at guard, especially with injuries to Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid early in the year. Barring more injuries or foul trouble, Loyer should never see crucial minutes down the stretch this season.
The Spartans will be fine for the most part this year without much input from the freshman. But come March, teams will be too talented to have a less talented player like Goins on the court. Fortunately, Izzo is very aware of this fact, and he knows what needs to be done to get them ready for the situation.
“As I tried to explain to my team, there is still a difference between conference play and regular-season.” Izzo said to the Detroit News. “And those freshmen, I told them, ‘Hang on to your hat.’ That little dose of it we got in December is nothing. It’s now a constant grind, day to day.”