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 Maui tournament that MSU is most likely to face (I will do a gamethread and preview for the next couple so if we face any teams from the other side of the bracket that were not previewed, rest assured, I will cover them). This four game review, obviously, can only draw on a limited sample in terms of data/film/game-play, and includes two high-level opponents, but hey that’s what I got to work with!
The Season thus far:
MSU came into the season ranked #1 in the pre-season polls. Unfortunately, the team found out on the eve of the season that Josh Langford is out until, at least, January. Langford’s absence and Kyle Ahrens’ nursing an ankle injury meant freshman Rocket Watts got the nod to start at the 2 on opening night and has held the job ever since. Despite some uneven play, especially against Kentucky, and while dealing with an immense tragedy off-the-court, as the team has rallied around Cassius Winston during his grieving period after the sudden passing of his brother, this team has looked solid with the future looking brighter by the day.
Cassius Winston has been good, if not spectacular, and the rest of the back-court has been passable. The front-court has also been good, if not spectacular, largely because Xavier Tillman hasn’t quite found his 5th gear (let alone 6th). But if this is the settling-in period for the team and coaching staff, then this bodes extremely well for the season. Our offense hasn’t quite gotten humming, and yet we have found enough on both ends in the face of typically frustrating injury issues to beat a very good Seton Hall team on the road. Of important note: MSU has kept turnovers down, hasn’t really found its best shooting groove, and has been solid on the glass; if shots start falling more consistently, this team can reach its peak potential.
Last year, the Las Vegas tournament proved to be a real pivot point for the whole season as it showed the team had the grit and compete-level to beat really good and talented teams away from home. While MSU has already demonstrated that capacity this season at Seton Hall, the teams in Maui will be better than those MSU faced in Vegas. Also of note, winning in-season tournaments bodes well for teams’ long-term out-looks, and teams that win these holiday tourneys often go on to Final Fours and to win National Championships.
#3 (AP), #3 (USA Today/Coaches), #1 (Kenpom)
Kenpom team numbers: #1 (Ortg), #4 (Drtg), #2 (assist rate), #256 (offensive 3pt%), #40 (offensive turnover%)
Kentucky: Watts was awful, Tillman was awful, but Winston, Brown, Henry, and Kithier kept MSU in it until late. Bingham jr had a superb first half showing awesome energy and real rebounding grit. MSU shot 5-26 from 3 (19%), with about 15 misses on wide-open shots.
Binghamton: The game after Zachary Winston’s passing, Cassius had a solid game amidst an emotional maelstrom. Tillman, Henry, Kithier, Brown, and Bingham jr all with solid performances against an over-matched opponent. MSU shot 7-25 from 3 (28%).
Seton Hall: Huge game, huge challenge. On the road vs a giant team with a flamethrower of a scoring guard, Aaron Henry sprained both ankles on a single play, Winston was in foul trouble all first half. Tillman played his worst game in well over a year (that is two games struggling vs length for X), and Watts was bad for much of the game. But MSU made the plays to win it down the stretch with Watts and Winston hitting clutch buckets. Did I mention a certain freshman named Malik Hall? He only came off the bench to score his first points of the season - 17 of them, all in the second half, shooting 7-7 from the field and 3-3 from 3 - playing tough defense, rebounding, and generally showing his complete floor-game. Foster Loyer had clutch contributions in the first half, Gabe Brown was solid again, and Kithier just did his thing on both ends. MSU shot 12-27 from 3 (44%).
Charleston Southern: MSU played sloppy basketball, won by 48, rested Henry’s ankles, and got some guys feeling good about themselves. Tillman had a statistical field day, and Gabe Brown looked great in a starting cameo. MSU shot 4-17 from 3 (23%).
Individual player assessments:
Cassius Winston (sr): Obviously an incredibly sad and draining period in Cassius’ life right now, but he has continued to lead this team and to play solid basketball, even if his shooting hasn’t quite synced up to his true ability. He is only at a 112 Ortg (37% from 3), but if he can find a way to get in a groove then he should prove his All-American status over the course of this Maui trip.
Kyle Ahrens (sr): Ahrens has started his senior campaign slowly, but he looks pretty healthy and has started hitting some shots. The biggest issue for Kyle is on defense and on the defensive glass. Even as a senior he is getting caught ball-watching, missing box-out assignments, and not quite completing possessions. If Kyle can lock in though and focus on himself he should continue to contribute a steady veteran presence off the bench. We very well may get a Kyle Ahrens game here sooner rather than later.
Xavier Tillman (jr): X hasn’t been good to start the season - he has been over-matched vs the two long teams that he has faced, and hasn’t found his shooting stroke (despite each shot looking good). That being said, he is still playing great defense, stitching the offense together with his screening and passing, and providing incredible leadership. He is a great interview, and a cerebral player. I would really like to see him do a bit more facing-up against true centers who have him beat for length.
Aaron Henry (so): Henry is in a new starring role, and is expected to carry more weight this year. Even with foul trouble against Kentucky in the first half of that game, and the ankle injuries against Seton Hall, Henry is showing clear signs of stepping into his new role. His usage level is at a disappointing 15%, but his efficiency is typically stellar, and his defense has been really good when he isn’t being handsy. This Maui tournament will give him a HUGE opportunity to go against some future NBA wings, and to show that he is just better than they are. He is the guy to watch this tournament for me (stay healthy and out of foul trouble Aaron!).
Thomas Kithier (so): Kithier, in the absence of Joey Hauser, has been super. His game is restrained and disciplined on offense - lots of screens, rolls, offensive-rebounds, and the occasional trailer 3 (he is 1-2 on the season, and look for those numbers to rise). But his reserved game fits perfectly with the other starters, and complements his superb defense. He does pick up fouls, but they are almost always good fouls. He covers the PnR well, he communicates the heck out the defensive game-plan, and he cuts-out superbly. I still envision him coming off the bench, but we’ll see how the season goes as his starting performances have been near-perfect.
Gabe Brown (so): I have really high hopes for Gabe this season, and I think he is starting to earn the trust of the coaching staff. His shooting and offensive game have begun to expand, but, most of all, his defensive effort and execution are bordering on superb. Gabe can exert his influence on games even more than he already has, and the more he does so and the sooner he does so, the quicker this team approaches its ceiling.
Marcus Bingham jr (so): Still so much length and talent (although his shot has NOT been falling, somewhat bizarrely). Bingham jr hasn’t quite put it all together yet, but you can see the gears turning. His play against UK was superb, and his understanding of what it means to go hard is clearly developing. What I haven’t liked as much has been his appearances in which he doesn’t look locked in. He has to understand that he can win a game (like he almost did against UK) with a 5 minute burst of energy and production off the bench. This kid has the talent to turn games, he just has to start locking in and playing with that desperation every second he steps on the court.
Foster Loyer (so): Foster still isn’t a 6’5” mega-athlete. His shot still hasn’t really connected, but he has looked solid this season in limited minutes. While Watts is taking more of the back-up 1 minutes than Foster would like, Loyer is doing what he can in the minutes he gets. He still gets beat and gives up fouls and height defensively, but he rarely is out of position on that end. Most importantly he looks more comfortable on offense and hasn’t gotten pressured so badly that he is unplayable. His best appearance of the season came against Seton Hall with Winston in foul trouble - he his a crucial 3, finished a tightly-contested transition layup (read: he got fouled) - and generally helped keep the team afloat. Izzo and Garland HAVE to play Loyer with Kithier in my opinion, and they need to have those two guys run a bit more 2-man - it’s a way to get Kithier more touches (when teams predictably try to pressure Loyer off the PnR) and it’s a way to get Loyer some comfort-possessions to get his confidence going a bit. His 3:1 A:TO ratio is looking good so far.
Rocket Watts (fr): Watt’s learning curve needs to be steep - that means he gets up to speed quickly while having some rough early outings. Rough early outings? Check. Getting up to speed quickly - TBD. Coming in as a lauded shooter and scorer, Watts’ defense and passing have kept him on the court. If he can start hitting shots (a hope I am dubious of given what I am seeing from his shooting form right now), then he will be everything MSU needs him to be; also of concern is his complete inability to finish in the paint or to draw/deal-with contact. For all the doom and gloom I project, however, look at his game-by-game development: Ortgs of 15 (!!!), 91, 123, 102. He is warming up people... He has cut out the turnovers (3 vs UK, 1 since), has kept setting up teammates (the Watts-to-Winston dyad is particularly exciting, especially in transition) with 12 assists on the year, and even his scoring (though not efficient) has improved with point totals of 0, 5, 8, 11... The coaches and his teammates LOVE him, and he is clearly tough, mentally composed, and with a scalding fire burning in his belly. He wants to be great, and he will be...sooner rather than later.
Malik Hall (fr): Malik Hall is a kid that really intrigued me as a high school player, a bit older for his class, with scoring ability from all three levels, a bit of ball-handling, solid defensive effort and know-how, and a good rebounder. On this MSU team his biggest obstacle has been competition for minutes and confidence in his shot. Against Seton Hall he showed everything he’s got. I believe he should be MSU’s starter at the 4 eventually, but for now he is a weapon off the bench who can, apparently, nearly-single-handedly carry a top-5 team in the country as a freshman. The way things are trending, Hall will take on the bulk of the reserve 4 minutes with Bingham jr and Marble increasingly relegated to splitting the reserve 5 minutes. This kid has moxie, nuance, and dynamic ability for days.
Julius Marble (fr): Marble is tough, he’s strong, and he’s raw. He fouls, he turns it over, he rebounds, and he finishes. But you can see the raw ability and physical skills there. Likely a year away from really knowing what the heck he is doing out there, it will be interesting to see how he does once he hits the freshman wall at the end of non-con play, and then begins to get over it once he really finds his groove in practice in B1G season. There is a chance that Marble could emerge as a late-season contributor depending on health and foul-trouble, but for now he is our diamond-in-the-rough.
The Maui tournament:
Big-deal tournament in a hell of a place (Hawaii is expensive but totally awesome - go there if you can people). Va Tech, Georgia/Dayton, and Kansas/BYU/UCLA is a heck of a 3-game slate, and will tell us a TON about where this team is with a visit from our old nemesis Duke on the horizon in early December.
It is probably too early for the rotation-shortening to really begin in earnest, but I would consider this tournament to be potentially eliminating for some of the bench guys: if they really show they can’t compete, execute, and follow game-plan discipline, then they will be on the outside looking in moving forward.
For a team with national championship expectations, winning this tournament is the goal and a reasonable expectation. MSU has the quality and the bodies to do it. Now go do it!
Team-by-Team Scout (with player comments as necessary):
Va Tech: #NR (AP), #NR (USA Today/Coaches), #41 (Kenpom)
My pre-season evaluation:
Didn’t have anything to say about them - they lost a lot, and I didn’t know how they would react to Mike White.
Kenpom numbers: #54 (Ortg), #42 (Drtg), #8 (O-eFG%), #7 (D-eFG%), #48 (O-Turnover %), #42 (Defensive Reb rate), #340 (O-ft rate), #2 (3Pt fg rate)
Scouting report: This team is tiny (no starter over 6’7”, one reserve big at 6’10”), plays REALLY slow, shoots a TON of 3’s, cleans up their defensive glass (we’ll see about that), and doesn’t turn it over.
Key players: Nolley (3pt shooter high volume/%), Bede (solid point guard), Alleyne (3pt shooter high volume/%), Horne (small-ball 4, good 3pt shooter), Cone (3pt shooter and point guard off the bench)
Depth chart (functional rotation):
1 - Bede (6’0” jr), Cone (5’10” fr)
2 - Alleyne (6’3” fr), Cattoor (6’3” fr)
3 - Radford (6’1 fr), Wilkins (6’4” so)
4 - Horne (6’6” jr)
5 - Nolley (6’7” fr), Ojiako (6’10” fr)
Georgia: #NR (AP), #NR (USA Today/Coaches), #62 (Kenpom)
My pre-season evaluation:
“I was gutted when Nic Claxton stayed in the NBA draft, he would have made this team SO MUCH FUN. Instead we get a still-interesting team driven by the superlative talent of Anthony Edwards. Hammonds is a solid forward, but all other bets are off in the front court (for a team that was #120 in Drtg last year WITH Claxton and a couple of seniors on board in the frontcourt...). Better to focus on the back-court, where Harris, Crump, Walton, Brown, and Camara will all be welcome additions. We may end up seeing Georgia play very small by the end of the season (with Hammonds playing more 5, and Brown and Walton playing small-ball 4). If that does happen they may have a chance to out-scrap and out-athlete teams.”
Kenpom numbers: #44 (Ortg), #84 (Drtg), really good on the offensive side of the 4-factors: #48 (eFG%), #18 (TO%), #69 (Oreb%), #25 (Ft rate); not-so-good on the defensive side, esp. #233 at 51% (Defg%).
Scouting report: Team has a ton of athletes (including Anthony Edwards who will be a top-5 pick in the upcoming NBA draft), and some efficient scorers while only having two 3pt threats. They apparently refuse to play defense, however, which is a challenge for them.
Key players: Edwards (top-5 pick, incredible athlete on both ends, great scorer, long arms, solid from all 3 levels), Hammonds (quality big-man on both ends), Wheeler (solid freshman pg), Crump (senior 6th man, steadying force, 3pt shooter), Gresham (senior starter, solid, not really a shooter).
Depth chart (functional rotation):
1 - Wheeler (5’10” fr), Crump (6’1” sr)
2 - Gresham (6’3” sr), Fagan (6’3” so)
3 - Edwards (6’5” fr)
4 - Ngumezi (6’9” so), Camara (6’8” fr), Brown (6’6” fr)
5 - Hammonds (6’9” jr), Howard (6’11” fr), Peake (6’8” fr)
Dayton: #NR (AP), #NR (USA Today/Coaches), #53 (Kenpom)
My pre-season evaluation:
“This is a gamble: Dayton was merely ok last year (#62 in Kenpom; #43 Ortg, #103 Drtg), they lost their starting 2-guard to transfer, and they were really young. But I think they are ready for a big step up because Obadiah Toppin is going to be a star, Ibi Watson, Rodney Chatman, ready to emerge after transferring, Crutcher and Cohill are a year a older, and because Jordan Tshimanga (Nebraska transfer), Moulaye Sissoko (strong and big freshman), and Chase Johnson (Florida transfer who will help in the front-court) are ready to lock down the middle. These new additions plus moderate development from the talented young returners have the Flyers ready to challenge for the A-10 title and to get to the NCAA tourney if they win some non-conference games and hold their nerve in conference play.”
Kenpom numbers: #25 (Ortg), #82 (Drtg), #2 (O-eFG%), #344 (D-3pt%)
Scouting report: Love this team even more than I did pre-season. Toppin is a beast, they can all score the ball, they refuse to defend the 3pt line, and they are just a zany group already calling them as a potential Sweet-16 team and definitely my favorite to win the A-10.
Key players: Toppin (1st-rd pick, stud), Chatman (pg, vet, 3pt shooter), Crutcher (solid 2-guard), Mikesell (vet starting forward, 3pt range), Landers (glue)
Depth chart (functional rotation):
1 - Chatman (6’1” jr)
2 - Crutcher (6’1” jr), Cohill (6’2” so)
3 - Landers (6’5” sr), Watson (6’5” jr), Matos (6’5” jr)
4 - Mikesell (6’7” sr)
5 - Toppin (6’9” so), Johnson (6’9” so)
Kansas: #4 (AP), #5 (USA Today/Coaches), #8 (Kenpom)
My pre-season evaluation:
“Depending on how things shake down with the NCAA (Self and Kansas just got served with a major set of charges), Kansas may have a weird season. But if all gets smoothed over (as it likely will), then this Kansas team should be the second best team in the nation. Dotson, Garrett, Agbaji, and Moss are a super foursome in the back-court. Wilson and Braun both have game and shooting ability. And DeSousa, Azubuike, and McCormack are a fearsome load on the interior. Azubuike has apparently lost about 30 lbs (which may actually hurt more than it helps - we’ll see), DeSousa is a beast, and McCormack is huge and strong. This team has balance, but lacks proven shooting and a second playmaker (Agbaji, Moss, and Garrett are finishers). This team should comfortably win the Big XII and be a favorite for a Final Four.”
Kenpom numbers: #14 (Ortg), #10 (Drtg), #71 (pace), #22 (O-eFG%), #26 (D-eFG%)
Scouting report: They are who we thought they were. Dotson and Azubuike set the tone as a great inside-outside duo, and Self has settled on Enaruna as his best small-ball 4 (McCormack and De Sousa have started all the games at the 4, but this team NEEDS to play small to be at its best). Agbaji and Garrett haven’t been good enough offensively (especially surprising for Agbaji, who looked like a star down the stretch last year), but adding Moss (Iowa transfer) to the mix adds some shooting, which has balanced them out a bit. Kansas should cruise to the final (Chaminade, UCLA/BYU - eye-roll), where, if MSU gets there, we should see a potential Final-Four match-up, which I believe MSU should win.
Key players: Dotson (super quick, at times uneven in his marshaling of the team), Azubuike (big man, but not as thick as last year, fouling less - major obstacle), Enaruna (freshman stretch four), Agbaji (super talent, awful start to the year for him so far: turning it over and cold from 3), Garrett (great defender, great slasher, not much else).
Depth chart (functional rotation):
1 - Dotson (6’2” so)
2 - Garrett (6’5” jr)
3 - Agbaji (6’5” so), Moss (6’5” sr), Braun (6’6” fr)
4 - McCormack (6’10” so), Enaruna (6’8” fr)
5 - Azubuike (7’0” sr), De Sousa (6’9” jr)
To be clear, the following predictions are based on my assessment of the competition and my supposition that MSU will make the final. I will be posting gamethreads/previews for the next two games as well, so we can all update our priors if things don’t go as predicted.
MSU vs Va Tech: This game should be fascinating. Va Tech have a bunch of really efficient offensive talents, a ton of 3pt shooting acumen, and very little size. I could imagine a scenario where Va Tech beats MSU, but it would be surprising. I think MSU dominates the glass, and scores too effectively for Va Tech’s 3pt shooting to matter enough. Va Tech WILL hit 3’s, but MSU cannot get discouraged early when they do: just keep rebounding, keep running, and execute on offense. If we see early turnovers or stretches of offensive ineptitude then MSU is in trouble. But is Cash gonna let that happen? Is X gonna let that happen? Will Izzo let that happen? No.
MSU 80 Va Tech 68
Dayton vs Georgia: You must watch this game. It will be high scoring, delightful, and zany. Edwards, Wheeler, and Hammonds vs Toppin, Chatman, Watson, and the rest? What a fun match-up! The smart money should be on Georgia’s future NBA talent, but I just can’t imagine Toppin allowing himself to not-dominate in front of these NBA scouts. Dayton wins a barn-burner.
Dayton 85 Georgia 83
Rd 2 (Semi Final):
MSU vs Dayton: This is another potential test for MSU. Toppin is unlike guys that MSU has faced recently, and would pose a challenge, but MSU has too many bodies to throw at that match-up and Dayton refuses to play good enough defense to prevent MSU from opening up a comfortable lead early and cruising.
MSU 80 Dayton 65
MSU vs Georgia: Again, a huge chance for Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown to show what they can do against a sure-fire top-5 pick. I think MSU is solid enough in that match-up and Winston and Tillman own their head-to-head games with Wheeler and Hammonds. MSU pulls away with Watts scoring 15.
MSU 78 Georgia 65
Rd 3 (Championship):
MSU vs Kansas: Huge challenge for both Cassius and Xavier. Last year in game one of the season, both got dominated in a game neither looked ready for. Then the rest of last season happened. In this one, I see Tillman facing up Azubuike, drawing early fouls, and giving as good as he gets especially causing Azubuike headaches in the PnR game with Winston. Henry has a chance at a star turn in this one vs Agbaji who is a great talent, but can be had in a game where discipline and precision rule the day. Cash, Henry, and Tillman all give MSU 15+ points, and Malik Hall wins his minutes against Enaruna.
MSU 75 Kansas 70