The MSU basketball team dropped their opener in the Maui Invitational, losing to Virginia Tech 71-66. It was a pretty ugly game all around from the Spartans, who still had a chance to pull it out late. In the end it was the Hokies making some clutch shots to ice the game.
The loss was the second on the season for the Spartans, both coming in games classified as Tier A matchups by KenPom, and both on neutral courts. This has some people searching for the panic button in regards to the pre-season number one team in the nation.
While there are certainly some things to be concerned about, I don’t believe there is a reason to be overly concerned…yet.
First and foremost, MSU basketball fans should know better than to panic in November. Michigan State is often a slow starting team, but one that finishes strong. There is no reason to believe that can’t be the case this season.
We knew there would be some growing pains with this team to start the year, and that was when we were expecting to have Josh Langford. His absence puts a lot of pressure on younger players to step up. While that has happened in a few instances this year, the consistency from those players just hasn’t been there. And that isn’t surprising.
For as deep as this team has the potential to be, it lost a lot of scoring from last year. Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid, and Kenny Goins combined to average 30.6 points per game last season. That accounts for almost 40% of the per game scoring average. That is a lot to replace, especially when you don’t have Langford’s 15 points per game to help ease everyone else in.
But there is plenty of reason to hope. And the reason is that even last year’s team, which finished November at 6-2 btw, was winning their games early in the season much different than they were later.
First off, as I mentioned, you had Josh Langford averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting nearly 45% from beyond the arc during the first month of the season. This included a 29 point performance against Texas that basically carried them to a comeback win. Langford was averaging 13 shots per game, more than anyone else finished the season with other than Cassius Winston.
In addition to Langford you also had Nick Ward scoring 14.6 points per game with three 20-point games in November and two more in December. Ward wasn’t averaging the same volume of shots as Langford, but he was putting up 8.6 per game as well as getting to the line 7.5 times per game. On the days that he was putting up 20 though, Ward was routinely in double digit shot attempts.
So that is 32.1 points per game in November from Langford and Ward to go along with 21.6 field goal attempts each time out.
By the time the end of the season rolls around, Langford is out, and Ward gets banged up, missing the final five games of the regular season. MSU wins four of those, including two against Michigan.
Ward returns for the post-season but averages 5.8 points and 5.1 field goal attempts per game. His high is nine points in the second round win over Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament.
The team that was winning games in November was not the team winning games in late February and March.
They adapted, new players took on bigger roles as a result of the injuries, and the team made it to the Final Four, beating Duke in the Elite Eight. There is no reason to think this group won’t be able to figure things out.
The biggest difference this year is that the two players who stepped up the most were seniors in McQuaid and Goins. Aaron Henry was the biggest contributor of the younger players.
This year, MSU is going to need underclassmen to figure out their game and take it to the next level, since it won’t be getting Joey Hauser and Josh Langford seems unlikely to return.
In the meantime, the Spartans have needed their experienced, star players, to play like stars. That just hasn’t happened consistently.
Winston has been solid, but not great, averaging 15.4 points per game. But his assists are down, and he has had some first half foul trouble in a couple of the big games. His shooting is also down from what we are used to. He also has a lot going on personally and the fact he is able to play at a high level at all is pretty incredible.
Aaron Henry has also been pretty good, but I think this team needs a little more from him right now. He needs to fill the Langford role to an extent and while he is averaging 13 points per game, he’s doing it on 7.8 shots per game. If he ups that into the 12+ per game range, while maintaining his efficiency, he could be putting up some big numbers.
The guy who needs to pick it up is Xavier Tillman. He has feasted against the bad teams, but really struggled in the three games against quality opponents.
In those three games Tillman is shooting 8-for-27 overall (.296) and 1-for-9 from three. He has taken a total of four free throws in those games, and has a 33.9 turnover rate. Those are not the numbers you want to see from your pre-season borderline All-American big man.
I have no doubt that Tillman will find his footing, but that is something they need to figure out. What exactly is his offensive game? It’s not Nick Ward post-up back to the basket, and it’s not Kenny Goins pick-and-pop, at least not yet.
He was great in the pick-and-roll, but until someone else establishes themselves as a pick-and-pop threat, teams are going to cheat on Tillman rolling off those high ball screens.
Again, this is something that should work itself out, and eventually the right lineup combos will emerge and this group should be just fine. But until then, it’s going to look a little out of sync at times. Combine that with one of the toughest early season schedules in school history, and it is going to be tough.
They will get there, and if they do put together a run in March, we will all just talk about how much this early season growing period helped them get there.