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MSU basketball - A Maui mishap, a few hot takes and some perspective

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Ugly loss for Tom Izzo’s boys raises a lot of questions

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational Preview
Yeah, that wasn’t fun, was it?
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Perspective is something that we all tend to forget in our everyday life. We complain about little things like the bus running late in the morning or the supermarket being out of our favorite beverage later. We complain about traffic, our co workers, the weather. Yet we often overlook the big picture which has our life looking like a fairytale to many others. We have food on the table, loved ones around us, a house to live in and enjoy fairly good health in most cases. Millions of people can‘t say that of themselves and they certainly could care less about some college basketball tournament named the Maui Jim Maui Invitational thousands of miles away. Luckily, we are in the position to care about it.

That this deserves atleast a tiny piece of gratefulness is something we should remind ourselves from time to time. Unfortunately, nobody knows that better than the Michigan State Spartans and their point guard Cassius Winston. His brother Zachary committed suicide on November 9th and left a void behind that many in the Spartans family feel daily and strongly. Given the fact that this painful memory is just a little over two weeks away, it is more than understandable if some members of the MSU basketball team didn‘t think of basketball recently like the usually would. Or if they didn‘t commit the usual time to practice like they usually would. I‘m sure their All American leader, their all world point guard, the heart and soul of their team, didn‘t. Others I‘m sure followed and rightfully so. The emotions he feels right now are way beyond any words we could find to describe them and we shouldn‘t even try. Not here, not now.

Nonetheless, there is a perspective to what happened on the court yesterday, even with the tragedy in the back of our minds. Michigan State lost to the Virginia Tech Hokies 66-71 and bowed out in the first round of a tournament they were favored to win or atleast compete for with the Kansas Jayhawks. Now 3-2 for the young season, MSU certainly looks far away from the national championship contender that they were praised as in the offseason. What has happened to the team many picked as a surefire Final Four contender?

Relax, it‘s a typical Izzo November/December loss

Some might say nothing. Yesterday‘s performance against a scrappy, well coached yet woefully undersized Hokies team was reminiscent of many out of conference performances by Tom Izzo teams in the last 25 years. Heck, even some in conference games have looked like that and let Spartan fans across the globe hit the panic button. Most of the time though, in the end, when it really counted in March, Izzo‘s teams have been right there. They regularly challenge for the Big Ten title and they regularly go on deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. Same thing this year, right? Well, it depends.

2019 Maui Invitational - Virginia Tech v Michigan State
Spartans looking confused, befuddled and shocked.
Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

The ultimate goal of this team has always been the national championship, they‘ve been saying that ever since last year‘s Final Four. They supposedly have the pieces and they certainly have the experience. The result yesterday did nothing to change that. The way this result happened though raises plenty of concerns about the long term potential of this team. Potential is meant in regard to really winning a national championship. Certain problems just seem here to stay and some problems are becoming a trend for this team. There are many more holes in the armor than they expected and the moutain to climb all of a sudden seems a lot higher than it was yesterday. Yes, this team will get better and yes, they will look different in March. Yesterday showed though that different alone isn‘t good enough anymore, they have to look a lot different.

Starting bigs having some sizable problems

For example this team can‘t have their starting bigs playing like they are 6-1 DIII guards. Thomas Kithier and Xavier Tillman were awful like many of their teammates yesterday but the biggest problem with their performance was how they could not impose their will on a frontline that started a 6-7 freshman small forward as their tallest player. Both Spartans missed wide open layups, fumbled passes all over the place and just could not get any kind of position inside. Now you might just write it off as some „Hula fatigue“ and not being focused in a place that looks as close to paradise as many people can imagine. But no, especially for Tillman it has become a trend on the young season that he just can‘t gain position in the post, can‘t finish against any kind of challenge or set himself up for a score (which was a problem against Texas Tech in the Final Four by the way, too). Both he and Kithier played scared inside yesterday and once again played underneath the rim instead of above. Paired with their lack of foot speed that also hurt them on the defensive end (even if Tillman once again had gaudy rebounding numbers and a tough matchup). For this team to take the next step, X has to become a force on offense, be it via the jumper, the post up offense or the pick and roll. The best scenario would be if he mixes all of them together, something he hasn‘t done yet at any point in the season.

The point guard dilemma

From the big people to the smaller people, the point guards. Cassius Winston is pretty much out of the picture right now in terms of critique or concerns but his backups leave a lot to be desired. Neither Foster Loyer or Rocket Watts can run the offense effectively right now. Loyer gets pressured immediately and everything stalls with him not being able to pass over bigger defenders. Watts is just totally out of sorts and throws just as many passes into the first row as he throws to his teammates. If MSU fans like it or not though, Watts‘ development is a huge key to this season ever since Josh Langford went down with his injury. Tom Izzo just does not have enough guards who can handle the ball and spell Winston. Loyer is struggling mightily again as a sophomore and you can tell that the minute he enters a game, the opponents‘ point guard immediately takes him off the dribble – usually with great success. This might also be the reason why Izzo lives with all the awful decisions of Watts on the offensive end, atleast he holds up on defense. Either way, the situation is far from ideal and could become a lingering issue throughout the year.

2019 Maui Invitational - Virginia Tech v Michigan State
Cassius Winston is struggling... understandably so.
Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

How about Marcus Bingham?

Some other lingering issue could be the position of Marcus Bingham. He has shown tremendous strides this year in terms of his development, played terrific against Kentucky and with his length and reach adds a completely new dimension to this team whenever he enters the game. With all the other 6-8 power forwards out there who struggle to really play to their size, Bingham could be a welcome addition. On defense he can protect the paint and on offense he is terrific in the high low game, just passing over everybody. 6-11 and 7-4 will do that, you just have to use it if you don‘t want to watch your other forwards struggle to pass over small guards time and time again. Bingham certainly is no savior and probably isn‘t ready for more than 15 minutes a night. These 15 minutes though could make a huge difference in March against a long, athletic frontline.

Get aggresssive, Aaron Henry

Long and athletic are two attributes Aaron Henry knows a thing or two about. He puts them on display here and there but not nearly often enough. This was the biggest silver lining of yesterday‘s loss. With VT taking the lead late and the Spartans scrambling, Henry finally woke up. Before that he did his usual stat sheet stuffing, played strong yet unspectacular defense and fell right in line with countless bonehead turnovers and overall uninspired play. Yet with MSU staring at the loss in the last five minutes or so, Henry for probably the first time ever in his Spartans career really took over. He drove to the basket at will, drawing fouls and finishing numerous layups. He hit two big threes and set up other players with his penetration. Even if it wasn‘t enough yesterday, the fact that Tom Izzo put the ball in his hands in desperate times and that Henry delivered is a gigantic positive for the Spartans. Henry has to be this aggressive all the time and be a lot more assertive than he is right now, otherwise this team will not realize its true potential. It is the same with Tillman. Both he and Henry were counted on to take big steps forward and become true stars. So far we haven‘t seen enough of it, in Tillman‘s case it might be physical limitations but for Henry it was always mental. Yesterday was a huge step in the right direction on a night where there weren‘t many of those by the Spartans (Julius Marble can claim a few of them, too.)

Looking ahead

Tom Izzo might look at yesterday‘s game as one of those „bury the tape“ games. Whatever you do, just never look at it again. It would certainly be bad for Henry‘s late game performance, which was definitely something to build on. It would also help if the Spartans realize that a lot of their problems are correctable, like hitting wide open threes or not fumbling easy passes out of bounds. Other things – like Kyle Ahrens‘ not being able to turn around on backcuts to save his life or the freshmen making freshman mistakes this year – might just be there for the entirety of the season. MSU has to find a way around it then, personally, individually or as a team. They also have to find their identity on both ends of the court and truly know what kind of team they want to be. One thing that would help is if Cassius Winston could become his old self, he would make the picture a lot clearer. It probably would erase numerous problems just like that.

When he will be his old self again remains to be seen though and in the grand scheme of things matters for much bigger reasons than basketball. There it is again... perspective...