The first tip off from the basketball season is still months away but you can be sure the Michigan State Spartans are making the best use of their summer and prepare hard for the upcoming campaign. It has the potential to be a special one as many media outlets rightfully have Tom Izzo’s squad at or near the top of their preseason rankings. Why not, the Spartans return the consensus National Player Of The Year favorite in Cassius Winston, two potential breakout players in Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry plus they also bring back numerous key pieces of last year’s Final Four team. Yet even while a lot is good in East Lansing, MSU is not an outfit without question marks – some interesting ones and some concerning ones. Let’s dive into five of them and shorten the dog days of the basketball summer a little bit.
Who will step up as the second starter in the frontcourt?
It’s probably the biggest question mark of this year’s MSU team. Four of the five starting spots seem to be edged in stone – Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman should all be locks. But there will be plenty of names who will fight for minutes at the four spot next to Tillman. This might be a good thing if you ask Thomas Kithier, one of the players looking to get more burn. “All the bigs know that there is a lot of playing time available with Kenny (Goins) and Nick (Ward) gone,” says the second year forward. “Everyone of us is coming in hungry and wants to compete.” Both Kithier and his fellow sophomore Marcus Bingham will probably get the first looks to accompany Tillman in the paint and from early reports they are both having a good offseason. Kithier already proved last year that he has a very unique skillset and thrives on doing the little things. That could be something that is extremely valuable playing next to the other big time starters and doing the dirty work might very well prove to be the one aspect that MSU needs most from this spot.
Bingham, who has gained 15 pounds over the summer (mostly strengthening his base and legs) and according to head coach Tom Izzo has “230 pounds in sight”, certainly is the player with a highest upside. Standing at 6-11, he has an enourmous wingspan, a soft touch from the outside and unrivaled length among his teammates. Bingham is a player that could add a completely new dimension for the Spartans (at both frontcourt spots) and him increasing his workload up to a strong 15 minutes per night could do wonders. But his lack of mass and strength limited him greatly during his freshman year so his way to more minutes certainly figures longer than for example Kithier’s.
Two of the incoming freshmen, Malik Hall and Julius Marble, are certainly wild cards for the fifth starting spot but both are clearly making a push for minutes. They arrived early on campus in mid May and have lived in the gym and the weight room ever since. MSU coaches and players have been impressed with Hall’s athletisism and versatility (which might also earn him time on the wing) plus Marble really has taken on the role of the rugged inside player. According to the elder statesman of the frontcourt, newly married Xavier Tillman, Marble reminds him of himself during his freshman campaign. “He plays extremely hard in practice, sets crazy screens and is just being a real tough guy out there rebounding and dunking everything,” says Tillman about the 6-8 Texas product.
Which sophomore will make the biggest jump from last year?
Last year’s freshman class didn’t exactly set the world on fire during their first year in East Lansing but there were certainly glimpses of future success and signs that better times are ahead. Thomas Kithier found a niche in the frontcourt midseason, Foster Loyer had his best game of the year in the B1G Tournament against Ohio State and Gabe Brown exploded in the Sweet Sixteen with 15 points against LSU. Tom Izzo made it known though that he wants more from these three, Marcus Bingham and even Aaron Henry entering their sophomore seasons. “All of these guys need to take a monster step for us,” the Hall Of Famer said during a summer press conference. “I’m confident in my leadership at the top and that guys like X or Josh can get the younger guys focused and dialed in.”
For most of them that work starts in the weight room as everyone except for Henry arrived with physical disadvantages last year. Loyer, Kithier, Bingham and Brown all need to add more strength and body mass to carve out roles, something they all seem to be doing judging from Moneyball Pro Am appearances and social media pictures. Considering the opportunity at the four and his already solid freshman showing (without having played for a year in high school due to his transfer issues), Thomas Kithier seems the most likely candidate for a big jump going into his second year. But with his now cemented status as a starter and his already proven success at the highest level Aaron Henry probably takes the cake.
Henry is one of the most versatile players Izzo has had in recent years and his well rounded game on both ends of the court was a big reason why MSU’s lineup meshed so well in 2018/2019. This year with added confidence and a huge experience advantage, Henry is a prime candidate to become a star for the Spartans. He has said that he will put an emphasis on being more aggressive and even rise up as a leader after he mostly concentrated on defensive assignments as a first year player. During last year’s NCAA Tournament he averaged 10.4 points (58.3% from the field, 40% from three), 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Expect that and maybe even more this season.
How will MSU compensate for the losses of Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins and Nick Ward?
While all three players who left after last season will certainly leave a void on and especially off the court, the Spartans are in prime position to make up for every single loss on their roster. Senior Matt McQuaid stepped up greatly in his last go around after fellow captain Josh Langford got lost for the season. But the latter should be healthy going into the upcoming year and give MSU everything McQuaid gave them and then some. Before his season ending injury, Langford was on pace for a career year with 15 points per game, an improved all around game and strong shooting numbers. His health could be an issue early on as he works his way back into form (he last played in December and just started to work out without restrictions). But by March Langford should atleast be able give what McQuaid gave – especially considering he should also get help from an improved Gabe Brown or freshman Rocket Watts at the shooting guard position.
In the frontcourt the process of replacing Nick Ward had already started last season with the emergence of Xavier Tillman during the time when Ward had to miss some late season action with a hand injury. Ward came back for the postseason but the missed time greatly limited his impact while Tillman took command inside the paint for good. Tillman isn’t close to the post player that Ward was (an aspect of his game he wants to work hard on in the offseason) but he can give the team a lot more in other areas of the game. His great defense, feel for the pick and roll on both ends, strong rebounding and well rounded skillset were huge keys for Michigan State‘s postseason run. He also has stepped up as a leader as basically every player on the roster has referred to him as a guy who was constantly helping them out in the offseason.
Finding one player to give him what Kenny Goins gave him might prove to be a challenge for Tom Izzo. So he will probably go with more of a commity to replace the former walk on’s senior contribution. Goins added four key ingredients to last year’s team – experience, timely outside shooting (though his overall shooting numbers weren‘t great), defense and rebounding. Goins’ experience and cheerful personality will be missed as will his post defense. But while he definitely did a lot of the little things for last season’s team, there are plenty of players on the current roster who can step up in his place and provide similar skillsets. Thomas Kithier is a guy who plays bigger than his size for example, Xavier Tillman is said to have greatly improved his outside shot and both Malik Hall and Julius Marble can knock down jumpers off a pick and pop. Assistant coach Dwayne Stephens made it one of the main points for the frontcourt group in the offseason to improve their shooting and that should bode well in Goins’ absence.
What kind of impact will the freshman class have?
Before the offseason most people assumed that Rocket Watts would be the freshman who will have the biggest impact for next year’s MSU team and rightfully so. Watts’ amazing scoring talent and elite shooting ability figured to translate rather quickly and he was primed for a prominent bench role with the potential for more minutes later in the year. While that might still be the case, the optimisim regarding Watts’ early contributions might have to cool down a little bit. He just started classes in East Lansing at the beginning of July after it took longer than expected to finish the required classwork from high school. He even had to pull out of the Under-19 USA Basketball Camp in the summer because of it. The weeks that he couldn’t work out with his new teammates, get acclimated in college and focus on improving his game will probably hurt him a little going forward. It might be especially tough for Watts’, who comes from a very loose high school system at SPIRE Academy and who could have some early struggles getting used to the more structured, more team oriented MSU style. With all that said though, his talent is undeniable and he can definitely add a unique element once he gets comfortable.
While it took Watts’ longer to arrive on campus, both Malik Hall and Julius Marble have made the most of their offseasons and got going early in mid May. They both have gotten rave reviews from their teammates and coaches and seem to be ahead of the curve physically, mentally and athletically. Especially Hall has impressed after a year of prep school prepared him well for the rigors of college basketball. “It definitely got me readier than I thought,” the combo forward says. “I still have a lot to learn and it is a lot of work but it hasn‘t been as crazy as I thought.” At Moneyball, Hall flashed better athletisism than expected and he has shown a very nimble perimeter game which should only enhance his chances of carving out a role as a “swiss army knife”. Marble on the other hand seems to have identified the role of the rugged, tough bruiser inside as his chance to earn minutes. He is physically mature, has thrown his body around in practice and adds a needed element to the team with his physical mentality. A mentality that his coaches should love from the get go.
Is the feeling „championship or bust“?
With the immensly successful 2018/2019 season (B1G regular season and Tournament champions, Final Four berth), the justified preseason hype and all the talent coming back it is not surprising that many people expect Michigan State to challenge for the national title. It certainly is what the MSU players expect from themselves as they put up a sign in their weight room that says “Get to Atlanta” - the site of the 2020 Final Four. The biggest key here is their inner fire which was fueled by last season’s Final Four loss to Texas Tech, a game in which many Spartans felt that they let one get away. Maybe nobody was feeling more motivated for another crack at the title than their superstar point guard Cassius Winston. “I want to win a championship on each and every level,” Winston said after the game against the Red Raiders. “When I leave my mark on Michigan State, I want to be known as a winner, and you can‘t do that without that last piece.”
That sentiment was echoed by many of his teammates who mostly judged the loss as part of a process on their way to the ultimate goal. This fire, this feeling can get you a long way but they will have to prove themselves again this year and earn their back to the top. The out of conference schedule looks even more daunting than usual with games against Kentucky, Duke and maybe Kansas on the calendar. There could be some early season struggles as Langford and Kyle Ahrens come back from injuries and Tom Izzo adjusts to his very deep roster and countless rotation opportunities. But the goal is set for MSU, there is no question about it and they themselves won‘t be satisfied with their road ending anywhere before Atlanta or without winning it all.