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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: A Confident Projection for the Rotation

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding the depth-chart:

All the way back in the first few days of August, I surmised that Michigan State will have “everything to play for” this coming season. At the time, I had the depth-chart looking like this:

1 - Rocket Watts, AJ Hoggard, Foster Loyer, Jack Hoiberg
2 - Joshua Langford, Gabe Brown
3 - Aaron Henry
4 - Joey Hauser, Malik Hall, Thomas Kithier
5 - Mady Sissoko, Julius Marble, Marcus Bingham Jr.

My thinking, and reading of the tea-leaves, had me assuming that Sissoko, with the most natural ability on defense and on the glass, and the requisite strength to battle the big centers in the B1G would end up as the starter (I also suggested that he should start the season as the starter, but guessed that he might not). I also predicted that Foster Loyer and probably Thomas Kithier would get boxed-out from the rotation by other guys on the team.

I was, and remain, quite sanguine about Joshua Langford’s likely role on the team, and place in the depth chart: if Josh is healthy, I argued, he will start and play 20-25 minutes per game. I was also bullish on Joey Hauser, and remain so: Hauser should be the most efficient and best offensive player on the team, and if he can demonstrate improvement on the glass and on the defensive end, then he may head for the NBA after only one season. My predictions and assumptions about Josh and Joey are key contentions of mine, and will continue to inform how I project the rotation will shake-out. But new information has trickled down from various interviews and the reporting of others who cover the Michigan State beat, which encourages me to slightly tweak my initial projections. Or, rather, to add in two scenarios for the rotation.

The first bit of information is that head coach Tom Izzo in a recent interview described Foster Loyer as looking much improved (Izzo described him as having had one of the best summers of guys on the team): “I do think that both Foster and Rocket will be OK there,” Izzo said. “I think we’re gonna be deeper at the wings if Josh can play. And that’ll help. … Foster Loyer improved a lot, I think. He made some great strides.”

Izzo also pointed out that he views both Hauser and Malik Hall as potential offensive and passing hubs for the team, that AJ Hoggard has already started to change his body some and may play more on the wing than at the point, initially. Mady Sissoko has also begun to add weight, and Izzo still views Kithier as a valuable guy for the team. None of this is particularly surprising to me, and yet all of this information and confirmation from Izzo is incredibly encouraging. The ideal situation for the staff is to have guys taking minutes due to their strong play and excellent work in practice and their preparation, attention to detail, and film-study, rather than getting minutes because others are failing to live up to standards.

But to some degree the rotation will be trimmed—inevitably Izzo and the staff will decide that one or another player merits more consistent minutes, while remaining confident that if any one or two players have to deal with injuries (hopefully not) or foul trouble (inevitable) that whoever steps in to fill those minutes will be more than capable. This team is going to be almost shockingly deep—a kind of depth in talent and experience, as well as skill, that Izzo has not had since the 2008-09 Final Four squad.

The “swing-questions” for the rotation, then, should include:

  1. How much of an improvement in his physique, athleticism, and confidence has Foster Loyer experienced? This will determine how much Watts and Hoggard play at the point and how much of the offense Izzo will run through Henry, Hauser, and Hall, when either or both of his other options at the point are not on the floor.
  2. How effective will Josh Langford be? This is really two questions: firstly, will Josh’s body continue to hold up? Izzo has proclaimed that he is in a FAR better situation, physically, than he was at this point last year before sustaining his foot-fracture. And, secondly, will Josh have any issues recovering his form and confidence on the court? After not having played in a game for two years, will Josh still have his terrific shooting touch? Will he struggle with the pace of play on either end, etc.
  3. How will the center rotation shake-out? And will Thomas Kithier play any minutes at the center, or will he exclusively play at the forward spot?
  4. Will AJ Hoggard be ready for significant reserve minutes either at the point guard, or, more importantly, on the wing?
  5. Relatedly, will Thomas Kithier feature in the rotation? Hoggard’s ability to play minutes right away, and Gabe Brown and Malik Hall’s positional versatility will, in all likelihood, determine whether or not Thomas Kithier has a consistent place in the rotation, or not. If Hall and Brown can play on the wing together, in particular, then Thomas Kithier has a far easier path to consistent minutes.
  6. Will Malik Hall play on the wing at all, or exclusively at the power-forward spot?
  7. And, relatedly, will Joey Hauser prove himself capable enough on the glass and on defense to play minutes at the center? If he can, then Michigan State’s most potent offensive line-ups become available.

With these questions in mind, I will present two scenarios for how I think the rotation should unfold in each game (more or less), and I will conclude by reiterating some basic principles that should guide the coaching staff in constructing their rotation even if they differ on some of the particulars.

Rotation No. 1: Foster Loyer as the back-up point-guard

If Foster Loyer finally finds himself and his game, then he will have the inside edge in the battle for the reserve point-guard minutes over AJ Hoggard. Loyer will be a third-year player in Izzo’s system, and, in this scenario, he will have proved himself to be up to the task of defending his opposite number and providing scoring punch while setting up his teammates.

To accomplish this, Foster will need to have had a heck of a summer in terms of his physical development — he ended last season needing to get stronger, quicker, and more explosive. If he has done that, even without a growth spurt adding some height, he will be better-able to stay in front of his man and deny dribble penetration, while suffering from physical ball-handlers and on-ball defense to a lesser degree.

If he achieves this kind of physical improvement (hitting the weight-room HARD, especially for his lower body, getting on the agility ladder, and improving his explosion through box-jumps, etc.), then the offense should fall into place seamlessly—it is really difficult to be confident in your offensive skills in any sport if you feel that you are athletically over-matched. Foster taking the reigns of the offense, or serving as a deadly weapon as an off-ball shooter (the staff needs to dig up their old Drew Neitzel film), for stretches of each half will mean that Watts can play more off-ball, and will provide yet another offensive initiator for the staff to work with.

Furthermore, let’s also assume that Bingham Jr., another guy that Izzo has been pleased with this summer, takes the starting job at the center position, with Mady Sissoko and Julius Marble filling in the bench minutes. Let’s also assume that AJ Hoggard can and will play a role on the wing, at least, off the bench. I still assume that Josh Langford will be able to start and play major minutes, but, for now, I will not entertain Hall and Hauser’s ability to play their respective flex-positions (on the wing, and at the center, respectively).

Such a set of developments would shift the depth-chart to look something more like this:

1 - Rocket Watts, Foster Loyer, Jack Hoiberg
2 - Joshua Langford, AJ Hoggard
3 - Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown
4 - Joey Hauser, Malik Hall, Thomas Kithier
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr., Mady Sissoko, Julius Marble

Assuming that the two freshmen earn their spurs, then the front-court minutes would become more limited (regardless of Hall and Hauser’s positional versatility). So what should the rotation look like in this scenario?

Starters: Watts, Langford, Henry, Hauser, Bingham Jr.

This unit should see Watts, Henry, and Hauser all serve as offensive initiators and hubs of the offense. Bingham would serve primarily as a screener, “dunker-spot” finisher, and offensive rebounder, and Langford would operate primarily off of screens off-ball, spacing on the weak-side corner, or getting early touches in the “Pistol” delayed-break, which I described in more detail in my discussion of what to expect from Rocket Watts this year.

I would expect Henry and Langford to be early focal points of the offense for each game, with Watts beginning in more of a facilitation role. Getting Josh and Aaron off to aggressive and confident starts will pay dividends later in the game, and encourage them to take ownership of the team’s early possessions — an important element for the two most-veteran offensive players on the team.

First substitution [under-16-minute media timeout]: Foster Loyer and Mady Sissoko enter for Josh Langford and Marcus Bingham Jr. Leaving a lineup of Loyer, Watts, Henry, Hauser, Sissoko.

Getting Langford some early touches and shots will be important because, in all likelihood, Josh will tire more easily, particularly early in the season, and will likely be more prone to picking up early fouls as he readjusts to the speed of play of games. We can also remain confident that despite some progress, Bingham will likely only be capable of playing in shorter bursts — likely three to four minutes at a time.

Bringing Loyer and Sissoko in together for the two guys most likely to need an earlier sub will do two things: firstly, it will allow Watts and Hauser to take on featured roles in the offense with both guys now getting the freedom to play their two-man game, which I also detail in the Watts piece, and neither feeling pressure to force-feed Henry who, along with Langford will have gotten plenty of touches in the first handful of possessions. Secondly, bringing in Mady Sissoko to pair with Foster Loyer will ensure that when Michigan State has its weakest defensive player (Loyer) on the court, it will still have an excellent “true” center helping to defend the rim with physicality, length, and activity.

Henry, at this point, will be able to take on offensive initiation duties (along with Loyer), and I expect to see plenty of Izzo’s famous “Horns” variations. Pairing Loyer with two bigger front-court players will also give him plenty of opportunities to work around screens off-ball— Izzo ran the “Elevator” set a number of times for Cassius Winston last year, and I expect to see it run for Loyer (as well as for Langford) this coming season. I also expect to see Loyer coming off of staggered screens (an old Neitzel classic) and spacing the floor in weak-side corner. Keeping Watts and Henry on the floor together, along with Sissoko, also ensures that Michigan State will have three high-level defenders on the court (possibly four if Hauser proves to be a plus-defender, as well).

Second substitution [under-12-minute media timeout]: Gabe Brown and Malik Hall enter the game for Rocket Watts and Joey Hauser. Depending on how Loyer, Henry, and Sissoko have fared in the preceding four minutes (execution, defense, rebounding, shooting, fatigue, and fouls being the essential metrics), this might also be an opportunity for Julius Marble, Thomas Kithier, or AJ Hoggard to enter the game, but for now, I suggest that the lineup should be: Loyer, Henry, Brown, Hall, Sissoko, at this point.

This line-up gets a jolt of energy from Brown and Hall, two guys I view as essential spark-plugs off the bench to catalyze the team’s energy and performance part-way through each half — a proposal I discussed in a recent article on the dynamic duo.

This lineup would still feature three offensive initiators and passing hubs in Loyer, Henry, and Hall, while getting a jolt of athleticism, length, and defensive versatility. Both Brown and Hall are heady veterans with shooting, slashing, rebounding, transition, and defensive capabilities that should cause opposing teams’ bench-units considerable problems. I would expect a lot of offense to be generated through stops, rebounds, and transition with this group on the floor.

Third substitution [under-eight-minute media timeout]: Josh Langford, AJ Hoggard, and Julius Marble or Thomas Kithier enter for Foster Loyer, Aaron Henry, and Mady Sissoko. Depending on the fatigue and foul situations any or all of these substitutions might be made a bit earlier, but in an ideal world, this is where I would insert these guys. This would give the team a lineup of: Hoggard, Langford, Brown, Hall, and Marble/Kithier.

While a bit smaller in the front-court, the back-court would instantly get bigger and stronger. This lineup would see Hoggard, Langford, Hall, and potentially Kithier if he earns these minutes as the initiators and passing hubs for the team. This would be a great lineup to run Izzo’s old staple of the “weave-offense,” which would allow Josh, Gabe, and, particularly, AJ to get into the paint and create scoring opportunities for themselves or others. This would also be another great lineup for “Horns” variations and for two-man games with Josh, AJ, and either of the front-court players; with Gabe and the other two players running pin-downs on the weak-side.

I would also expect a TON of simple pin-down actions for Gabe and Josh with this line-up allowing both guys to get good looks at jump-shots. I do think that Hoggard’s ability to get into the paint with his physicality, will stir the drink for the team when he is on the court, and if Izzo can develop some trust in Hoggard’s ability to simply make plays for others he will have tons of opportunities for kick-outs to Gabe, Josh, and Malik, or to drop-offs to the big, or cuts from the wings.

Fourth, and final, substitution [under-four-minute media timeout]: To close each half I hope that Izzo will be able to play “small-ball.” This depends on Joey Hauser’s abilities as a rebounder and as a defender. If Hauser can hold up as the center, then Izzo will be able to sub in either or both of Rocket Watts and Aaron Henry for AJ Hoggard and, possibly, Josh Langford, Gabe Brown, or Malik Hall; this substitution would also see Joey Hauser enter for whoever is playing center at the under-four timeout.

If Michigan State can and does play small, then some five-man unit out of Rocket Watts, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, and Joey Hauser will be on the floor. My sense is that Izzo will roll with Watts, Langford, Henry, and Hauser, and choose between Brown and Hall depending on fatigue, fouls, performance, and match-ups. In any case, Michigan State would have four or five excellent defenders on the court, five shooters, five ball-handlers, and four or five excellent passers and shot creators. This kind of lineup would be absolutely devastating on the offensive end, and similarly stifling on defense.

If, in fact, Hauser proves himself to be a forward through-and-through, and not a good fit for playing the center, then Izzo and the staff (really Dwayne “DJ” Stephens, who runs the sub patterns as the associate head-coach) will have the option of returning to whichever big man has earned the right to close the half over the balance of the half, or if one guy has yet to play, then they could turn to the last big in the team to provide a jolt of energy or rebounding, or to execute certain plays. In either case, the offensive and defensive options remain incredible, and I expect Michigan State to finish halves even better than it has in recent seasons because of the depth of the team and therefore the likely freshness of the starters.

Minutes distribution:

In my earlier piece, I gave a rough estimation of the shot allocation for the team and general statistical projections for each player (all of which may have been on the slightly rosier side of things, but only time will tell on that score). But if we follow the rough substitution pattern outlined above, what would the minutes distribution look like? For these purposes, I divide the “either-or” minutes evenly between the two players discussed (Brown/Hall to close halves, and Kithier/Marble during the penultimate four minutes of each half; I gave ranges for some of the guys, which indicates the lack of clarity on the depth chart).

Aaron Henry: 32 minutes/game

Joshua Langford: 24 minutes/game

Joey Hauser: 24 minutes/game

Rocket Watts: 24 minutes/game

Gabe Brown: 20 minutes/game

Malik Hall: 20 minutes/game

Marcus Bingham jr: 8-16 minutes/game

Mady Sissoko: 8-16 minutes/game

Foster Loyer: 8-16 minutes/game

AJ Hoggard: 8-16 minutes/game

Julius Marble: 4-12 minutes/game

Thomas Kithier: 4-12 minutes/game

I feel pretty confident that the top-six players in the rotation — Henry, Langford, Hauser, Watts, Brown, and Hall—will get at least as many minutes, on average, as I have listed for them here (assuming health). But those four combine to account for 144/200 total minutes available, which leaves Bingham, Sissoko, Loyer, Hoggard, Marble, and Kithier to contend for the remaining 56 minutes. If those minutes are divided evenly, it would give each guy a little over nine minutes per game, which is not totally out of the realm of reason. I still maintain that one or two of the “second-six” will end up dropping from the rotation this season.

In my second attempt at predicting the rotation I only drop one player wholly from the rotation: Foster Loyer, whose physical limitations heading into this off-season left him with the biggest hill to climb, in my view, in order to secure consistent minutes.

Rotation No. 2: Loyer out of the rotation

A world in which Foster Loyer does not quite put everything together would be a sad world for Spartans fans. Loyer was an incredible high school player in the state, and is clearly a talented basketball player and great person. But sometimes the world and fates conspire against people — Josh Langford can attest to this directly, after having battled injuries the last two years. If Foster simply cannot overcome his smaller stature and slighter frame, then Izzo will be forced to turn to AJ Hoggard as his back-up point guard sooner rather than later.

But such a scenario is not necessarily a disaster for the team: Hoggard is a terrific young player in his own right, and sliding him down a position on the depth-chart, could, potentially, open up more opportunities in the front-court if Malik Hall and Gabe Brown can similarly slide down a position. If all three players prove capable of playing the one, two, and three, then Kithier, Marble, Sissoko, and Bingham all have a much clearer path towards more minutes. I hope that Loyer does stick in the rotation — I would love nothing more than to see him become the player Spartans fans hoped he would coming out of high school, drilling daggers, and poking his proverbial finger into the eye of every doubter and hater. But what will the depth-chart and rotation look like if he cannot quite achieve such catharsis?

The depth chart would look something like this:

1 - Rocket Watts, AJ Hoggard, Foster Loyer, Jack Hoiberg
2 - Joshua Langford, Gabe Brown
3 - Aaron Henry, Malik Hall
4 - Joey Hauser, Thomas Kithier
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr., Julius Marble, Mady Sissoko

This depth-chart would prove much more appealing if Bingham and Kithier can solidify their respective shooting and become legitimate threats as three-point shooters. I adjust the center position ordering for reasons I will make clear when I lay-out the rotation. Let’s say that this all does happen, to some degree, how would the rotation develop, ideally, in this context?

Starters: Watts, Langford, Henry, Hauser, Bingham Jr.

Assume, for argument’s sake, that Bingham also wins the starting nod in this scenario — he did start 16 games last year after all. In this scenario, I would tell a similar story regarding how I would suggest Izzo and the staff begin each game: get Langford and Henry involved early and often. I would advocate featuring both guys early in the game regardless of how the rest of the rotation and minutes distribution plays out, assuming both are healthy and playing at their normal levels.

First substitution [under-16-minute media timeout]: AJ Hoggard and Julius Marble enter for Josh Langford and Marcus Bingham Jr. Leaving a lineup of Hoggard, Watts, Henry, Hauser, Marble.

This group could, again, focus its offensive energies on Watts and Hauser and their likely highly-effective two-man game. Hoggard and Henry could initiate and facilitate offense, push the ball in transition, bully smaller players in the paint, and also work off of pin-downs set by Marble (a clearly excellent screen-setter). This would be a terrifying defensive lineup with no real weak-points to attack, and a powerful defensive presence as an anchor in Marble, who, despite not having tremendous shot-blocking numbers, posted the third-highest defensive rebounding percentage on the team last year. Marble’s strengths and experience dovetail nicely with Joey Hauser and ensure that Michigan State does not have two new-to-the-system defenders on the court, which would be the case if Sissoko were the first big off the bench (as I have in the first scenario — a possible weakness of that projection).

Second substitution [under-12-minute media timeout]: Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, Thomas Kithier, and Mady Sissoko enter the game for Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry, Joey Hauser, and Julius Marble. Leaving a lineup of Hoggard, Brown, Hall, Kithier, and Sissoko.

While this nearly complete line-change substitution would render a lineup that would violate one of my Cardinal Rules for the MSU rotation (see below), I would accept this emendation as permissible, given the proviso that Thomas Kithier has expanded his game this summer. With a more impactful-on-offense Kithier, this lineup would still have three initiators or offensive hubs in Hoggard, Hall, and Kithier, it would also still have four shooters on the floor, and three rock-solid veterans to play alongside the two freshmen, and it would provide a better rim-protector for Thomas Kithier and AJ Hoggard — the two defenders with the most foot-speed questions — in Mady Sissoko.

The timing of when Sissoko enters the game is also important, in my view: NCAA referees, and B1G refs, in particular, target freshmen, and are often more whistle-happy at the beginning of halves (there is some empirical evidence of this to go along with the eye-test and anecdotal experience of watching nearly 1,000 Michigan State basketball games over the last 25 years). So shielding Mady, in particular, from that penchant of referees would be a prudent policy for the staff.

With this lineup, Brown and Hall would be featured offensive players, an exciting opportunity for both guys to really take over games and to really spark the offense for the team as well as providing their typically superb defense.

Third substitution [under-eight-minute media timeout]: Rocket Watts and Josh Langford enter for AJ Hoggard and Thomas Kithier. Depending on the fatigue and foul situation for Mady Sissoko, Izzo could also keep Kithier in the game as the center, or go back to either Bingham or Julius Marble. This would give the team a lineup of: Watts, Langford, Brown, Hall, and Sissoko.

Whoa, Nelly: that is a lot of offensive punch. Watts, Langford, and Hall could serve as the offensive initiators and passing hubs, and having four shooters on the court would ensure maximal spacing.

Fourth, and final, substitution [under-four-minute media timeout]:

To close the halves, as in the other rotation projection, the Spartans would ideally be able to play small with Aaron Henry and Joey Hauser checking back into the game for Mady Sissoko and one of Brown or Hall, depending on match-ups. In the absence of the ability to play small, Marcus Bingham, Julius Marble, or Thomas Kithier could also check back into the game giving Michigan State a bigger lineup and more rebounding.

Minutes distribution:

In this rotation projection, Henry would likely play fewer minutes, but Watts would likely play more minutes given Loyer’s absence from the rotation, and the minutes distribution would be far more even, overall, than the first projection (I again split the minutes for Hall/Brown in the last four minutes of each half).

Rocket Watts: 32 minutes/game

Aaron Henry: 24 minutes/game

Joshua Langford: 24 minutes/game

Joey Hauser: 24 minutes/game

Gabe Brown: 20 minutes/game

Malik Hall: 20 minutes/game

AJ Hoggard: 16 minutes/game

Marcus Bingham Jr: 10 minutes/game

Mady Sissoko: 10 minutes/game

Julius Marble: 10 minutes/game

Thomas Kithier: 10 minutes/game

In this scenario, the top-seven players (including Hoggard) account for all but 40 minutes, and it is pretty reasonable to conclude that we might simply see something like a four-man rotation each half at the center, with Hauser and Hall taking all of the minutes at the forward position. Even in this kind of scenario, I still think it would be more likely that one of Marble and Kithier would, essentially, be knocked out of the rotation in favor of continuity and due to the better performance by either player.

Cardinal Rules of the Spartan Rotation for the ‘20-’21 season:

  • Foster Loyer always plays with one of the true rim-protecting centers — either Marcus Bingham Jr. or Mady Sissoko.
  • Three of the core group of players should always be on the court at any given time (assuming health): Rocket Watts, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, and Joey Hauser. The proviso being that if Marble or Kithier or Bingham have taken a major step forward (or either of the freshmen for that matter), then they could be added to the group, making it a “core” group of seven players. My bets would be on either or both of Hoggard and Sissoko joining that group.
  • If Michigan State can play small, it should as much as is reasonable; with a corollary being that this should actually widen the rotation in the front-court. Kithier and Marble should get minutes in the front-court if Hall can play on the wing and Hauser can play at center. Such a scenario should, in my view, lead to a more democratic approach to front-court minutes than might be initially assumed.
  • Non-negotiable: Always keep four shooters, or guys capable of hitting three-point shots, on the court; this means that the team should not have any two of Kithier, Marble, and Sissoko on the court at any time, unless extreme situations require it, or unless one or more of them demonstrate a consistent ability to hit three-point shots.

Recap and Review:

Neither scenario is “bad,” and, in fact, both scenarios are good! This Michigan State Spartans roster and rotation, however it shakes-out, is going to be damn-good. If LOyer earns the right to stick in the rotation, that is an unequivocal good thing: it means his defense has improved tremendously, and that his offensive talent — especially his shooting— is really shining through after a rocky first couple of seasons in green and white.

If Loyer cannot stick, then it means the rotation gets trimmed because Izzo does not feel compelled to play him. In other words, Langford and Hoggard are playing well, are healthy, and it would mean that Rocket is doing very well at the point.

For what it is worth, I tend to believe Tom Izzo when he evaluates his players and provides updates on how they are progressing. With that in mind, I am increasingly confident that Foster Loyer will have some sort of role in the rotation, a fact that may come at the expense of someone in the front-court. Is it possible that we see a mid-career red-shirt from one of the front-court players? I had surmised as much over the summer, but I do not think that anyone will decide on that until the games have begun. If through the first few weeks of practice one of the front-court players is clearly on the outside looking-in, we may very well see that person take a red-shirt, which would, essentially, solve the minutes crunch. However it turns out, this team has everything it needs to dominate the non-conference season, conference season, and post-season play. I still view MSU as a top-five team nationally, and think the Spartans are a co-favorite to win the national title.