Every year the Michigan State Spartans basketball teams enters the season with a bevy of questions to answer. Some years there are more, some years there are less. For example you always wonder how the freshmen will look in their first college season or how other players have developed individually over the summer. Other question marks are more specific and deal with broader potential problems the team as a whole might have. This year one of the biggest worries for the coaches and fans has to be the point guard position and how MSU will deal not only with the loss of Cassius Winston but also without a true point guard being able to take over for him.
Tom Izzo has forever been a coach who absolutely relies on having a true floor general at the point guard position or at least someone who he can fully trust to run his offense. This might be well regarded by most college coaches but it is not stretch to say that Izzo puts a little more emphasis on the position that he usually wants to fill with a true “quarterback.” The Spartans‘ offensive system is very complex, it relies heavily on set plays and puts huge value on precision while running them. Watching a natural point guard like Cassius Winston direct the offense in the last couple of years was a true treat for every basketball fan, let alone someone who follows MSU hoops. Even if Winston got a little too focused on the pick and roll at times he almost never lost control of the tempo, flow or for that matter the game itself. This was of tremendous value to the Spartans and was the building block for everything that they‘ve accomplished in recent years. It helped individual players outplay their talent, created space and opportunities for everyone on the court plus it put tremendous pressure on the opponent‘s defense whenever the ball crossed mid-court.
Plenty of work for Rocket Watts
Now that Winston is gone though the burden of directing the offense and running Izzo‘s system falls on Rocket Watts with a little bit of help from Foster Loyer, freshman A.J. Hoggard and potentially some other players who operate as point forwards like Aaron Henry or Joey Hauser. No matter what Izzo has up his sleeve, it all starts with Watts. While a tremendous individual talent and scorer he is definitely not a true point guard in the traditional sense. The combo guard has all the physical tools you would want but in terms of the mental makeup he hasn‘t really shown the leadership qualities, the poise and the vision the position usually requires. That‘s doesn‘t have to be a problem per se, but it sure will lead to some growing pains. The relationship between Izzo and Watts will be tested at the beginning of the year when both enter into a new situation for them individually and collectively.
While it might be a strain for him mentally to operate the offense, Watts won‘t have any problem attacking on the fast break, a stable of Izzo‘s teams for many years. He should also thrive in late clock situations or if a set play breaks down. That‘s when Izzo usually puts the ball in his best player‘s hands and looks for him to create something out of nothing. Watts being an absolute dynamo in the one on one and having probably some of the best handles in America will enable him to take and make a lot of dramatic shots and he himself can carry an offense for long stretches all by himself. He has to prove though that he can at least run the offense smoothly and involve every around him. The Spartans attack relies on sharing the ball a ton and if his freshman year is any indication then Watts could struggle with that a little bit. He took 26.9 percent of the available shots last year according to KenPom, a number that was only topped by Winston and was above those of more accomplished players like Xavier Tillman or Aaron Henry. Watts‘ confidence is one of his biggest strengths and the coaches will have to join him on a small tight rope that has him running the team while also providing frontline scoring. It‘s not going to be easy.
Whenever Watts needs a break or slides over to the off guard position Foster Loyer figures to be the primary backup at the beginning of the year. Izzo has often experimented with two smaller guards in the backcourt and Watts being a tremendous defensive player should give him that option next year as well, even if it might be a bit too much to ask from Rocket to master two positions and two different roles just yet. Izzo has praised Loyer a lot over the course of the last couple of months and the smallish junior guard was even voted a captain by his teammates. While all of that should provide some confidence for him and the fanbase, in the long run it means nothing unless Loyer backs the trust up out on the court. Izzo is notorious for talking up his players over the summer and it remains to be seen if Loyer really took a step forward. At the very least he should be OK with being a reliable backup for two shorts stints every half, something that wasn‘t always the case in his first two years. His shooting numbers last season were much better and if he worked on his body a bit then he might have a bigger impact.
Does Izzo have some wild card up his sleeve?
The third playmaker on the team is A.J. Hoggard who arrived in East Lansing a little bit overweight from what you hear. At least the coaches already made him shed 10 pounds over the summer. At 6-foot-3 and about 220 pounds, he definitely can play the shooting guard position but his more natural fit should be at the point. In high school he showed tremendous natural point guard instincts and it will be interesting if these not only translate to the next level but if the coaches will give him the opportunities to run the team early on as a freshman. His size could be an advantage for him too as he will be more equipped to handle physical defenders yet in the long run of course he has to get in a bit better shape.
Like Hoggard the idea of playing a point forward is kind of a wild card. Joey Hauser has been praised plenty by Tom Izzo for his passing, he has shown great vision at all levels he played at and MSU has used big man as facilitators in the past. While Hauser will be able to distribute and have his moments I don‘t think you can rely on that option as a full-time strategy. It will be a great asset to have, but overall you would want someone in the backcourt to operate the offense and run the offense most of the time.
It might be a job for Aaron Henry even though he had a rather disappointing sophomore season. Not that he played terrible or anything, but considering his hype preceding his second college campaign he left a lot to be desired. Now he was a true leader and floor general in high school for a strong Ben Davis team in Indiana and from his overall game he sure has the talent to take over an offense. He is a great passer, can penetrate with the best of them when he‘s aggressive and he has the ability to rake over as a scorer. The huge question mark is his attitude and his demeanor. In his first years at MSU he was way too often complacent with playing second fiddle to more accomplished players. Him also being a captain this season and most likely looking to enter the NBA Draft for good next year could light a fire under him as could the departure of well respected leaders like Winston or Xavier Tillman. They leave a void and maybe Henry realizes that he has all the tools to fill it.
It will definitely be an interesting first couple of weeks at the beginning of the season, for various reasons of course in a year of a global pandemic, but definitely because of MSU‘s point guard situation. If Izzo, the coaches and the players don‘t get this thing right it could have a huge trickle down effect on the entire roster. If they find the right answers though watch out...