Remember the days when the Michigan State Spartans dressed a frontcourt consisting of a freshman Nick Ward, a pre senior year jump Kenny Goins and whatever minutes a first year Miles Bridges played at the four? Yes, the year where Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter had season-ending injuries and Kyle Ahrens was asked to bulk up as an emergency? Remember? No? Good, I don‘t either.
Ever since that 2016-2017 season head coach Tom Izzo made sure that he wouldn‘t run into any shortage of big men on the roster ever again, just like it shouldn‘t happen at a place like MSU. The upcoming season marks maybe one of the pinnacles in that development as the Spartans probably feature their second deepest frontcourt rotation in years. The 2017-2018 lineup of Jaren Jackson Jr., Nick Ward, a freshman Xavier Tillman plus the aforementioned Schilling and Carter probably takes the cake in that regard but even though this year‘s lineup won‘t be as talented, it sure isn‘t far behind in terms of bodies, different skillsets or various lineup opportunities for Tom Izzo.
Joey Hauser will be the centerpiece for MSU
The key to any of these rotations will be redshirt junior Joey Hauser. Spartans fans have been giddy for a long time now to see the Marquette transfer out on the court and watch him show off his tremendous basketball skillset. Hauser already was a decent scorer for the Golden Eagles, even though he was only the third option on a team featuring his older brother Sam and the high volume shooter Markus Howard. At MSU there will be times when Hauser will be the clear cut first option on offense, not only scoring but also distributing the ball. He is a great passer, can operate in the high post and do damage from outside the arc.
His versatility will sit very well with the more traditional inside players on the team as he can stretch the floor for them. His deep shooting prowess (over 42 percent at Marquette) will be a key to Michigan State‘s spacing and it will create the much needed room not only for post players to operate but also for slashers like Rocket Watts, Aaron Henry or Gabe Brown to attack the basket. If needed and if the Spartans want to go small Hauser should have no problem switching to the center position but it might only be an option against certain matchups. He will have his hands full early to prove that he can be the type of defender MSU wants him to be, but from everything he and his coaches have said during the summer, he is doing well in that area.
Defending will be one of the prime jobs for Michigan State’s centers next year as the most likely starting lineup of Watts, Henry, Joshua Langford and Hauser already possesses plenty of scoring and playmaking ability. What they need from the pivot is hard nosed defense, rim protection, good screens, rim running and also a finishing ability inside whenever the bevy of good passers on the perimeter find their teammates underneath. Junior Marcus Bingham at times excelled in all these areas as a sophomore, but also struggled in numerous regards on many occasions. His inconsistency and his obvious lack of weight reduced him to a lesser role last year and it will be interesting if he can take a step forward in these two areas. He could certainly be the type of player who fits well with the rest of the starting lineup, especially since he doesn‘t need the ball on offense at all to be effective. His shot blocking ability sits well with the boatload of strong perimeter defenders MSU has and it would allow them to be even more aggressive against the ball. His incredibly length paired with decent movement skills is a feature that not many players in the entire nation can match and if he does well he could give the Spartans a different level and outlook all by himself.
Long centers and skilled power forwards
Most of the things said about Bingham should also be true for true freshman Mady Sissoko, Michigan State‘s newest frontcourt addition from Wasatch Academy in Utah. The big man from Mali is still considered fairly raw as an offensive player but already features plus size, strength and athletic ability. The physical specimen is a fearless and aggressive player and is said to have continued his high school habit of dunking everything remotely close to the rim at MSU. Depending on his earliest results in the Spartans weight room Sissoko might begin the year as Izzo‘s strongest and most-physically menacing player. You can expect plenty of learning lessons for him though as his organized basketball experience doesn‘t go back very far. This should enable him to have a higher learning curve, too, and his work ethic alone should give him the opportunity to fight for minutes from the get go.
A teammate who can probably give him a bit of help on how to scrape out some playing time from the end of the bench is Julius Marble. He was buried on the depth chart last season but whenever he found his way onto the court he never failed to make an impression. Physically and athletically he was much further along than many people expected and he never looked out of place against Big Ten competition. His lunchpail, junkyard dog mentality will continue to earn him bonus points with the coaches, but the physical power forward from Texas has much more to give than just hard nosed work on the glass. His outside jumper is said to be legit, he has shown some nice post moves already in game action and overall it seems like he brings everything to the table that you look for in a well-rounded college inside player. Though it will be hard for him to gain playing time over some more heralded and more unique talents on the roster, people shouldn‘t be shocked if at some point in his career Julius Marble doesn‘t develop into a big surprise and someone who clearly outperforms his recruiting merits.
Plenty of interesting options for Tom Izzo and his staff
One of the players who will directly compete with Marble for minutes will be junior Thomas Kithier. He was part of the starting five at the beginning of last season, but quickly lost that job due to inconsistent play, continuous foul trouble and an ensuing lack of confidence. Kithier is the least athletic of all the big men and it clearly works to his disadvantage at times. He still should have an impact on the frontcourt rotation as he does some things especially well. Kithier for example has a unique knack for being in the right spot at the right time to finish off plays. He runs the floor very well and has a very high basketball IQ, something that usually translates well into any kind of lineup. With more longer and more athletic players on the roster in general it might also be easier for Tom Izzo to live with Kithier‘s lack of explosiveness, especially against certain matchups.
One player who won‘t lack athletic ability is Malik Hall. He is entering his sophomore season for the Spartans and could be one of the X-factors for the entire team. Toward the end of his freshman year he pushed himself into the starting lineup and seemed to come on strong before the rest of the season was cancelled. Hall is definitely the most unique of MSU‘s frontcourt pieces as he is a true “tweener” who played a lot of small forward in high school. His overall skillset doesn‘t leave much to be desired as he can score in a variety of ways, is a strong finisher, possesses tremendous basketball skills all around and on top of that also doesn‘t shy away from contact, defense or physical play. The coaches will be hard pressed to find minutes for Hall considering he excels in plenty of areas that Joey Hauser might also be efficient in and on first look both don‘t look like a perfect match next to each other due to lack of length or size. On offense though those two could be a nightmare to deal with as they would almost be interchangeable as the inside or outside player in the Spartans’ system. The floor spacing would be incredible and especially bigger, slower opponents could have immense problems of keeping up with this combination. Bottom line is that Malik Hall is probably too good to keep on the bench for long.
Overall the Spartans frontcourt players present Tom Izzo with almost unlimited opportunities of attacking the opposition, and it also seems as if MSU should be able to match the majority of the biggest or most athletic frontcourts in the nation. At the very least, the Spartans should not be at a clear cut disadvantage from the get go in any matchup. Sissoko and Bingham can offer tremendous length if needed, yet Izzo can also go extremely small with guys like Hauser or Hall at the five. Marble and Sissoko could be a menacing tandem to deal with on the glass, Hauser and Kithier could be a spectacular passing combination and Hall basically makes any lineup interesting because of his various skills. Izzo can at all times keep guys fresh throughout the entire game and it will help the Spartans fast break a great deal. Foul trouble should never be a problem and there won‘t be any occurrences when players have to save their energy. A slight concern might be that Izzo will have a hard time setting a rotation and with plenty of players looking at expanded and newer roles this year it could lead to a lot of inconsistency and maybe some issues of confidence.
In the end though you have to trust the head man to figure it out. In the end he usually does. Izzo also did in 2016-2017 and took that team to the tournament, as he always does.