Oh how quickly times can change…
The current college basketball season started less than four months ago with the Michigan State Spartans ranked as the preseason number one team in the entire country. Following a Final Four appearance in April many people expected the talented group led by All American and National player of the year candidate Cassius Winston to compete for the national title.
Today, after 27 games, the situation certainly looks a lot different and if you‘re honest, even thinking about a national championship seems illusory from MSU‘s perspective. Players haven‘t developed as hoped or expected, Josh Langford again got lost for the year with an injury and of course the death of Cassius Winston‘s brother had a prolonged impact on the entire team. Amidst all that a harsh reality has set in for the now unranked Spartans- This reality not only has them sitting way behind the top teams in the nation but also far off their own expectations nationally and in a deep yet unspectacular Big Ten. The hope for a historic season seems to be fading away.
It‘s not gone though. Not yet.
Michigan State might be a long shot for the regular season conference title but in a year without any great teams in college basketball their slim national title hopes are – as ridiculous as this might sound – pretty much alive. Any half decent team getting into the tournament should be able to make a run this year, especially if they have a player like Cassius Winston suiting up for them. A great guard can mask a lot of deficiencies in March and he can actually get you a title in certain years. Just ask Kemba Walker and the Connecticut Huskies, who won it all in 2011. Looking back on their improbable run should only raise any Spartan‘s hopes for that Huskies team and their season had plenty striking similarities to this year‘s MSU team.
UConn‘s record that year at the end of the regular season was 21-9 and they were ranked 21st nationally after losing four of their last five games. Pretty good but not great. They finished 9th in a loaded Big East with an even record but slightly outperformed preseason expectations (almost nobody had them ranked inside the top 25). Of course they then went on a magical run led by Kemba Walker, first winning five games in five days to claim the Big East Tournament title at Madison Square Garden followed by winning the national title with a 53-41 win over the Butler Bulldogs at the Final Four in Houston. They finished the year 19th in offensive and 15th in defensive efficiency in KenPom but could certainly be described as an offensively challenged team that relied heavily on its defense and of course a single superstar in Walker to lead the way. Sound familiar? Let‘s see how the 2020 Spartans compare:
A generational talent at guard? Check
Kemba Walker is one of the greatest college basketball players in recent memory and especially his junior season was one for the ages. He put a limited team on his back and averaged 23.5 points per game throughout the year. He shot 42.8 percent from the field, 33 percent from three point range and dished out 4.5 assists per night in 37.6 minutes. He was more of a scorer than Cassius Winston is and also has to be considered a more athletic and more dynamic player in terms of his physical ability.
In comparison Cassius Winston averages 18.3 points and 5.7 assists in 32 minutes per game. He is shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from downtown. Considering he plays roughly five minutes less and that he is more of a pure point guard, it‘s striking how similar the numbers actually are. There is no doubt that Winston is the caliber of player and leader who can put his team on his back for a month and who can elevate an entire group way above their normal play just like Walker did nine years ago. Walker‘s backcourt mate Jeremy Lamb describes how much that meant for their team. “We always knew we had the best player in the country in Kemba Walker,” the current Indiana Pacer says. “Sure, we had some great role players around him but any game we went into we always knew we had a chance to win.” His coach Jim Calhoun agrees with his former shooting guard. “He loved the game as much as anyone I‘ve ever coached,” Calhoun says. “That‘s a big deal. He showed his love for the game with that beautiful smile, his enthusiasm and all those different things that he did. Really everybody loved him and not all great players can say that.” It certainly sounds like something you could say about Cassius Winston, too.
Talented and gritty role players? Check
But even a great player like Kemba Walker couldn‘t do it all by himself, he needed help. Sophomore big Alex Oriakhi provided decent inside scoring, some rim protection, great defense and heavy work on the glass (9.83 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament). Think of a sophomore version of Xavier Tillman minus the passing. Luckily MSU actually has the junior version of that physically so similar player. Freshman Jeremy Lamb started next to Walker in the backcourt and also had a great NCAA Tournament, averaging 16.2 points on 58.1 percent from the field. During the regular season though the athletic 6-5 guard „only“ averaged 9.6 points per contest on a good 46 percent clip. Kind of similar to what Aaron Henry averages right now for Michigan State. Henry already stepped up his game once for a postseason when he almost doubled his scoring average during last year‘s tournament.
Roscoe Smith and Tyler Olander rounded out the starting five, atleast during the tournament. Smith (6.3 points per game, 39 percent FG) was an athletic wing known for his defense and Olander basically just gave them some size as he didn‘t even average ten minutes per game. Charles Okwandu, a big seven foot shot blocker, actually got more minutes per game over the course of the year than Olander. Gabe Brown should be able to do everything and a little more than what Smith did back then and in terms of a rotation of big men MSU has all elements that UConn had except for mabye some girth. One very important player for UConn was freshman Shabazz Napier, who played heavy minutes off the bench (7.8 points on 37 percent FG and 3 assists in 23.8 minutes per game, scoring numbers during the NCAAs were worse) and took over a lot of the playmaking duties next to Walker. The Spartans actually have an electric combo guard this season aswell in Rocket Watts. While his point guard skills remain a work a progress (just like Napier‘s were as a freshman) he is averaging 7.5 points per game on 37.5 percent from the field, all numbers heavily influenced by an injury plagued earlier part of the season. Other role players off the bench included German freshman Niels Giffey and athletic wing Jamal Coombs-McDaniel.
A young, enthusiastic team? Check
Among many reasons why MSU might not be as good this season as anyone had hoped is their youth. They reached last season‘s Final Four with a veteran group that was loaded with tough upperclassmen. This year, outside of Winston, Tillman and the oft injured Kyle Ahrens, the entire MSU roster consists only of freshmen and sophomores (atleast the players that actually get meaningful minutes). UConn‘s 2011 team shows that that this does not have to prevent your from making a deep run in March. Far from it, according to Jim Calhoun. “This team won as much as anything else with enthusiasm, will and chemistry,” the Hall Of Famer remembers. “I think youth played a part in that, they just didn‘t know any better.” Sounds like something a head scratching Tom Izzo could say, doesn‘t it?
A Hall Of Fame coach? Check
Which brings us to the men on the sideline. Not many words have to be used to describe Jim Calhoun and Tom Izzo as both their resumes not only speak for themselves but also have them among the greatest college coaches in the history of the game. Both are national champions (Calhoun actually won three), are in the Hall Of Fame, have over 600 wins at one school, are known for their defensive masterminds, exemplified toughness their entire careers and have had numerous long and deep runs in March. Only one of them got hit with heavy NCAA sanctions but that‘s another story. The bottom line is Michigan State certainly has a coach who can win in March, just like the Huskies had back then.
All wishful thinking? Maybe, most likely even. It will also all look pretty stupid when MSU bows out the first weekend of the tournament, an outcome a lot more likely right now than the aforementioned title dream. But it wouldn‘t be the first time an improbable run happens. It wouldn‘t be the first time history repeats itself and the similarities of both these teams are just too striking to be ignored. And we all know that when a team goes on a run, a lot of things can happen. “Once we got going we were like a train whose wheels started to move,” Jim Calhoun recalls. “Then they started to go quicker and it seemed we were going faster and then it seemed like nothing could stop us.”
Maybe the Spartans get on their own train in a couple of weeks.