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Men’s Basketball: Depth Chart & Roster Possibilities

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NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Turning the page to the next NCAA men’s basketball season...

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, NCAA men’s basketball on the court will be shelved until next fall when it will hopefully resume on schedule. While we all cope in different ways with the loss of this source of joy from our lives, I have a habitual turn-the-page mentality to the ending of a season. I start thinking about what the team and the college basketball landscape will look like in the upcoming year, begin to theorize what the Michigan State squad will look like, and start to outline best-case and worst-case scenarios and every roster permutation in-between.

With that in mind, what are the important variables to consider when looking ahead to next year’s team?

  1. Roster attrition via transfers - there is always a possibility that one or more players with eligibility might transfer; it is an element to consider, and hopefully a variable that gets shelved. I do not like to speculate, but with at least one incoming guard and at least two incoming bigs, guys on the edge of the roster might look for more playing time or a larger role than they might get next year. That group might include Foster Loyer, Thomas Kithier, Marcus Bingham jr, or Julius Marble. Again, my hope is that none of these Spartans leave the program - I think they all have valuable roles to play on next year’s team.
  2. Professional and fifth-year possibilities - the 2019-20 team has a few guys who might be interesting to the NBA or other professional leagues, all of whom should get feedback from NBA teams even if they decide to return for another year. This group appears to include Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry, and Joey Hauser. For what it’s worth, I think Gabe Brown, Rocket Watts, and Marcus Bingham jr would all benefit by the experience as well - it would be great for them to hear the same things the coaching staff has been telling them as an added push to continue working on their bodies and games. Joshua Langford also has a decision to make after sitting out the last one and a half years with injuries: he is already 23 years old, but NBA teams had questions about his game before his injuries.
  3. Open-roster spots that might be filled - there is currently one roster spot available, but if Langford returns that spot gets taken up. If Tillman leaves for the NBA (the most likely candidate), then another spot opens up; similarly, if any one or more players transfer that would open up one or more spots.
  4. Possible additions (to fill open roster spots) - the Michigan State staff is still actively and seriously recruiting Karim Mane (a big, athletic future-stud of a point guard from Quebec), and appears to be seriously looking at a number of possible grad-transfers including, possibly, Bryce Aiken (Harvard scoring guard - good scorer, solid shooter, really bad A:TO, lots of injury issues), and Amauri Hardy (UNLV, from Detroit - solid scorer, shooter, and point guard). There may be others the staff is interested in, but these names have been confirmed as at least in the realm of possibility. Another guy the staff should absolutely look at, even though he would not be immediately eligible is Landers Nolley (the talented red-shirt freshman from Virginia Tech).

I do not assume anything will happen, nor do I have perfect insight into the thinking of the players on the team, the staff, or some of the possible additions to the roster. That being said...

Here are some iterations of possible 2020-21 MSU rosters:

Scenario No. 1 (Most likely):

Based on everything that I have read, seen myself, and heard in conversations with people who are more knowledgeable and informed (about college basketball, the Michigan State program, and NBA basketball), I think the three pivots are Xavier Tillman, Joshua Langford, and Foster Loyer. I believe, at this point, that the most likely scenario is that Langford and Tillman get feedback from the NBA and that both return; I also do not believe that Foster Loyer will transfer, but he has the least-clear path to playing time of any scholarship player and he may feel that he needs a reset in terms of his college career. In this scenario, I am assuming that all three players return to the team:

Tillman stays, Langford comes back, no one transfers, no additions:
(13 scholarships accounted for)

1 - Watts (30 mpg), Hoggard (10 mpg), Loyer
2 - Langford (30 mpg), Brown (15 mpg)
3 - Henry (30 mpg), Hall (15 mpg)
4 - Hauser (25 mpg), Bingham jr (10 mpg), Kithier
5 - Tillman (30 mpg), Sissoko (10 mpg), Marble

In this scenario, Watts and Hoggard would split the point guard duties, and Hall would spend some time in on the wing and at the four. Hauser’s minutes will likely trend towards 30 mpg as the season goes along, and I doubt that all six bigs would stay in the rotation. Ideally, one of the bigs decides to take a red-shirt season, but it would be interesting to see which one of them the staff would prefer - I think that all four guys would be well served by playing, and that all four would be well-served by saving a year of eligibility.

If I had to bet Kithier would be the guy who takes the red-shirt, along with Foster Loyer (who simply would not have a place in the rotation barring injuries). This scenario would see both guys playing on the scout team all year, re-building their own chemistry, and spending a year in the weight-room. Both guys can become solid players, but have physical limitations that the guys ahead of them in the rotation do not have. With Hauser (almost certainly) and Tillman both gone after the 20-21 season, and with Langford, Henry, and possibly Watts also gone, both Loyer and Kithier would have the prospect of a clear path to major roles as red-shirt juniors (Loyer, Hoggard, Brown, Hall, Bingham jr, Kithier, Marble, and Sissoko would form a solid core playing rotation).

I will be amazed if Sissoko gets shut out of the rotation next year. He is so tough, strong, long, and aggressive, and I think he will latch onto a simple offensive role with aplomb. I still believe that Bingham jr, despite his physical struggles, has a ton of talent (especially if he can find his shot again), and is at this point still likely to get a chance to feature off the bench. The question, right now, is whether or not Marble will take a significant jump this summer (on both sides of the ball) and force his way into the rotation (and the same goes for Kithier).

Despite musing that Kithier might be red-shirt candidate, he is also the headiest guy of the group and, at times, the best in terms of his ability to do little things well (and played more than Bingham jr or Marble down the stretch). It just is not clear what the pecking order will be after a wild summer that may not see the team participating in regular practices and activities, but I am pretty confident that Sissoko will play and play a significant role, especially against teams with true bigs at center of which there may be at least a dozen in the upper echelon of college basketball next season (see below).

Scenario No. 2:

The most likely of the three pivots to leave appears to be Tillman - the NBA dollars (especially if he gets some positive first-round-assurance type-feedback) might be too hard to pass up. In this scenario, I am assuming that Langford and Loyer return; I do not think the staff would add another big or another guard in this case:

Tillman leaves, Langford comes back, no one transfers, no additions:
(12 scholarships accounted for, banking one for 21-22)

1 - Watts (30 mpg), Hoggard (10 mpg), Loyer
2 - Langford (30 mpg), Brown (15 mpg)
3 - Henry (30 mpg), Hall (20 mpg)
4 - Hauser (25 mpg), Kithier (10 mpg)
5 - Sissoko (15 mpg), Bingham jr (15 mpg), Marble (10 mpg)

I still do not see Loyer featuring in the rotation, here, and, again, I think he should strongly consider a red-shirt in this scenario. Given Tillman’s absence from the rotation, about 30 minutes get divided between Hall, Kithier, Bingham jr, Marble, and Sissoko, and I would not think red-shirting any of them would makes sense.

Scenario No. 3:

What if Tillman passes up the NBA money, but Langford decides to pursue his pro career in the G-League or over-seas - the third most-likely scenario in my view. Tillman foregoing the NBA seems increasingly likely to me for the following reasons: he didn’t have time to cement himself in NBA GM’s minds as a bona fide NBA player with a deep tournament run, he won’t get to test and play at the NBA combine (which I think would have helped him), he won’t get a chance to have a “normal” pre-draft run-up by working out and working with a trainer (especially working on his three-point shooting, handle, and explosiveness), and he will not be able to go through work-outs with teams (which really would have given him a platform to shine). While Langford would face similar hurdles, he may just decide that he needs to move on with his career and really give professional basketball a shot.

Tillman stays, Langford leaves, no one transfers, no additions:
(12 scholarships accounted for, banking one for 21-22)

1 - Watts (30 mpg), Hoggard (15 mpg), Loyer (15 mpg)
2 - Brown (20 mpg)
3 - Henry (30 mpg), Hall (15 mpg)
4 - Hauser (25 mpg), Bingham jr (10 mpg), Kithier
5 - Tillman (30 mpg), Sissoko (10 mpg), Marble

In this scenario, one of the bigs should red-shirt. We would also, very likely, see Watts playing 10-15 minutes per game on the wing, with Loyer and Hoggard taking more of the point guard minutes.

Scenario No. 4 & No. 5:

If Tillman stays, one or more bigs may transfer (again, to be clear, I hope this does not happen) or red-shirt. In the back-court, I have not yet discussed the fact that the staff is still heavily recruiting Karim Mane, Amauri Hardy (grad transfer), and possibly others. What if one of those guys commits? Such a commitment could also precipitate a red-shirt or transfer from Foster Loyer. Let’s assume that no players transfer, but that Loyer and Kithier decide to take red-shirt years (so they can dominate as red-shirt juniors in 21-22). Let’s further opine on two possible outcomes: first, the more likely, that MSU lands a graduate transfer, second, that Mane commits (more on the possible additions below).

Tillman stays, Langford leaves, no one transfers, grad transfer:
(13 scholarships accounted for)

1 - Watts (30 mpg), Grad transfer (20 mpg), Loyer [red-shirt]
2 - Brown (25 mpg), Hoggard (5 mpg)
3 - Henry (30 mpg), Hall (20 mpg)
4 - Hauser (25 mpg), Bingham jr (10 mpg), Kithier [red-shirt]
5 - Tillman (30 mpg), Sissoko (10 mpg), Marble

Here, one of the bigs takes a red-shirt (Kithier, for argument’s sake, but it could also be Bingham jr or Marble, though they seem less-likely candidates). Loyer too is taking a red-shirt in this scenario. Given the added guard to the rotation, I would expect to see Hoggard’s minutes eaten-into by a fourth-or fifth-year player with tons of experience and a mature physical profile. I do not think that said-grad-transfer (Amauri Hardy, for example) would necessarily start.

In fact, I would hope that Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry would start along-side Rocket Watts in this scenario. It would give MSU a ton of length on the wing, and assuming another step-up in play from Brown, three bona fide shooters and scorers. Hardy has a solid scoring back-ground (lefty, good three-point shooter off the dribble or catch, capable slasher going right or left), is a solid play-maker (3:2 A:TO, on some poor UNLV teams), but would have to prove himself defensively. Furthermore, having a senior guard coming off the bench, who would still play a lot of minutes, could be a perfect configuration of talent and experience: if anyone struggles we bring in a guy who will be aggressive, confident, and willing to hunt scoring opportunities if the game calls for it.

Tillman stays, Langford leaves, no one transfers, Karim Mane signs:
(13 scholarships accounted for)

1 - Karim Mane (25 mpg), Hoggard (5 mpg), Loyer [red-shirt]
2 - Watts (30 mpg), Brown (20 mpg)
3 - Henry (30 mpg), Hall (20 mpg)
4 - Hauser (25 mpg), Bingham jr (10 mpg), Kithier [red-shirt]
5 - Tillman (30 mpg), Sissoko (10 mpg), Marble

Here, one of the bigs takes a red-shirt (Kithier, for argument’s sake, but it could also be Bingham jr or Marble, though they seem less-likely candidates). Loyer too is taking a red-shirt in this scenario. Given the added guard to the rotation, I would expect to see Hoggard’s minutes eaten-into by Mane who is a pretty safe bet as a one-and-done calibre player.

To be clear: I really really like Mane as a player and prospect for the Michigan State program. From what I have read and heard, Mane is what Izzo would describe as an “OKG” (Our Kind of Guy): born in Senegal, he moved to Quebec in his youth, he travels two hours to school at Vanier, and superb student by all reports. He has dramatically improved as a point guard and shooter (in particular) in the last couple of years through tons of hard-work, and he is 6’5”, has a nearly seven-foot wing-span, and is a terrific athlete.

While I am firmly on “team Hoggard” long-term, Mane would be nearly impossible to keep off the court. I would expect him to start at point guard, but for Watts to play a lot of minutes there and for Hoggard to play some there as well (Hoggard’s role regardless of the rest of the roster will be determined almost exclusively by how much he transforms his body and how well he competes defensively - offensively he is a great fit for Izzo’s system and offers an Andre Miller-type interior and pace-controlling style). In this scenario, MSU gets Gabe Brown to lock in on being the B1G sixth-man of the year (with Malik Hall competing for that honor as well splitting time at the three and four positions).

Prognosis:

I believe that scenario No. 1 (Tillman and Langford stay, no one transfers) and scenario No. 5 (Tillman stays, Langford goes pro, no one transfers, Karim Mane signs) would offer the Spartans the highest ceilings - in both cases, MSU adds a guard with serious scoring punch and defensive potential to the back court, while retaining the best defensive player in the country in a loaded front-court (I don’t think a grad transfer would be a bad option; I just view Langford and Mane as superior players, assuming health, to any available grad transfer).

If Tillman returns, then the crunch-time front-court rotation would include, at least, Tillman, Hauser, and Hall. If Hauser shows that he can defend off-ball, in the paint, and on the perimeter at a high level, then the rotation would likely stick with those three guys, but if Hauser struggles defensively, then, against bigger teams, Izzo might give more minutes to Bingham jr, Marble, or Sissoko (or Kithier) - whoever proves their worth defensively, screens well, boxes-out, rebounds, and finishes their scoring opportunities.

In the back-court, Watts and Henry will be locked in for at least 30 minutes a night, and if Langford or Mane join the back-court I would expect to see them average around 30 minutes a night as well (possibly a bit less for Mane, as a freshman). That scenario would leave about 30 minutes up for grabs between the three back-court/wing positions, which I would expect Malik Hall and Gabe Brown to take almost all of in late-season games.

In this case, the “crunch-time” rotation would look something like this:

1 - Watts
2 - Langford/Mane, Brown
3 - Henry
4 - Hauser, Hall
5 - Tillman

Depending on how guys develop, Hoggard, or one of the bigs could be added to the rotation on a given night, but this seven-man group would be the prime candidates to close games. In the grad-transfer scenario, I would expect either the grad transfer or Gabe Brown to vie for the primary role on the wing.

In the case of Tillman leaving, or Izzo unable to add Langford, a grad transfer, or Karim Mane, things obviously get dicier:

1 - Watts
2 - Brown, ______
3 - Henry
4 - Hauser, Hall
5 - ______

In this scenario, the season basically hinges on Joey Hauser’s development in his red-shirt season and this off-season. If Hauser can hold up as the “biggest-big,” then the Spartans have the closing five-man unit, and just need to worry about their depth situation. In this possible context, Hoggard and probably Mady Sissoko to step in to the “crunch-time” rotation - Hoggard has a knack for scoring and making plays under-pressure, and Sissoko will be a terrific rim-protecting, rebounding, and finishing big if he gets minutes under his belt (as he would in this scenario). I also believe that Sissoko will prove a solid defender on the perimeter and in PnR simply because he has solid feet, incredible length, and the ability to gap-close quickly with long-strides (avoiding fouls will predictably be his pivot question). In this best “worst-case” scenario, the Spartan closing group would look something like this:

1 - Watts
2 - Brown, Hoggard
3 - Henry
4 - Hall
5 - Hauser, Sissoko

Fortunately, Watts, Hoggard, Brown, Henry, and Hall all have positional versatility, which can cover-up foul problems, dips in play, or any injury situation. Even in this best “worst-case” scenario, MSU still would have Foster Loyer (a year older, wiser, and stronger), Thomas Kithier, Marcus Bingham jr, and Julius Marble to throw into the fire.

Ultimately, I will be very surprised if Izzo goes into next season without adding at least one guard to the team, either Josh Langford (for an epic redemption story), Karim Mane (for an epic one-and-done season), or a grad-transfer (for an epic one-year stint ala Brandon Wood). Either way, Michigan State should have a very good roster and team next year. And I will put them in the early conversation for a top-10 pre-season ranking, top-five if Tillman returns and they add a guard.

GO GREEN!!!

Post-script: Off-the-cuff top-teams for next season

I will do my off-season top-teams in the NCAA later on this spring (with another update later in the summer), but for now I see the following teams in roughly the following order:

  1. Kentucky (assume Quickley, Hagans, Juzuang, Brooks, and Montgomery stay; that is a great five-man group. Now add in Calipari’s best freshman class since the Anthony Davis or Karl Anthony-Towns classes - Askew, Clarke, Boston, Fletcher, Ware, and Jackson)
  2. Gonzaga (return Ayayi, Petrusev, Timme, Watson, and Kispert while adding in four terrific freshmen - they may head into the NCAA tournament undefeated)
  3. UVA (lose Diakite and Key, but bring in another good group of freshmen led by Abdur-Rahim, while returning four key players and adding Sam Hauser)
  4. Duke (O’Connell transferred, but bring back Goldwire, Baker, and Moore jr while adding another crop of four-star and five-star freshmen. This Duke freshmen group is the best in terms of complimentary pieces and likely rotation K has had since the Okafor/Jones/Winslow group)
  5. Michigan State (this assumes Tillman comes back for his senior year, and MSU adds a guard)
  6. Kansas (will be very good again, but will not have the match-up nightmare and game-changer in Azubuike, nor the speed-merchant point-guard in Dotson; they add Bryce Thompson, who will light it up - still I wouldn’t be surprised if KU struggled a bit next year)
  7. Wisconsin (vet-laden team - only graduate Pritzl, bring in at least two quality freshmen)
  8. Baylor (how many guys will go pro? If none, then Baylor returns most of their strong team)
  9. Villanova (return a good chunk of their roster, assuming JRE returns they should be the Big East pre-season favorite)
  10. Florida State (FSU returns a ton, and adds in stud do-it-all freshman Scottie Barnes, while further integrating their young big-men)
  11. Houston (return their superb back-court and eight of nine rotation players, losing one front-court player - they finished No. 14 in Kenpom)
  12. Creighton (they return their whole team, the questions: whether Zegarowski is back up to speed after his late-season knee injury, and how good the front-court is)
  13. UNC (will be back to normal next year - bring in five stud freshmen, will have a huge front-court, and get a bunch of guards back from injury too - wing defenders are the weakness)
  14. UCLA (clearly the class of the conference, if Chris Smith returns they will return their entire rotation. They add one of the best freshmen in the country in Daishen Nix; throw in another quality freshman wing in Jaylen Clark and UCLA should be the clear favorite in the Pac-12.)
  15. Tennessee (they return most of their rotation and add in three studs: two freshman guards and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey jr. UT should be the second best team in the SEC, with a chance to catch UK napping for the conference title)
  16. Iowa (Bohannon, Wieskamp, McCaffrey, Toussaint, and Fredrick will all be back, if they get Garza back as well they will move up)
  17. Michigan (Howard adds in a horde of four-star and five-star kids to his returning depth - Livers, Brooks, DeJulius, Johns, Castleton, and Davis + Dickinson, Todd, Jackson, and Williams)
  18. Ohio State (vet-laden team - Walker, Washington, Muhammad, Young, Towns, Sueing, Jallow, Ahrens, and Lidell - front-court a question beyond Young and Lidell)
  19. Texas Tech (bring back six of their top eight guys, and add in two stud wing-scorers in Peavy and Burnett - front-court play is a question)
  20. Oregon (will be solid, but not the early front-runner in the Pac-12 for the first time in a long time)
  21. WVU (return their three beasts on the interior - back-court play is still a question outside of McBride)
  22. Illinois (add two great freshmen guards in Miller and Curbelo, return depth in Frazier, Williams, Feliz, Griffin, and Jones, and both bigs should be back)
  23. Texas (Shaka turned it around at long last this year, the team figured out how to play and were great down the stretch, assuming they land a couple of their targets (Greg Brown III and one of the guards they are still recruiting) they will be very good - return their entire rotation)
  24. Rutgers (lose two front-court players in Yeboah and Carter, but return the rest of their roster)
  25. Florida (should return most of their rotation, and cannot possibly under-perform as badly as they did this past season)
  26. Purdue (another vet-laden team - Williams, Haarms, Wheeler, Thompson, Hunter jr, Stefanovic, and others)
  27. Indiana (Archie gets one last shot - assuming Lander reclassifies the back-court should have more scoring punch to go along with the rock-solid front-court)
  28. Arizona State (still one of my favorite collections of players - return most of their rotation)