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MSU Basketball: The Emergence of a Champion

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

The Michigan State men’s basketball team has completely turned its season around in the last month of the regular season.

Following up on Colin’s description of what happened over the course of the season, I wanted to take a look at why this turn-around happened and what it means for the Spartans’ prospects in the post-season. As some of the discussions on this site have mentioned, there are a number of factors that have gotten this team to where they are. Many, if not all of them, interacting with each other. This interaction makes picking out a “one neat trick to saving your season” kind of story a fool’s errand, but what I will try to do is lay-out some of the leading factors, try to make sense of their respective and collective implications, and identify the areas for improvement that the team can still improve upon.

  1. The biggest factor might also be the most opaque and elusive factor, as every fan of this program might surmise: Cassius Winston and the team’s emotional and mental return to form. Winston and the whole team, now at the end of the season, have gained some distance from the immense tragedy that rocked the team to start the season. This distance, though not a panacea, has granted the team with increased emotional and mental availability. The whole team, and Cassius, in particular, appear to be increasingly and increasingly-consistently present in games, rarely suffering from the lapses in attention and intensity that so plagued the team in early and mid-season losses. While this often happens with Tom Izzo teams it was by no means a guaranteed outcome this year; that it has happened is a testament to everyone in the program
  2. The last few weeks, Cassius Winston has clearly gotten in a groove off the court - he appears to have lost some weight since his mid-season conditioning-level slump; he looks lean, quick, and agile. My guess is that he is getting better sleep, which is surely related to item No. 1, is likely eating better, and is undoubtedly getting in the gym more consistently. There is statistical evidence of this as well, as Cassius’ early season shooting struggles have evaporated: he is over 43 percent from three-point range for the season, and over 70 percent in the last five games.
  3. Xavier Tillman, too, has raised the level of his play an incredible degree on both sides of the court. Tillman’s struggles catching and holding on to the ball, and his ineffectiveness around the rim that plagued his offense earlier in the season are history. Tillman is confident inside the arc, is passing beautifully out of short-roll situations, and has been finishing with both hands (including a lot of dunks recently) out of the post and around the rim. His defense, much-discussed around these parts, has been elevated to an even higher level. Tillman may just be the most versatile defensive player in the country: he covers every kind of big-man with aplomb (low-post, stretch, undersized drivers, and mid-post technicians), handles every screening assignment, and can comfortably switch onto guards and wings. More than this, Tillman is quarterbacking the MSU defense superbly — evoking Draymond Green.
  4. Rocket Watts has found himself at just the right time. After serious struggles early in the year, Rocket’s sitting out and healing his leg set him on the path to becoming the player we are watching close the season with four-straight solid-efficiency, double-digit scoring performances. It was obvious to many of us that he was not physically fit early on, and, while I still don’t think he is 100 percent, he looks so much better than he did at the start of the year. Watts has also learned a ton about playing at this level — he is much more under control on offense, not taking as many wild shots, getting to the rim and paint way better, finishing when he gets there (Watts shot 55 percent from two-point range in conference play), has been knocking down his threes (he shot over 30 percent in conference play), and has been superb on defense. The defense he has provided is a huge factor moving forward (more on that below), but Rocket is no longer getting beat off-ball, has better game-plan discipline, and has gotten a much better feel for how to keep ball-handlers uncomfortable without fouling. Most of all Rocket now has a very solid stretch of production to go along with his natural confidence. This point alone is a hugely significant bit of work by Tom Izzo and the rest of the staff; they never stopped believing in him, never let him lose his confidence, but, at the same time, they made sure to ease him back into the starting lineup and into the offense when he came back to active-status. Watts’ play-making, shot-creation, and finishing have changed Michigan State’s offense taking pressure off of Cassius Winston, and opening things up for Aaron Henry...
  5. Aaron Henry, the enigma, has become Aaron Henry, the junk-yard dog. Henry’s confidence and comfort with his new role ebbed and flowed this year, but has now settled on “full-on beast” mode. Though Henry’s scoring output has been somewhat more understated on recent box-scores than we might have assumed it would look before the season started, Henry’s ability to take-over games with scoring and play-making bursts has become an every-game occurrence. When the team needs a burst, Henry has taken ownership. The championship-clinching game on Sunday is a perfect example: with the game tied at 42, Henry made a crucial jumper, then, after OSU had gotten to 46-49, Henry hit a pair of jumpers to stretch the lead to seven, then, with the lead at 10, Henry put the hammer down by hitting a vital lay-up and finishing a couple of free-throws after a steal. Henry’s SWAT-team like approach — striking, seemingly out of no-where, at crucial junctures — has been crucial in stemming tides, and in stretching leads. Take a look at this interview - notice how confident and assured he is:

Aaron is no longer musing and searching for answers; he knows what is happening, why it is happening, and he feels his role and when he needs to make plays. And all of this is before I even comment on his god-tier defense. He is absolutely on-fire right now both on and off-ball, and has just destroyed everyone he has been matched-up with (seriously his and Watts’ on-ball defense is the best I have seen from an MSU perimeter duo since the Appling-Harris duo).

Finally, the “others” — Malik Hall, Kyle Ahrens, Thomas Kithier, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., and Foster Loyer — have raised their collective level and have begun to contribute at a “winning-level.” Hall, Ahrens, and Kithier, especially, as a threesome, have really locked into their roles. They are scoring when given opportunities, defending solidly, and rebounding at a much better rate than they were early in the season. This group is providing crucial glue-plays that extend possessions, limit opposing teams to one-shot possessions, and deny easy scoring opportunities.

Areas for continued growth & implications:

Despite the strong play over the last month or so of the season, this team still has areas for growth:

  1. The bigs: Hall has been more solid, but he is a hybrid-forward and ill-suited for defending true centers. Luckily, Tillman’s defense on opposing centers has been superb, but in the post-season a couple of early fouls from Tillman will see Hall, Kithier, Bingham Jr., and, possibly, Marble guarding other teams’ bigs. Will they be up to the task? Will they deny easy post-position and use their arm-bar effectively (and not shove with their hands)? Will they move their feet while bodying up? Will they cover screens and communicate play-calls? Will they screen effectively on offense, and rebound the ball while not concede rebounding position on hopeless block-attempts? This crew has collectively still been up-and-down on all of these questions. But if they can find some consistency in post-season play, then Tillman will be able to play with even more freedom.
  2. Gabe Brown: the poor kid just has not been himself since he got sick a couple of months ago, and now that Watts and Henry have solidified themselves as the starters, Ahrens has found some consistent health and solid play, Brown has found himself in rotation-limbo a bit. Although he has not hit his outside shot consistently, Brown has been defending and rebounding better of late, and if he can run the wings in transition and get to the paint a bit more, then the rim may open up for him. MSU will need him in games when one or both of Watts and Henry get in foul-trouble or pick up a knock. Will Gabe be ready?
  3. Foster Loyer: Foster has had a better season this year, but has still struggled mightily against better competition. If he can find even a bit more in his game it can provide Cassius Winston and Rocket Watts with more rest than they have gotten recently. Loyer may never be a game-winner (although he was last year in the BTT vs OSU), but he cannot be a game-loser over the last and most important part of the season.

This team has had such a rough year, but the turn-around and the togetherness of the team over the last five games has been remarkable. With four guys playing at such a high level all-around, including three of them playing some of the best individual defense in the Izzo era, this team has got everything to play for and not a single team to fear. The turnovers have been around 18 percent or fewer in the last four games, the offense has been humming with Winston, Watts, Tillman, and Henry taking turns as drivers of possessions, and the defense has become championship-quality. This is going to be fun.