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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Everything to play for

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

Michigan State’s roster appears set for the 2020-21 season...

With Xavier Tillman’s departure for the NBA confirmed (you can read more about my view on his prospects as an NBA draft entrant here), with Aaron Henry’s return confirmed, and with Josh Langford hoping to play his senior year after a two-year agonizing wait to return to the court, Michigan State fans have a lot to look forward to.

While losing Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman means the Spartans will have to fill in 68 minutes, 32 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, two steals, and two blocks per game (not to mention countless clutch plays, shots, on-court leadership, locker room leadership, etc.), Spartan fans should not be overly concerned. Despite the early reports of the demise of Michigan State’s chances of contending for a B1G title and a national title, the Spartans have everything still to play for both as a team and for each individual on the roster.

The Depth Chart:

1 - Rocket Watts, AJ Hoggard, Foster Loyer
2 - Joshua Langford, Gabe Brown
3 - Aaron Henry
4 - Joey Hauser, Malik Hall, Thomas Kithier
5 - Mady Sissoko, Julius Marble, Marcus Bingham Jr.

I would really not be surprised to see Tom Izzo commit to using a 10-man rotation this season (with Sissoko, Marble, and Bingham Jr. each getting minutes all year long — with Kithier possibly taking one of those spots, if someone falters). It seems clear to me that, assuming health, the team will start the season with Watts, Langford, and Henry in the back-court, and with Joey Hauser at the forward position. And, while I currently have Mady Sissoko penciled in as the starting center, I would expect Marcus Bingham Jr., or one of the other veterans, to get the early-season starts (bet on Bingham Jr. who started 16 games last year).

I do think that these three guys — Sissoko, Marble, and Bingham Jr. — will take up the vast majority of minutes at the center and that the Spartans will see Thomas Kithier slide over to the four almost exclusively (he has untapped mid-range and three-point shooting potential that may blossom this year as he could end up being a poor-man’s Joey Hauser in like-for-like substitutions at times). Part of what might make this work is the idea of Malik Hall playing a chunk of minutes on the wing.

I fully believe that Hall is capable of doing this (it should be his long-term position anyways because that would be his ideal spot as a professional where “bigger wings” really are “small-forwards”), and that fans will see Hall and Brown deputize most of the wing minutes behind Josh Langford and Aaron Henry, with Hoggard taking some minutes on the wing as well.

Speaking of AJ Hoggard, he will quickly become a fan favorite because he is tough, smart, competitive, and very physical (he reminds me a lot of Andre Miller, former Utah standout under the late, great Rick Majerus). He will get into the paint, draw fouls (a hugely important role for him actually), and both finish and distribute effectively when he gets there. He plays winning offense rather than necessarily trying to find the cleanest play, and he really understands how to manipulate defenses; I am also expecting to hear plenty of the Cassius Winston-freshman-year refrain regarding Hoggard’s shooting: “it’s better than we expected. A lot better...” While Foster Loyer will likely not feature heavily in the rotation, he will be more than ready as a junior to play important minutes, and, if the staff can commit to using him as an off-ball shooter primarily, he will prove really useful as a zone-breaker or situational bucket-getter or decoy.

While the center position is naturally the greatest area of concern for Spartan fans and for the coaching staff, I am confident that it will sort itself out through intense competition every day in practice, and through these guys’ ability or inability to execute in the actual games. Sissoko will have to focus not only on learning the offense and defense, but on learning when and where to impose himself physically to avoid foul-trouble (if he can figure this last part out, and can screen effectively without getting called for offensive fouls, then he will be starting and playing major minutes sooner rather than later). Marble will have to show his ability to defend on the perimeter, particularly in pick and roll, and to show that he can hold up against the bigger centers — I do not doubt that he will succeed in the former, but he may struggle against seven-footers. Finally, Bingham has to play hard every minute he is on the floor, to demonstrate his willingness to be a center, first and foremost, to organize and anchor the defense, protect the rim, and get on the offensive glass.

The staff will likely trend towards playing Marble more against smaller teams (who lack dominant bigs), we will see Bingham more against teams with seven-foot centers, and Sissoko will play plenty against both kinds of teams. Sissoko’s feet, strength, length, recovery ability, and work rate will likely just be too important to keep on the bench for very long against any team, and he absolutely will stick to his roll as screener, finisher, and offensive rebounder on the offensive end.

At the forward position, Joey Hauser is going to be an absolute revelation.

This kid can score from anywhere on the court and is going to make offense so easy for this team in a way that Michigan State has not had in quite some time. For a long while now Michigan State has had very good offensive players in the front-court, but each of these guys has had some kind of flaw in their offensive game or scoring repertoire: Tillman never got the three-point shot rolling, Ward could not pass or shoot from range, Goins did not have a low-post game, Jackson Jr. did not have the experience to really navigate and dissect defenses consistently, Bridges had a bit of inconsistency in his decision making, and his outside shot, while solid, was not outstanding.

Joey Hauser is going to blow people’s minds with his offensive game. He is absolutely the complete package. He averaged nearly three assists per game as a freshman and is a very natural passer with good vision and the height to make any pass. He can shoot the leather off the ball and will likely shoot above 40 percent from three-point range. He can also shoot and score at will in the mid-range and on the block. Finally, this kid is superb at attacking closeouts and slashing from the perimeter. He will waltz his way to at least 14 points per game (he averaged ~10 ppg as a freshman, and has since had a full year and a half in the Michigan State weight room, learning the MSU plays, and improving his game), and he will have plenty of nights where he tops 20.

Finally, we come to the starting back-court. I cannot begin to express my excitement about the potential of this trio. I will never speak badly about Cassius Winston — the man is as emblematic of all that is great about this school and program as anyone in its history — but Cassius had a serious deficiency on defense. While his offense was too good for that deficiency to be fatal, he did offer teams a clear way to attack and focus their offense. Even as he got better in his last two seasons, teams still scored against MSU by working Cassius on and off-ball. All of this is to foreshadow the stark contrast to teams’ future attempts at scoring on the trio that will lead Michigan State this season.

Assuming he is healthy, Joshua Langford will be the least-best (worst is not an applicable term here) of the three defenders, and, lest you forget, Langford was shaping up to be a true defensive stopper his junior year, before his injury. Even as Matt McQuaid was really becoming a lock-down defender that year (a role that he really latched onto after Langford’s injury), Josh had been getting the task of guarding teams’ top wings and had been succeeding in doing a great job on them. If Josh is healthy, and is confident in his body, he is going to be a superb defender. The fact of the matter is, however, that Watts and Henry will be on another level altogether!

These two will form the best defensive duo in the back-court in the nation I believe, and both already have plus-defensive ability at the NBA level; they are going to, along with Langford, truly terrorize other teams’ offenses. MSU will disrupt, deny, and frustrate every back-court it faces, and will give the 2013-14 team a run for its money in terms of defensive ability. Izzo will be invoking that Appling-Harris-Valentine group plenty (as well as the 2005 group, and the national-title winning group). This trio is going to be right up there with best defensive back-courts Izzo has ever coached.

That defensive prowess should not be underestimated, and will be essential for getting MSU out of the blocks to a fast start. Given Winston’s and Tillman’s offensive mastery, the team may need the early part of the season to find its rhythm offensively, so having lock-down perimeter defense, that forces bad shots, gets steals, and gets out in transition will really help the team produce easy points. Individually, each of these guys will be super offensive players. Watts’ scoring prowess was only beginning to emerge as the season waned this spring, and fans will see a more efficient and more consistent version of Rocket this coming season. Langford’s sweet, sweet jump shot will be back to torture teams, and his need to fill it up from the three-point arc will likely see him continue to play off of screens off-ball a ton as he was doing before his junior season was cut short. Finally, Henry, now stepping out from Winston’s considerable offensive shadow and dominance of the ball (again, not a bad thing, but a fact, nonetheless), should thrive as a creator, facilitator, judicious driver and scorer, and as a transition beast.

Once these three sort out their own rhythm, the team is going to really hum on offense. And no, I haven’t forgotten Gabe Brown, who is about to have a major jump in terms of consistency and production as the primary reserve for both Langford and Henry. As I mention in my preseason rankings, I believe as many as six players approach double figure scoring averages for the season with Brown and Hall both pushing to join Watts, Henry, Langford, and Hauser. I also expect that both Brown and Hall will find their way onto sixth-man of the year lists in the B1G, and I fully expect Gabe to average around 10 points, five rebounds, and a couple of steals and blocks per game. I also expect Gabe to take another leap defensively — he had some good moments as a freshman, some great moments as a sophomore, and, as a junior, and I expect fans will see a consistently solid, if not truly spectacular, defender coming off the bench in Gabe Brown. Seriously, this team is going to make opposing coaches’ stomaches drop in their film-prep watching us defend.

The Game Plan:

We will not know how the coaches will plan to run the team until closer to the season, but staring into my crystal ball, here are some things I expect to develop:

  1. Watts, Henry, and Hoggard as the primary offensive initiators. Watts is clearly stepping into Winston’s de facto point guard role, and the team will see him do plenty of distributing, out of the pick-and-roll, in transition, and after he breaks down defenses, but I do expect plenty of isolation shooting from Watts as well, and at times he will move off-ball at the beginning of possessions while Henry and Hoggard take the reins. Henry played a lot of point forward in high school, and as I mentioned some time ago, I see Henry’s role this year as very akin to former Spartan great Alan Anderson’s for the 2005 team. Anderson played as a wing, a forward, and as a point guard for that Final Four team, and I see Henry doing so as well. Henry’s interior-passing acumen will really come in handy in this role, and his ability to drive and dish or score will be a major source of offensive creation. Hoggard is actually the closest guy to Cassius Winston on the roster — he is a true point guard, with a knack for manipulating defenses (rather than defenders, which is Watts’ forte at this point), so I expect plenty of minutes at the point for Hoggard as well.
  2. Given the unproven nature of the point-guard play, the staff will use all three guys, and Hauser, as hubs for the offense. Each of the four can play multiple roles and will have different responsibilities depending on the set, the action, and the opponent.
  3. Elbow offense from Hauser, and off-ball screen running from Langford. Both of these weapons will serve to orient the offense at any given time (and this is one reason Langford may start the year off the bench is that the offense can seamlessly shift to focusing on screening for Josh as soon as he steps on the court). Hauser is a terrific passer and will be able to carve teams up on split-cut actions — a major feature of the Warriors’ offense since Steve Kerr’s arrival that I fully expect Izzo and the staff to incorporate more of now that Hauser is playing — Tillman couldn’t utilize these actions as well because he was not a consistent scoring threat from the mid-range, which Hauser most certainly will be. Langford’s catch-and-shoot ability will be the best on the team in all likelihood, and he will generate real gravity if he proves that he is healthy and in-form early on in the season.
  4. Defense-to-offense transition scoring: As I mentioned above, this MSU defense is going to be fearsome in the back-court, and should block a ton of shots too (Bingham Jr. blocked 13 percent of opponents’ shots while he was on the court last year, and Sissoko will be a shot-blocking menace too). This, and the team’s likely outstanding rebounding, should lead to a ton of transition opportunities, with Henry, Watts, Hoggard, and Hauser all capable of pushing the ball with the dribble, and all of these guys as great passers too. Brown, Hall, Langford, Henry, Hauser, and Sissoko will be sprinting the court all-day, and the team should get a TON of easy buckets that way.
  5. Passing balance. MSU has become “Passing-U” since 2014. In the last seven seasons, Michigan State has finished No. 12, No. 7, No. 1, No. 3, No. 1, No. 1, and No. 1 in assist rate in the country, and while MSU has lost out on passing maestro in Cassius Winston, the team still has four really high-level passers in Watts, Henry, Hauser, and Hoggard. In fact, because of the democratic nature of the offense and facilitating, I do expect Izzo to have four players (these four) average three assists, or more, per game for the first time in his tenure.
  6. The two most important things to note about this season’s team, as opposed to last year’s team, are:

A) Spacing will not be an issue. Having Hauser at the four will really, really, really stretch opposing defenses (even more than with Goins or even Jaren Jackson Jr. — Hauser is a better shooter, scorer, ball-handler, and passer than both guys), which will alleviate congestion in the paint (for Henry’s drives, slashes, and post-ups), will create opportunities for Watts to attack on the weak-side, will create gravity for guys coming off screens or spotting up (Langford, Brown, Watts, and Henry, in particular), and will really open up the paint for offensive rebounding opportunities (for our big-man hydra and for our athletic wings in Henry, Langford, Brown, and Hall).

B) Michigan State will have three guys — Rocket Watts, Joey Hauser, and Josh Langford — all more than capable of getting hot and destroying defenses with flamethrower shooting on any given night. Watts did it for a half or two last season, Langford has done it for a half and for entire games, and Hauser, as you can see in the videos above, can torch defenses with burst scoring too. Having this kind of luxury, when, for the better part of two years, Winston has been essentially the only guy who could really heat up and carry the team on his own, will be immense and absolutely should not be discounted; and this doesn’t even take into account the latent scoring potential of Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, both of whom will likely have at least a few big scoring nights this season.


With Tillman’s departure, and other teams’ players returns, many talking-heads have already begun to scale back their outlooks on Michigan State’s season. Simply put, this is a big mistake.

As I believe I have made clear, assuming health (which is the assumption that every team enters the season with), Michigan State will enter the season with a group of four guys who are more than capable of carrying the team offensively on any given night in Watts, Henry, Hauser, and Langford. Those four guys have, in their careers had five, six, eight, and 20 games where they have scored 15 points or more (39 in total). While that may not seem like a lot, it stacks up really well against other teams near the top of the rankings in terms of top-four returners’ 15-point game counts (at the high-major level):

Iowa - 122
Illinois - 86
Wisconsin - 58
Baylor - 55
UVA - 53
Villanova - 45
Gonzaga - 36
Tennessee - 28
Kansas - 23
Duke - 12
Texas Tech - 12
Kentucky - 1

So while Michigan State’s top four guys have not produced outstanding scoring numbers, they stand in good company. And, when combined with Michigan State’s likely superb defense, there is every bit as much of a reason for optimism about the likely trajectory of this team’s season. I have Michigan State firmly in my top-five at this point, and before you start clamoring for my homerism, let me briefly clarify:

Outside of Gonzaga, Villanova, and UVA (and even these teams to some extent!), no team is perfect, and all have questions: Duke is all youth (and Coach K has not coached much in a while), UK is all youth, Wisconsin has depth issues, Iowa cannot defend, Tennessee has consistency questions, Illinois does not have proven shooting, Texas Tech is a mostly new team, Baylor has depth questions and does not know what to expect from Clark, and Kansas is looking to replace its top two players (like MSU, but with even more uncertainty at the point guard).

And to be even more clear about my cryptic addendum regarding my top-three: Gonzaga will be relying on Oumar Ballou and a now-healthy Anton Watson to replace Killian Tillie and Filip Petrusev’s production, and will be relying on Jalen Suggs to account for a ton of shooting and production - both likely, but still questions. UVA is replacing its best defender (Mamadi Diakite) with a great offensive player (Sam Hauser) who has never been a plus-defender, while hoping that some combination of its young wings and guards can really contribute on offense alongside Kihei Clark and Tomas Woldetensae — again, open questions given Casey Morsell’s freshman flop. Finally, Villanova, who returns most of their team, still have to find a way to replace Saddiq Bey (who was their best player last year), while hoping to improve upon their No. 18 overall finish in Kenpom’s standings — oh and Bey was the best defender on a team that only finished No. 36 in Kenpom’s defensive standings.

Every team at the top has questions, and while college basketball’s upper echelons will be outstanding this season (far better than last season, I predict), Michigan State’s ability to resolve its own questions should be discounted at lower rate simply because of Tom Izzo and this staff (and because of the return of Joshua Langford’s leadership).

[Note: my top-60 rankings update will be coming out later this week]

Season predictions:

Individual stat lines (roughly):

Watts - 14 ppg, 4 apg, 4 rpg, 2 stocks per game on 50 percent (two-point), 35 percent (three-point), and 80 percent (fts) on about 12 FGA/game.

Hauser - 14 ppg, 3 apg, 6 rpg, 2 stocks per game on 50 percent (two-point), 40 percent (three-point), and 80 percent (fts) on about 11 FGA/game.

Henry - 13 ppg, 4 apg, 5 rpg, 2 stocks per game on 50 percent (two-point), 36 percent (three-point), and 75 percent (fts) on about 10 FGA/game.

Langford - 13 ppg, 2 apg, 3 rpg, 2 stocks per game on 48 percent (two-point), 48 percent (three-point), and 82 percent (fts) on about 11 FGA/game.

Brown - 10 ppg, 1 apg, 4 rpg, 1 stocks per game on 53 percent (two-point), 38 percent (three-point), and 90 percent (fts) on about 7 FGA/game.

Hall - 6 ppg, 2 apg, 5 rpg, 1 stocks per game on 60 percent (two-point), 35 percent (three-point), and 75 percent (fts) on about 5 FGA/game.

Hoggard - 4 ppg, 3 apg, 3 rpg, 1 stocks per game on 46 percent (two-point), 37 percent (three-point), and 75 percent (fts) on about 3.5 FGA/game.

Bingham jr - 6 ppg, .5 apg, 6 rpg, 2.5 stocks per game on 50 percent (two-point), 30 percent (three-point), and 70 percent (fts) on about 3.5 FGA/game.

Sissoko - 4 ppg, .5 apg, 5 rpg, 2.5 stocks per game on 65 percent (two-point), NA (three-point), and 65 percent (fts) on about 2 FGA/game.

Marble - 4 ppg, .5 apg, 4 rpg, 1 stocks per game on 58 percent (two-point), NA (three-point), and 65 percent (fts) on about 2 FGA/game.

Kithier - 4 ppg, .5 apg, 4 rpg, 1 stocks per game on 65 percent (two-point), 33 percent (three-point), and 55 percent (fts) on about 2 FGA/game.

Loyer - 4 ppg, 1 apg, .5 rpg, .5 stocks per game on 47 percent (two-point), 43 percent (three-point), and 90 percent (fts) on about 2 FGA/game.

[Note: “stocks” means “steals + blocks”; also note that not all of these guys will play the full complement of games so while they may average “X” FGA/game, etc. adding all of these numbers up will not ‘equal’ our per-game totals]

For the season, I fully expect Michigan State to finish in the top-three in the B1G (if not secure at least a share of the title), and I fully expect at least another trip to the second weekend — with a Final Four being a perfectly reasonable expectation if guys stay healthy and the team follows a typical Izzo developmental trajectory.

Go Green!!!