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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Reasons for optimism and reasons for concern

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With the first exhibition contest in the books, and the regular season fast approaching, it’s time to look ahead to what might go well and not so well this year for the Spartans.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Max Christie seems optimistic for next year, A.J. Hoggard needs a little more convincing.
Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

With the recent exhibition win over Ferris State in the rearview mirror, it is crystal clear that the regular season for Michigan State‘s men’s basketball team is fast approaching. While it was nice to knock the offseason rust off against the Bulldogs, and there is another exhibition contest on Thursday against Grand Valley State, the Champions Classic is in less than one week and the meeting with the Kansas Jayhawks will pose a totally different challenge.

There are things that have to make fans optimistic that the Spartans will shed some Jayhawk feathers and do the same to every other team on the schedule. When the real games happen, though, of course reality will hit, too. Some things will go MSU’s way this season, some things won’t, and to be honest, there are some other things right now that Spartan Nation has to worry about. What are the reasons for optimism? What are the reasons for concern? Let’s dive into it and find out...

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

The Spartans are long…like extremely long

It was obvious seeing Michigan State out on the court for the first time against Ferris State that this squad might be one of Tom Izzo’s longest teams ever. We can’t be entirely sure about the math, but it seems like there are three starters out there with a 7-foot-plus wingspan (Marcus Bingham Jr., Gabe Brown and Max Christie may be close to it), and even the supposedly diminutive point guard spot isn’t even that diminutive. Far from it actually, as Tyson Walker possesses decent size for his position (6-foot, 175 pounds), and on top of that, he has long arms that have helped him become the defensive terror everyone knew he could be (at least at Northeastern).

The entire look of the Spartans defense is different with this kind of size, which is also paired with elite-level athleticism. Brown might be one of the most explosive leapers in the country and seeing Christie go up in traffic for the dunk a few times was a real eye-opener as well. It doesn’t end with the starting lineup, though, as guys like Malik Hall (who also may start some games), Jaden Akins, Julius Marble or Mady Sissoko (7-foot-4 wingspan) will do their part of out running and out jumping other teams. Often times, Michigan State had one or two heavy rotation players in recent years that put them at a disadvantage in regard to size, length or athleticism — that likely won’t happen with this team, at least not against 99 percent of the country.

The point guard position looks fixed

Now I’m sure there were a bunch of Michigan State fans out there who kept a close eye on the point guard position, as it was one of the main reasons that doomed last season. Tyson Walker was and certainly is still an unknown at the Big Ten level and A.J. Hoggard didn’t prove enough as a freshman to be counted on this season. While Hoggard certainly still looks a little shaky as a jump shooter, he physically has transformed his body by losing a bunch of weight over the summer. His drives looked a lot more explosive against Ferris State and unless his shooting messes with his confidence, Hoggard should open up a lot space for others by penetrating.

Walker, while perhaps a bit nervous donning the Green and White for the first time, already proved that he has what is basically impossible to teach: Natural point guard skills. Constantly seeing the floor, directing people, controlling tempo, making the right reads, being calm…it all was all on display and will be a gigantic help for this team that lacks a true superstar to rely on. Now, of course, Walker’s game will be tested by better competition, but the early results look very promising. Both guys also are able to take their man off the dribble, which is a huge plus for the entire group.

Tom Izzo is coming of a down year

As stressful and as disappointing last season was, if history has proven anything, then this year should make every MSU fan fasten their seatbelt. Everybody can bet their house that Tom Izzo has been extra motivated this offseason and you can be sure that he has drilled the role of the underdog into these Spartan Dawgs. Usually MSU does a lot better when it isn’t ranked highly at the beginning of the year, when the Spartans do not have a star-studded lineup with major expectations and when a lot of people are counting them out before the first ball even went up.

The last decade is the perfect example of that. Preseason favorites like Draymond Green’s 2011 team or the Miles Bridges group flamed out early in the NCAA Tournament, while hard-fighting teams that were supposed to be undermanned rallied around lead guards like Travis Trice or Cassius Winston. Now in the end, those results don’t mean a lot for this year’s team, but it is certainly a trend with Izzo and Michigan State that has the Spartans seemingly do better as a hunter, rather than being hunted. So that projection of fifth in the Big Ten should sit really well with them.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal
Team looks ready for the games to begin.
Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

THREE REASONS FOR CONCERN

Michigan State is long but lacks bulk overall

Apologies to Mady Sissoko, who certainly does not fit into this narrative, but overall this Spartan team looks to lack some of the brawn that former squads used to possess. As the college game has gotten faster and more athletic over the years, Izzo has certainly moved away from having too many guys on the team who look like they could start on Mel Tucker’s offensive line. Yet it is still noteworthy that this MSU team looks like it could struggle with physically imposing lineups, especially in the strength department. When big, heavy post-up players go against them, it will be a question mark if Marcus Bingham Jr., Joey Hauser or some of the bench guys can truly measure up and hold their ground. Same goes for the wings. As athletic and as bouncy Brown, Akins and Christie are, they will be tested by more rugged, bigger forwards who will look to push them around.

Turnovers could be a major problem again

For seemingly forever now, Michigan State has struggled with turnovers on the offensive end and it seems like this team won’t be any different. Sure, Walker as a playmaker looks to be a calming presence, but he still is new to the program and could take some time to gel with his teammates and get used to his new surroundings. Hoggard has his own struggles as an individual player, which might lead him into a bunch of unforced errors.

Brown has never been a great ball handler and while Christie is supposed to be strong in that regard, he has to prove it first for anybody counting on him. Many other players for Michigan State are just unproven in bigger roles and what usually comes with more responsibility is the tendency to make more mistakes. A travel here, a bad pass there…and all of a sudden MSU stands at 20 turnovers again in any given game. While Izzo’s teams usually find a way to work around this issue and make up for it in other areas, it is still a tough problem for a team that will need some time to find itself. Especially since Izzo has mentioned that he wants to run a lot more again this season.

Who will be the go-to-guy for this team?

On the surface, this year’s Spartans check off a lot of boxes — they have guys who can penetrate, they have a bevy of outside shooters, they have size, should be good defensively, have shot-blocking, speed — you name it. But as of now, nobody knows how the hierarchy on this team will play out. Who will take over when the game is on the line? Who will take the important shot when push comes to shove and sets break down?

Izzo’s best teams always had someone who could be counted on when it mattered most, and in general, this is a must for every successful basketball team. There certainly are a few candidates on the Spartans, but nobody has proven it yet. Walker might be the first choice, as he has the ball in his hands a lot and already filled that role for his former, albeit lesser, team. Brown and Hall are team captains and could look to take on the role in crunch time as well. The other guy who might have it in him is Christie. He has a complete game, can rise up off the dribble or attack the basket. He also seems to have the mindset of a true leader, looks to be wise beyond his years and very confident for a freshman. Until he shows it on the big stage, though, the leadership role for MSU remains a question mark that could potentially sink the entire season, as harsh as that might sound.

All right, now it’s up to you — what do you like about this year’s team? Why are you optimistic? Or why do you have concerns? Let us know in the comments section.