Other fans know this feeling, Michigan State Spartans basketball fans really do not. It was certain to happen eventually but after two decades of premier basketball under the legend named Tom Izzo, the current nightmare of a season still hits home like a freight train running through the middle of your head. And back again. It might seem tempting to just write the season off as a down year, one in which everything was off in a certain way from the get-go. Yet it really wasn’t, considering the strong start to the campaign the Spartans had. And it would be a huge mistake to think that with a more or less regular offseason everything will just fall into place again just like 2020-2021 never happened. In the end it did actually happen and it could have some huge impact on the immediate future of the program.
Now the Spartans are certainly not alone in their dire situation. Blue blood programs all over the country seem to struggle more than others with this season with being affected by COVID-19. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and, until recently, Kansas were way off their normal pace, leaving many pundits scratching their heads. Health of the players, age of the coaches, disrupting a totally fixed structure of operations, freshmen not getting enough time to learn...any guess has its raison d’être. In Michigan State’s case the issues run a little deeper, though, and even if the Spartans have a pretty promising recruiting class arriving in East Lansing this summer, a reload won’t be as seamless as it will be at other schools that rely heavily on one-and-dones. So what to do about this unexpected downturn?
MSU needs an honest look in the mirror
First of all there has to be a long look in the mirror, one in which the Spartans don’t tell themselves that everything will be fine, everything will work itself out. Now it always did during Izzo’s tenure, but now the coaching staff and the players have to deal with a complete new set of conditions. There is no myth anymore about this team, it will have to be earned back. There is no inner confidence, no will to win set in stone with this group. And there is something to prove, much more than they have to prove in a regular year.
When MSU goes through its self evaluation, it has to realize how bad things actually have become. The Spartans just lost by 30 points at home against Iowa. That’s inexcusable. The Spartans have been blown out by 14 at Northwestern, by 25 at Minnesota, by 30 at Rutgers and by 17 at Ohio State. Again, just let this sink in for a minute.
Even before the long layoff due to COVID-related complications, before MSU had a game postponed, the Spartans were 2-4 in league play. This isn’t meant to diminish any impact the pandemic might have had on the team, and that should very much be a real consideration. Izzo caught the virus in preseason, it surely seemed to affect him and it probably did something with his players as well, from both a mental and physical standpoint. Izzo wasn’t able to be as hands on as he usually is, the players might have all dealt with issues behind the scenes and the coaching staff might have been mentally affected as well. For a program that relies heavily on long, grueling practices in combination with a set in stone structure of doing things built up over more than two decades, any shock to that system can make the entire operation collapse. You hope it wouldn’t, more often than not it probably doesn’t, yet this MSU team this season wasn’t quite prepared to withstand the onslaught.
Basketball wise, the list of existing problems has become longer than Marcus Bingham’s arms. The two gigantic questions marks before the season — who would take over at the point guard spot and who would take the reins at center — proved to be unsolvable. Rocket Watts seemed to be fine early in his role as a scoring lead guard (remember his 20 points at Duke) yet his game has went completely off the rails. Watts seems to have lost all confidence, he seems to have lost any connection he ever had to the team or the coaching staff and it looks like he is trapped in no man’s land after a demanded position change midseason (one that Izzo in the past most likely would have never allowed). A.J. Hoggard was the raw freshman everyone expected him to be, even if he showed some flashes of competent point guard play from time to time. With a more mature mindset, a much more toned body and plenty of time in the gym he could develop into a strong contributor down the road. It will take plenty of growing pains, though. Foster Loyer once again could not take the necessary step in his development and while at times he was a capable backup, overall he just has never proved that he is good enough to consistently get minutes at a program like Michigan State. It sounds bad, he’s a great kid and by all accounts beloved by everyone. But what can you say when a guy getting 16.6 minutes per game after a supposedly great offseason is shooting just 29.4 percent from the field and looks constantly overmatched on defense?
The entire front-court has been a huge problem all season long as well. It was not because of a shortage of bodies, in the end Izzo is still able to choose from a quartet of four-star recruits and three three-star recruits. Only one of these players is a freshman. But almost none of these players have lived up to expectations, during this season or even worse during their career. Players‘ weaknesses marginalize each other as many of them do the same things well and the same things poorly. Joey Hauser and Thomas Kithier are just too flat-footed, lack too much athleticism and do not have enough above the rim game to play next to each other. Yet still they do. Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko are both athletic and tall enough, yet they really have no offensive game to speak of and are still raw with their overall mental game. Malik Hall is a good, talented player, but as of now he has no position. Not next to other 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 front-court players that can’t make up for his own lack of size. Julius Marble, while showing plenty of potential in the post and on offense, has seemingly forgot to also work on his defense and rebounding during the offseason. These two things, though, would make a world of difference in a group where no player truly possesses a well-rounded package that you can throw out there against any kind of opponent.
Spartans‘ roster leaves a lot of future questions marks
The front-court could be seen as a poster child for the entire roster. Overall this Spartan team has way too many players that are in one form or another one-dimensional. Many guys are either good on offense or good on defense. Many guys have one skill on offense with which they excel, yet if they are asked to do anything other than that they struggle. Think of Gabe Brown. Great leaper, good shooter who can get his shot off from anywhere. Yet almost whenever he is forced to put the ball on the deck or make a good pass, it is over. Thomas Kithier can be a gritty rebounder, a strong rim runner and someone who does a lot of the little things like setting picks or making the right cuts. Yet without any form of offensive game outside of his patented strong movement off the ball it becomes a one-man disadvantage on offense for MSU way too often. The same has to be said for Joey Hauser who is a tremendous offensive talent yet rarely ever uses his full repertoire on that end. When he is in he mostly floats around the perimeter and takes a lot of ill-advised shots too early in the shot clock. It is on defense, though, where he basically becomes unplayable most of the time, something that was an issue at Marquette as well.
Now in the past the Spartans also didn’t have complete players up and down their roster, almost no team in America ever has that. They usually had one or two guys who would lift up the entire rest oft he team and make less skilled players better. Guys like Cassius Winston, Draymond Green, Denzel Valentine or Kalin Lucas were so good that they could put entire teams on their backs and all the other players thrived in their roles beside them. But not only does the current group not have such a leader, a role in which Aaron Henry never got comfortable even if his recent numbers look good, the role players also are not doing what typical Michigan State players usually do. Rebounding has been an issue for years now, at least by Spartan standards. Defense, toughness, mentally tough play — all things that this program was built on, they have been lost somewhere in the last couple of years and months. While we might never see those old Spartan days again with rugged rebounding maniacs at almost every position, the program would surely do better if they rediscover some of the aspects that have made them a premier program in the first place.
More problems could loom on the horizon
But when you look at the roster it will be tough to find the magic hat out of which Izzo will pull these kinds of changes. Aaron Henry, one of the few players who physically and in terms of his game could be considered part of the solution rather than part oft he problem, will most likely be gone. Then who knows if all players will stay on. There were rumors of Rocket Watts thinking about going pro after this year, but no NBA team will even think about him after his struggles throughout the year. There are many other guys who will take a long hard look at the rotations, the minute distribution and the role they had. I would certainly not rule out any transfers. And even if everyone stays around, this roster as of now seems like a completely misfitting group of guys without any kind of star that can knit everything together. Jaden Akins, Pierre Brooks and Max Christie all look to be very talented kids who should make an impact early and help in certain areas where the team has struggled in recent years. Yet considering the usually long learning curve young guys have in Izzo’s system it certainly puts a big question mark on the overall ceiling the team might be able to have next season.
And this is where it gets frustrating. It wasn’t long ago that everything in the gigantic green and white machine was humming and every fan, the coaching staff and the program were able to look ahead to at least another three or four year stretch of championship caliber play paired with big expectations. But without any fresh blood in the front-court after Enoch Boakye’s de-commitment, with the possibility of Emoni Bates never setting a foot on campus and with the current group of guys not looking like a true base for future success, a few middling years all of a sudden seem just as realistic as anything MSU dreamed of just months ago. Other fans have been there, other programs have been there. It is not a great situation to be in, but if the last 20 plus years have taught MSU fans anything, then it is to, in the end, still trust in Tom Izzo.
Fortunately, he never had to deal with a situation like this before…which makes the current one that much more daunting.