A quick review of the 2020-21 season—
One of the most bizarre seasons in college basketball history due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on the court, the 2020-2021 season proved more frustrating for Michigan State Spartans fans than maybe any other campaign in the last 10 years. After a hot start to the season (6-0 in non-conference play), the team struggled with consistency, shooting, offensive efficiency, defensive execution, injuries, a protracted COVID-pause, and with line-up and coaching-related issues (in a surprising turn of events). The team struggled its way to the First Four round of the NCAA Tournament, thanks to Aaron Henry’s sublime two-way play, an increase in minutes for Marcus Bingham Jr., and a timely explosion from Rocket Watts against Michigan.
The agonizing overtime defeat to UCLA in the opening contest of the tournament was only compounded by UCLA’s dramatic run to the Final Four. Leaving the players, coaches, and MSU fans wondering what might have been if things had broken slightly differently at various points in the season.
Heading into last season things looked far rosier — so what went wrong?
My predictions on Joey Hauser and Rocket Watts were disastrously off the mark — it is tough to say which projection I was further off on.
My prediction on Watts was probably the most predictable to be wrong on, as I was projecting a steady increase in performance based on the final few games of his freshman season and assuming that he would be more-or-less “fine” in his new role as a point guard. Watts proved largely uncomfortable at the point guard spot (despite solid-enough performance there to open the season), his shooting never improved, and his defense completely fell off the map after a striking second half of the season on defense as a freshman.
My prediction on Hauser followed a classic trap: I based my prediction off of his freshman year film, a still-reasonable assumption that redshirt years do help players improve physical deficiencies, and the reports from, and conversations with, folks inside the program (specifically the coaching staff). The trap? Predicting performance without actually watching the player play in their new context. If I had seen Hauser in his “new body” I do not think I would have been so bullish — he added weight, yes, but it was bad weight that made him less athletic and less mobile (an incredible pair of steps backward for a redshirt season).
Given the information I had at the time, for both players, I do not believe my predictions to have been “insane,” but they certainly were more confident due to the program’s long history of player development.
I was dead-on regarding Aaron Henry and Joshua Langford — Henry turned in a starring two-way performance and Langford provided instant minutes and production even if his offensive efficiency lagged a bit behind where I expected it to be. I was confident in Malik Hall and Gabe Brown as a dynamic bench duo, and both had moments, but neither found consistency. I was confident in Mady Sissoko and Marcus Bingham Jr. at the center position, and the staff eventually came around to playing those two at the end of the season — in fact, both should have played more minutes than they did down the stretch of the season.
The biggest “miss” for me last year was my assumption that Tom Izzo and the coaching staff would maintain their own levels, and they simply did not. They failed to identify the proper playing rotation until the last 10 games of the season, they were ultimately unwilling to move away from players that were not executing on defense, and they never prioritized the other two staples of the program: rebounding and running. All-in-all, it was the worst coaching performance from an Izzo-led staff that I have seen; the pandemic and the strangeness of the season clearly affected them as individuals and as a group, but I am confident that they will bounce back this season.
A brief retrospective on the NCAA Tournament:
In my pre-tournament rankings and predictions piece, I was able to correctly predict two out of the four Final Four teams and did correctly predict that Baylor would win the NCAA Tournament. But my reading on the tournament as a whole was as off as my reading on Michigan State in the preseason; at least in comparison to recent seasons’ NCAA Tournament brackets. The tournament itself was fascinating, it should also have been incredibly reassuring for the Michigan State Spartans players, coaches, and fans.
Why do I say that? Well, this tournament reaffirmed some truisms and underscored the sound approach to program and team-building that Tom Izzo continues to pursue:
- Gonzaga was terrific all season long (despite competition-related slander), but even in the preseason I identified a couple of potential problems for them, which both played out pretty clearly in the championship game against Baylor: the Bulldogs did not have a ton of depth (they played only six or seven guys, for all intents and purposes) and their personnel had serious questions on the defensive end outside of Jalen Suggs (who is terrific) and Joel Ayayi (solid). Gonzaga’s lack of depth — the Zags were unable to bring an impact player off their bench — and the team’s individual defensive flaws and inability to cover for those flaws as a team ultimately doomed their magical season to merely nearly-perfect.
- Baylor really hammered home the validity of Tom Izzo’s team-building concepts: defense, transition play, “connectedness,” guard-play, rim-protection, and athletic and strong forwards who can make a defense adaptable. Baylor’s team defense was superb all year, and the Bears relied on having at least three “plus-defenders” on the court at all times. Baylor was terrific in transition off of turnovers, rebounds, and even makes. They were a team that communicated terrifically, was organized, and in constant contact with each other (look at the number of times they high-fived, picked each other up, put hands on each other’s shoulders, etc. there is a large literature on the value of “literal” connectedness). Baylor’s three guards were superb all year — and note that none of them have “prototypical NBA size” — they could all shoot, handle, defend, pass, and get to the line. Baylor had rim-protection, and I do not just mean shot-blocking (none of their three shot-blockers are even excellent shot-blockers); rather, Baylor contested everything at the rim and did not allow free trips through the paint very often at all. Finally, Mark Vital was cut from exactly the same cloth as Andre Hutson, Matt Trannon, Raymar Morgan, Draymond Green, Branden Dawson, and Xavier Tillman. Izzo’s best teams, like this Baylor team, have always had a smaller, mobile, long-armed, and strong forward who can defend multiple positions, rebound, and does not require a ton of sets or touches to be effective on offense.
- One of the most exciting parts about Gonzaga and Baylor is that neither team has a “prototypical NBA big” — neither team relied on a seven-foot monster center — you need size, but you do not need overwhelming size to win in college basketball. A slightly shorter, but stronger and longer, big is key. More often than not, strength and wingspan pay dividends that simple height cannot.
- Finally, veterans are essential to winning in college basketball — this remains as true as ever. In the one-and-done era, there have only been two title-winners dominated by freshmen.
Turning the page...
With a renewed passion that I am sure Izzo and the rest of the program are feeling as well, let us, then, look at this offseason and begin to turn the page to the coming season. While there remains much to determine about the roster, a lot of moves and changes have already occurred.
With the departures of Jack Hoiberg, Rocket Watts, Thomas Kithier, and Foster Loyer to the transfer portal, Aaron Henry to the NBA, and Joshua Langford stepping away from basketball, and the additions of Tyson Walker, Pierre Brooks II, Max Christie, and Jaden Akins, where does the depth chart stand for now?
Here is how I see the depth-chart at this point:
1 - Tyson Walker (6’0” jr), AJ Hoggard (6’3” so)
2 - Max Christie (6’6” fr), Jaden Akins (6’3” fr)
3 - Gabe Brown (6’7” sr), Pierre Brooks II (6’5” fr)
4 - Malik Hall (6’7” jr), Joey Hauser (6’9” sr)
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr. (6’11” sr), Mady Sissoko (6’9” so), Julius Marble (6’8” jr)
There remain two open scholarships at this point, and I expect at least one of those two to be filled by the staff. If Emoni Bates does not reclassify to join the 2021-22 freshman class, then I would expect the staff to find a player from the transfer portal — likely a senior. With five bodies in the front-court already, all of them capable enough and veteran players in their own rights, I do not expect an addition there (although we shouldn’t rule it out), unless that addition is a traditional transfer who will redshirt the next season. Rather, I think the staff will target a player who can play on the wing, and, therefore, ease the immediate burden on Akins and Brooks.
While I am confident that both players will be more than capable of fitting in and playing at a high level right away, the staff may want another veteran to be able to throw in with Gabe Brown early on in the season — Bryce Thompson (Kansas), Rasir Bolton (Iowa State), and Darryl Morsell (Maryland), for example would appear to fit this description. Another couple of interesting names in the portal: Tre Mitchell, a talented, long forward transferring from UMass and Henry Coleman, a raw, long, strong, and athletic undersized power forward transferring from Duke.
SWOT Analysis — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
SWOT analyses can be helpful (like any analytical framework) and I often engage in this kind of analysis implicitly; I figure that I should bring it front and center.
- Marcus Bingham Jr.: the best returning player on the team, Bingham has a tremendous defensive impact when he plays — while some Spartan fans and, seemingly, the Spartan coaches at times are unsure whether or not Bingham can sustain his level of play over the balance of 20 or more minutes per game, I am quite confident that he will be able to and that playing him at least half of every game will go a long way toward making Michigan State one of the best defensive groups in the nation next season. As I noted earlier this spring, Bingham was simply outstanding in just about every way that we can measure:
If we're real, Marcus Bingham jr WOULD have been the DPOY if Izzo had just played him 20 mpg all year.— Sam Tyler (@SFLGT) March 9, 2021
If you lower the min% threshold to 25%, Marcus Bingham jr is maybe the most impactful defender in the nation(#1 DBPM, #5 Drtg, #80 Dreb%, #9 Blk%, #228 Stl%).
Straight up. pic.twitter.com/ZrvRYgfO3L
- The Four Horsemen: Tyson Walker, Max Christie, Jaden Akins, and Pierre Brooks II are going to form an outstanding group of newcomers in the Michigan State back-court. Walker is a terrific offensive operator in the pick-and-roll and a natural scorer even with his slight frame and smaller stature. Christie has length on defense, outstanding shooting and scoring ability from all three levels, can handle the ball, pass, and has a terrific basketball IQ. Akins will be one of the best point-of-attack defenders (along with Walker) in the Big Ten, can really shoot the ball from three-point range, and is a terrific athlete at his position. Finally, Brooks’ three-point shooting is terrific, and his physical, steady approach should see him playing minutes all season long.
- Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, Joey Hauser, and Julius Marble: these four veteran players have all flashed their ability in their time in the program, but none have found a level of consistency on both ends to mark them as stars. There will certainly be opportunities for all four to secure such a status this coming season. Their respective strengths include: Brown’s shooting, transition scoring, and length, Hall’s clear offensive talent, defensive sense, and his solid athleticism, and Hauser and Marble’s respective offensive games.
- Walker, Akins, Christie, Hoggard, and Brooks all have another level or two to reach in terms of their physical development — Walker, Akins, and Christie must add strength without sacrificing their quickness, and Hoggard and Brooks must continue to trim body fat and quicken their feet.
- Bingham, obviously, must continue to add good strength and weight — he does not need a ton more, just another 15 or so pounds, but he has to maintain that weight once he adds it, which has been a struggle.
- Bingham, Sissoko, Marble, and Hauser ALL had issues with fouling last year — Bingham due to lack of strength (his conditioning related fouls really decreased by the end of the year to the point where his cardiovascular conditioning allowed him to make multiple efforts on defense without getting so tired as to feel compelled to foul), Sissoko due to lack of physical nuance (though these also decreased as Mady gained more comfort with the pace of the game and improved his hand-discipline), and Marble and Hauser due to a startling lack of foot-speed, hip flexibility, and defensive anticipation.
- Brown and Hall’s weaknesses really are mental — both players must shift their attitudes permanently into full-throttle, full-intensity mode. If either guy wants to play in the NBA, they will have to bring it all-game, every game in the exact same way that Aaron Henry did this past year. We have seen games from both guys where they play with this mentality, but we have also seen them drift—drifting days must cease.
- There should be a “point guard revolution” this coming season: Walker is a far better point guard than any of the players Michigan State had at the position last season, Hoggard should present a far better version of himself than he did last year when he inexplicably struggled to finish in the paint (an absolute hallmark of his high school career), and Akins should provide incredible point-of-attack defense and confident scoring off of the bench — Akins’ scoring game is a better-version of the kind of scoring game that Watts tantalized with: he is terrific in the mid-range, has an excellent step-back, a great first-step, and should shoot right around 35 percent from three-point range, if not better.
- The three-point shooting for the team, as a whole, should look dramatically better than it did last season: Henry started the year off on a brutal cold-streak, Hauser put too much pressure on himself from beyond the arc all season, Hall was not taking nearly enough three-point shots (once he started taking more, per game, his three-point percentage steadily rose to the point that he finished the year at 36 percent), Watts, Hoggard, Langford, and Loyer all shot career-worst percentages from beyond the arc, and Brown’s three-point volume was simply far too low all year. This coming season, the four newcomers to the back-court should all shoot at least 35 percent from three-point range, with Christie and Brooks very likely to shoot closer to 40 percent if their high school production carries over.
- The team’s rim-protection should be FAR better than it was last year: This can happen simply by playing Bingham half of every game at the center position, and due to Sissoko playing around 10 to 15 minutes per game as well. Sissoko’s strength, activity, length, and shot-blocking should really come to the fore with a full offseason of work with the staff.
- The team’s rebounding should also greatly improve: Again, this happens simply by playing Bingham and Sissoko as many minutes as possible — both players are excellent rebounding bigs, and should only improve next season.
- Thanks to the influx of talented guards and aided by the improvements on defense and on the defensive glass, the team’s transition game should improve dramatically as well: Walker, Hoggard, and Akins are all adept in the open-court, they like pushing the ball ahead with the dribble and the pass, and have a far better natural sense of how to attack defenses in flux.
- The biggest threat is the step-up in level for Tyson Walker and the three freshmen. If they struggle to adapt to the pace of play, the level of athlete, or the increased pressure of their new team-context, then the team may struggle barring one or more of the returning players taking a Henry-esque jump in their level of play.
- The second-tier of threats revolve around the needed physical developments and attitude developments of the returning players: What if Bingham’s physical development stalls? What if Hauser and Marble come back as slow-footed as they were last year? What if Brown and Hall remain too passive?
- Finally, if Brown’s ball-handling and Hall’s offensive assertiveness do not take another step forward then the entire team will become far easier to defend, and much more offensive pressure will be placed on the shoulders of the newcomers.
It is still early in the offseason, and I have not settled on any definitive preseason rankings, but it is clear, already, that there will be a number of teams, on paper, with potentially devastating rosters. Among those I include, at this point (note some of these projected rosters may include players who have declared for the NBA Draft, but maintained college eligibility):
- Duke: Jeremy Roach, Trevor Keels (five-star freshman), Paolo Banchero (five-star freshman, likely top-five NBA draft pick), AJ Griffin (five-star freshman), Mark Williams, Theo John, Wendell Moore, and Joey Baker.
- Gonzaga: Andrew Nembhard, Hunter Sallis (five-star freshman), Chet Holmgren (five-star freshman, likely top-five NBA draft pick), Kaden Perry (top-50 freshman), Drew Timme, Ben Gregg, Anton Watson, Julian Strawther, and Dominick Harris.
- UCLA: Tyger Campbell, Will McClendon (top-50 freshman), Jules Bernard, David Singleton, Peyton Watson (five-star freshman, likely NBA lottery pick), Jaylen Clark, Jake Kyman, Cody Riley, Myles Johnson, Kenneth Nwuba, and Mac Etienne (at least).
- Baylor: LJ Cryer, Adam Flagler, Langston Love (top-30 freshman), Jordan Turner, Matthew Mayer, Kendall Brown (top-30 freshman), Jeremy Sochan (top-50 freshman), Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua, Dain Dainja, Flo Thamba, and Zach Loveday.
- Villanova: Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, Caleb Daniels, Bryan Antoine, Justin Moore, Brandon Slater, Eric Dixon, Trey Patterson, Nanna Njoku (top-100 freshman), Angelo Brizzi (top-150 freshman), Jordan Longino (top-100 freshman).
- Michigan: Eli Brooks, Frankie Collins (top-40 freshman), Zeb Jackson, Kobe Bufkin (top-40 freshman), Isaiah Barnes (top-150 freshman), Caleb Houstan (five-star freshman), Brandon Johns, Hunter Dickinson, Moussa Diabate (five-star freshman, possible lottery pick), and Terrance Williams.
- Purdue: Isaiah Thompson, Eric Hunter, Brandon Newman, Sasha Stefanovic, Jaden Ivey, Ethan Morton, Mason Gillis, Trevion Williams, Zach Edey, Caleb Furst (top-75 freshman), Trey Kaufman-Renn (top-150 freshman).
- Alabama: Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly, JD Davison (five-star freshman), Nimari Burnett, Keon Ellis, Jusaun Holt (top-100 freshman), Josh Primo, Noah Gurley, Juwan Gary, James Rojas, Keon Ambrose-Hylton, Alex Tchikou, and Charles Bediako (top-50 freshman).
- Kentucky: Kellan Grady, Davion Mintz, Nolan Hickman (top-30 freshman), Dontaie Allen, Keion Brooks, Jacob Toppin, Bryce Hopkins (five-star freshman), Oscar Tshiebwe, Lance Ware, and Damion Collins (five-star freshman, likely lottery pick).
- Tennessee: Kennedy Chandler (five-star freshman, likely first-round NBA draft pick), Justin Powell, Victor Bailey Jr., Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, Jahmai Mashack (top-60 freshman), John Fulkerson, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (five-star freshman, likely first round NBA draft pick), and Jonas Aidoo (top-50 freshman).
- Florida State: Caleb Mills, Jalen Warley (top-60 freshman), Anthony Polite, Matthew Cleveland (top-30 freshman), Malik Osborne, Balsa Koprivica, John Butler (top-50 freshman), Naheem McLeod
- Ohio State: Jamari Wheeler, Duane Washington Jr., Meechie Johnson, Malaki Branham (top-30 freshman), Eugene Brown, Justin Ahrens, Justice Sueing, Seth Towns, Kyle Young, EJ Liddell, Joey Brunk, and Zed Key.
- Kansas: Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, David McCormack, Jalen Wilson, KJ Adams (top-60 freshman), Zachary Clemence (top-50 freshman), Dajuan Harris, Kyle Cuffe (top-100 freshman), Bobby Pettiford Jr. (top-100 freshman), and Sydney Curry (top-10 JUCO).
- Texas: Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones, Devin Askew, Timmy Allen, Christian Bishop, Brock Cunningham, Jaylon Tyson (top-30 freshman), and, probably, Greg Brown and Jericho Sims.
- Maryland: Fatts Russell, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Hakim Hart, Donta Scott, James Graham, Ike Cornish, Qudus Wahab, Marcus Dockery, and Julian Reese.
- Houston: Kyler Edwards, Marcus Sasser, Tramon Mark, Reggie Chaney, Josh Carlton, Ja’Vier Francis.
- Oregon: Will Richardson, Eric Williams Jr., N’Faly Dante, Nathan Bittle (five-star freshman, and likely lottery pick), Lok Wur, and Frank Kepnang.
- Indiana: Rob Phinisee, Parker Stewart, Xavier Johnson, Tamar Bates (top-50 freshman), Trey Galloway, Anthony Leal, Miller Kopp, Jerome Hunter, Jordan Geronimo, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Race Thompson, and Logan Duncomb (top-75 freshman).
So where do the Spartans stack-up?
At this point, I see Michigan State straddling the Tier 2 and Tier 3 groups of teams. There is a ton of talent on this squad, but until there is a clearer rotation, and until a few players really take a step up, I will hesitate before putting them into the Tier 1 group. To win big in college basketball, a team really needs three to four players playing at an extremely high level on both ends of the court; who will those players be for Michigan State?
It seems clear that Marcus Bingham, Tyson Walker, Max Christie, Gabe Brown, Malik Hall, and Joey Hauser are the early candidates, but will three of four of them really step up their levels of play on both ends consistently? That remains to be seen.
Depth chart revisited:
A starting group of Walker, Christie, Brown, Hall, and Bingham looks like a dynamic and balanced group. Walker, Christie, Brown, and Hall can all shoot well from three-point range, Walker and Christie should provide dribble penetration, Walker and Bingham should form a solid pick-and-roll tandem, and all five players should be good-to-great defenders.
Hauser, Hoggard, and Sissoko will likely begin the season as the first three players off the bench — it will be essential to have one of Sissoko or Bingham playing alongside Hauser for every minute he is on the court unless he demonstrates vast improvement on the defensive end.
The next three players — Akins, Brooks, and Marble — will all have to really work to earn minutes and the trust of the coaching staff in order to determine when they enter games and how much of a role each will have. If Akins and Brooks show that they can defend and knock down shots, then their minute totals should rise as the season progresses, and if Marble can demonstrate improved defensive footwork and reduce his fouls-per-40-minutes, then he may see minutes at both front-court positions.
Once the staff finalizes the roster, we can return to this discussion and suss out exactly who should be getting minutes and shots, and can begin to project ideal playing combinations and “personnel rules” (one such rule is already clear: Walker and Hauser must be paired with one of Bingham or Sissoko whenever they are on the court).
That’s all for now, but as the roster gets finalized and as recruiting picks up (look out for my recruiting update piece coming out very soon), we will check in with the Spartans again in the coming weeks and months.