With the Michigan State roster seemingly settled heading into the meat of the offseason, let’s “game-out” the depth chart...
At this point, while the team still has two open scholarships, the staff appears content with the roster as-is, especially given the impressively talented walk-ons that Tom Izzo has added in Peter Nwoke, Keon Coleman, and Maliq Carr (the latter two who will attempt to play basketball after football season ends — we’ll see if it happens). With a few months of offseason before what will likely become the defining season of the end of Tom Izzo’s tenure in East Lansing, let’s take a look at the depth chart and project how the team will shape up.
While we have yet to get any of the offseason reports about which players are looking great, and who is making strides in their game or physical development, we also have some clear markers and can return, I believe, to assuming a more-normal summer-development assumption than we should have had last May. With the COVID-19 pandemic throwing the team, staff, and individuals for a loop, I should have adjusted my assumptions; my failure to do so led to wildly out of place projections. This season, then, will prove essential to the closing years of Izzo’s tenure because of the intense disappointment of last season, and the opening of questions regarding the current state, and future, of the program. Some of this uncertainty follows directly from the inability of the staff to maximize and improve the performance of the team, generally, over the course of the season, but some of it undoubtedly flows from misplaced assumptions and flawed deductions.
Last spring, I assumed that the offseason would, more-or-less, proceed like the offseason typically does at Michigan State with just about every player making considerable strides in their respective games. That just did not happen, or, rather, the developments that did occur did not “show-up” in a strictly linear fashion last season, if they did at all — Aaron Henry had a largely exponential development, Gabe Brown had a “U-shaped” curve, Marcus Bingham Jr. had a “step-function” trajectory, etc. The disjunctive individual development observers of the program witnessed last year coincided with arguably the least impressive job by the coaching staff (on the floor, at any rate) in some time.
But was this past season an aberration, or the beginning of a decline? Increasingly, it appears that last season will ultimately prove anomalous rather than ominous.
I expect to see a more-normal developmental impact and performance from the team as a whole and from the individual players this summer for a number of reasons:
Tom Izzo has shaken up his staff a bit, and appears fully aware of how much he and his staff have to bounce-back as a collective group. I think we can expect a less-forgiving, more-prickly, more fiery, more desperate, Tom Izzo. This feeds into my claim that this coming season will define Izzo’s “late-tenure” because Tom has no more than 10 years left in his career (and probably less than that), in all likelihood, and he wants another championship — his most recent team-building exercise ultimately failed. Foster Loyer, Thomas Kithier, Rocket Watts, and, to some extent, Joey Hauser did not pan out in the way he envisioned, and Izzo has, as he always has in past seasons following down-years, tweaked his roster-construction again in search of that elusive second championship.
Izzo has a history of doing this — he has, by my math, created roughly six kinds of teams, and the incoming class, combined with the returning talent tells me that he is turning back the clock to recapture arguably his most tantalizing kind of team: the 2005 Final Four team. That group had a bevy of talented wing-forward players, a smaller lead-guard, generally played with one big, and relied on a host of wings and forwards to eventually overwhelm teams.
This coming season Spartan fans will not see a direct replication of this team for one key reason — basketball as a sport, and college basketball, generally, continues to evolve. Instead, Tom Izzo will field a 2005-squad “2.0,” as it were. What differences can we expect to see materialize?
- The front-court — Paul Davis was a major scoring threat and offensive hub; but bigs in college basketball have not dominated the post in the same way, offensively, in some years (Udoka Azubuike was a dunker-defender, Luka Garza couldn’t carry his team in the postseason by himself, and even Gonzaga’s Drew Timme proved that offense-first big-man hubs can be schemed). Instead, Marcus Bingham Jr. is a modern “ideal big” — an incredible defensive force, a solid finisher, and a terrific rebounder.
- The smaller point guard — in 2005, Drew Neitzel was a freshman and not yet the dominant force he would become as an upperclassman. Despite this, by the end of the year, Neitzel hit timely three-point shots, ran the break with aplomb, and facilitated the wing-forward-driven offense. Tyson Walker, Jaden Akins, and even AJ Hoggard will have role-overlap with Neitzel’s freshman season, but will have expanded opportunities (particularly Walker in the pick-and-roll), and have much higher defensive floors than Neitzel did as a freshman. This year’s team will get much more out of the point guard position than the 2005 team did.
- The wings and forwards — the 2005 team had a legendary cast of wings and forwards in Chris Hill, Alan Anderson, Mo Ager, Shannon Brown, and Kelvin Torbert. This year’s group will not match that level of production or impact (although if Aaron Henry had returned they might have). But this year’s group will really turn heads, on a national scale, by the end of the season. Gabe Brown, Max Christie (in particular), Jaden Akins, Pierre Brooks, AJ Hoggard, and Malik Hall will enter the season as an unheralded group, but every one of them, bar Hoggard, can shoot from three-point range, they can all handle and pass, and they can all defend (do not let people try to con you into believing that Christie will be a bad defender). This group gets even stronger if the three walk-on freshmen add any sort of positive contributions beyond the practice squad (Keon Coleman, in particular, has Kelvin Torbert levels of athleticism).
- Secondary front-court players — the 2005 team relied on Matt Trannon (another dual-sport athlete) and Drew Naymick to support Davis and Anderson, but this team has, frankly, a stronger set of reserve bigs (at least on paper). Mady Sissoko, Joey Hauser, and Julius Marble all appear set for significant seasons, with Sissoko having a large amount of potential that began to show-out toward the end of last season. Hauser’s offensive talent was offset by his defensive struggles (with his lateral agility primarily), but if he and Marble, who similarly struggled to move his feet effectively on defense, can do enough work on the agility ladder this summer, then this group could become more than potent.
So what does the depth chart look like, and what might the minutes distribution be, next season?
1 - Tyson Walker (6’0” jr.), AJ Hoggard (6’3” so.)
2 - Max Christie (6’6” fr.), Jaden Akins (6’3” fr.), Keon Coleman (6’4” fr., WO)
3 - Gabe Brown (6’8” sr.), Pierre Brooks II (6’5” fr.), Maliq Carr (6’5” so., WO)
4 - Joey Hauser (6’9” sr.), Malik Hall (6’7” jr.), Peter Nwoke (6’9” fr., WO)
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr. (6’11” sr.), Mady Sissoko (6’9” so.), Julius Marble (6’8” jr.)
- I have Joey Hauser slated to start at power forward, currently, and I will be surprised if Izzo does not go back to give Hauser a chance to start early on — if Hauser finally gets his feet up-to-speed on defense, then he really can play a huge role offensively. If, however, he remains more-or-less the same player he was last year, then Malik Hall should absolutely start and eat into Hauser’s minutes.
- Either way, I see Hall having a monster season in the upcoming year. He has flashed a potent offensive game, and the ability to play high-level defense in his first two seasons, but in the coming year he will be the most important player off of the bench and will be relied on to produce consistently on both ends of the court.
- Speaking of consistency, that will be the determining factor between AJ Hoggard and Jaden Akins in the reserve guard spots. If either plays inconsistently (particularly on defense), then Izzo will likely be ruthless in shortening the rotation. To be clear: I am not concerned about either player in this regard. Though a number of Spartans fans appear to have given up on AJ Hoggard, I am more excited than ever about him as a prospect. His offense was uncharacteristically bad last season — finishing and paint-play, strengths of his game in high school and AAU-ball, abandoned him (along with his confidence) because his minutes were so inconsistent — this year with Rocket Watts no-longer bizarrely playing more minutes than Hoggard (despite being the worse player, over the balance of the season, on both ends of the court, Watts played far more minutes than Hoggard), AJ’s game will become an indelible feature off the bench and will win games for the team.
- In fact, the entire one-to-three position group for the team next year will, in all likelihood, dramatically outplay last season’s group — I say this despite Henry’s historical brilliance. This group does not appear to have any truly weak defenders, which will prove significant. In fact, while I thought this would define last year’s group (I was wrong) it will likely be true this coming season. Gabe Brown proved last year that when healthy, and especially when given responsibility, that he can play excellent defense (just because guys made shots over Brown at times last year does not mean his defense was not good). Akins, Hoggard, and Walker all project to be outstanding point-of-attack (POA) defenders as point guards — something this team has not had since Travis Trice graduated (his senior year he did very well at the POA). And Christie and Brooks project to be solid defenders as well, even as freshmen — Brooks with his strength and nose for rebounds, and Christie with his defensive IQ, improved strength, and terrific length.
- I cannot emphasize enough how vital having excellent and weakness-free perimeter defense is in college basketball these days. Even 10 years ago, coaches could hide weak defenders on weaker offensive players — and you can still see some of that — but against contending teams, in light of the proliferation of three-point shooting and the space it creates, you simply cannot afford to have perimeter players who cannot defend. This coming season, Michigan State will move from strength-to-strength on the perimeter, an aspect of the roster that many are overlooking.
- This guard-wing group (along with Hauser and Hall) will also have a terrific ability to shoot from three-point range. I have mentioned this before, but, assuming Hauser’s three-point shooting regresses to his “true-mean,” the Spartans may have three players shoot better than 40-percent from three-point range (Christie, Hauser, Brown), and another four players shoot around 35-percent from three-point range (Walker, Hall, Akins, and Brooks II). Offensively, that will really open things up for Izzo’s sets and for Walker and Hoggard in the pick-and-roll and the pick-and-pop.
- In addition to the excellent defense at the point-of-attack, Michigan State will also boast what may become one of the best defensive center playing-groups in the entire nation. Bingham and Sissoko project as two of the best shot-blocking and rebounding bigs in the Big Ten Conference, and may end up as two of the best in the nation. Their combination of length, improved mobility, rebounding on both ends of the court, and ability to defend without fouling will go a long way to determining whether this team merely competes for a conference title or whether Michigan State emerges as a national title contender. If I were a betting man, I would bet on the latter. Bingham was a top-20 defender in the nation on a per-minute basis last year, and this year he will be playing upward of 20 minutes per game. Consider yourself warned.
- Julius Marble should also have some sort of a role, especially if he improves his footwork defensively, which was the source of basically all of his issues on defense (particularly his tendency to foul — a disastrous problem for him last year).
What will the minutes and scoring distributions look like?
Last year, I had rosy projections for minutes and statistical seasons for the team, but, as I try this exercise again, I will restrain my exuberance and excitement, while remembering that last year’s team was by far the worst team and season that Izzo has presided over in the last 22 years, and the only team in the Kenpom era to finish worse than No. 45 in the website’s rankings (2011 team) — last year the team finished No. 64 in Kenpom’s final ratings.
There are 200 minutes to distribute, I expect Michigan State to raise its scoring per game from 69.4 points per game to somewhere around 77 points per game, and to lower its points allowed per game from 71.1 to somewhere around 67 points per game. From a rebounding perspective, I expect Michigan State to revert to form and secure around 40 rebounds per game, which has become a rough barometer for moderately-fast paced Michigan State teams in the last decade. I also expect the team to produce at least 16 assists per game, which appears to be the approximate floor for even average Michigan State teams. I also expect Michigan State to be one of the national leaders in blocked-shots, and expect to see the team average around six blocks per contest.
With those key figures in place, here is how I see the statistical season playing out (roughly):
Gabe Brown - 28 minutes (on either wing), 12.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 1.0 block
Max Christie - 28 minutes (on either wing), 12.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 block
Tyson Walker - 28 minutes (all at point-guard), 12.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists
Malik Hall - 25 minutes (20 at forward, five on the wing), 8.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist
Joey Hauser - 22 minutes (20 at forward, two at center), 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist
Marcus Bingham Jr. - 20 minutes (all at center), 8.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks
AJ Hoggard - 15 minutes (either at point guard or on the wing), 3.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists
Mady Sissoko - 10 minutes (all at center), 3.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks
Julius Marble - Eight minutes (all at center), 3.0 points, 2.0 rebounds
Jaden Akins - Eight minutes (either at point guard or on the wing), 2.0 points, 1.0 rebound, 1.0 assists
Pierre Brooks II - Eight minutes (on either wing), 2.0 points, 1.0 rebound, 1.0 assists
All in all...
This team is currently flying under-the-radar. But there is a strong chance that the 2021-2022 squad will shock a lot teams and win a lot of games come springtime. The schedule is shaping up to be extremely challenging (apparently with Kansas, Duke, Villanova, and three out of the field in the Bahamas: Loyola-Chicago, VCU, Connecticut, Auburn, Arizona State, Syracuse, and Baylor), and this team is integrating a new point guard (Walker), a new shooting-guard-wing (Christie), replacing its best player (Aaron Henry), and asking a number of returners to dramatically increase their role and production.
While that seems like a large set of asks, the fit for this team appears to be far better, even on the less-ideal projections, than the team performed in reality, last season. Assuming Walker, Hoggard, and Akins provide a jolt to the point guard spot (last year was the worst-performing point guard position group in Izzo’s entire tenure), and assuming Bingham Sissoko, and Marble can stay on the court, increase their minutes (Bingham and Sissoko), and avoid foul trouble, then that group will be a real position of strength.
Hall, Hauser, and Brown will, undoubtedly, improve on their ho-hum last season, and Christie (a Gary Harris-level talent), Akins (a stud athlete, defender, and shot-maker), and Brooks (a high-level wing player with strength and deep shooting range) will form a dynamic trio of wing players.
This team is going to be really good. Just remember you heard it here first.