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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: The offseason has been bizarre

A lot has transpired this offseason for MSU, but most of it has not been positive for the Spartans.

Michigan State v Duke Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2021-2022 season ended for Tom Izzo and the Michigan State men’s basketball program on March 20, after the Spartans fell to the Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32.

Roughly two months later, a lot has changed for MSU — and not in a positive way, for the most part.

Michigan State had three players with remaining eligibility enter the NBA Draft: senior forward Gabe Brown, senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. and freshman shooting guard Max Christie.

Brown and Bingham both could have returned for an extra year of eligibility due to the waiver granted by the NCAA to all 2020-2021 winter athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they will both stay in the draft and pursue professional basketball. Christie initially maintained his college eligibility, but has now decided to hire an agent and remain in the draft.

The team also lost forward/center Julius Marble, who entered the transfer portal in early May and eventually chose to go to Texas A&M. It was a surprising choice for Marble, who was in line for plenty of minutes in Michigan State’s depleted front-court, but ultimately being closer to home and being able to spend more time with his family seemingly played heavily into Marble’s decision to transfer.

For those counting, that is four players from last season’s team with remaining eligibility who all played at least 14.4 minutes per game and scored at least 6.4 points per game in 2021-2022 who have now departed from Michigan State. Additionally, walk-on forward Peter Nwoke also entered the transfer portal.

MSU did make one addition this year, recently signing center Carson Cooper out of IMG Academy. However, while Cooper is a developmental player who will provide important depth in the front-court in the future, he is expected to redshirt for the 2022-2023 season. That does not help the Spartans’ depth issues in the post this coming season.

Additionally, Izzo lost his associate head coach in Dwayne Stephens, who took over as head coach for the Western Michigan Broncos in early April. Oddly, six weeks later, Michigan State has still not hired an assistant coach to replace Stephens, and only a couple names have been loosely linked to the job (Richmond assistant coach Maurice Joseph and Western Michigan assistant coach Thomas Kelley are names to watch — both played under Izzo at MSU), with no real movement on that front. MSU also lost another member of the coaching staff, as grad assistant Manny Dosanjh has joined Stephens at Western Michigan.

To make matters worse, Michigan State has struck out on its only two known transfer portal targets — Jalen Bridges, who transferred from West Virginia to Baylor, and Micah Parrish, who transferred from in-state program Oakland out to the West Coast at San Diego State.

By all accounts, Bridges was considered a top target for the Spartans, and Izzo and his staff even reportedly made an in-home visit with Bridges and his family. Parrish took a visit to Michigan State, but there are conflicting rumblings about whether or not the Spartans actually offered him. At the very least, MSU had interest in Parrish, and is need of depth on the wing.

What is bizarre, though, is that leading up to it, rumors across various message boards and private messages I’ve exchanged with those who had information all strongly indicated that Christie was planning to stay in the draft for weeks before it became public. Christie’s decision wasn’t complete surprising. However, according to a report by Spartan Tailgate, Michigan State has also been operating under this assumption for quite some time and still has not been able to add any shooting guards or small forwards as of yet.

While Michigan State should look to add wing depth, perhaps even more importantly, Michigan State needs to add bodies in the front-court, particularly at center. The issue is, there aren’t a ton of quality big men available in the portal who haven’t already selected other programs, and there have been zero names at the position connected to MSU as far as I know.

It is now fairly late into the offseason process. Many of the top portal targets have already found new schools. That doesn’t mean that Michigan State isn’t still looking or that there aren’t still good players available, but it is baffling that no big men have been reportedly connected to MSU thus far. The men’s basketball program has done a good job of keeping things close to the vest. There have not been many leaks coming out of the building.

That said, it is fair to ponder some things. Has Michigan State been picky about who it targets? Although he has used it sparingly in the past, is Izzo’s unwillingness to truly embrace the transfer portal and pivot more toward the current college basketball landscape to blame? Or is it that players in today’s day and age don’t want to play for a more old school coach like Izzo? Does MSU feel better about the roster as it currently stands than the fans do? Is there another reason for it? It’s probably a mix of things.

Some of those aforementioned reasons would be alarming, but it is hard to fathom that some of the top talent in the portal wouldn’t want to play for a Hall of Fame coach in Izzo and a program that is consistently among the top-25 best teams in the nation year-in and year-out; a program that has made 24-straight NCAA Tournaments and has never missed the tournament during the lifetime of almost every active college basketball player. I also have a hard time believing that the staff hasn’t done everything in its power to better the roster — perhaps they’ve just struck on some guys.

But there is a disconnect somewhere. Right now, Michigan State is going into the 2022-2023 season with 10 scholarship players. But with Cooper expected to redshirt, there are only nine scholarship players in the expected rotation, including two true freshman: A.J. Hoggard, Tyson Walker, Jaden Akins, Malik Hall, Tre Holloman, Joey Hauser, Pierre Brooks II, Jaxon Kohler and Mady Sissoko.

Do not be surprised if Davis Smith, a former walk-on guard who entered the transfer portal in April, but withdrew his name in early May, ends up receiving one of the open scholarships as well. Smith was on scholarship for the 2021-2022 season. If that is the case, Michigan State has two scholarships available to use, but whether or not MSU actually chooses to use them or not remains a mystery. However, adding a wing and a center would be wise.

The current roster has a lot of talent, especially at the guard position, but lacks depth, size, length, consistent shooting, a go-to scorer, etc. On paper, defensively, the team does not currently have anybody who can protect the rim against the elite big men in the Big Ten.

MSU is counting on Kohler, a true freshman, to be an instant impact player, and on Sissoko, who hustles but is extremely raw, to take a huge step forward at the center position. By all accounts, Kohler is expected to be a strong offensive player immediately. He can score inside and stretch the floor with his outside shooting. But his defense and overall athleticism remain question marks, and Izzo is putting a lot of pressure on the freshman to play 20 or 25 minutes per game.

With that in mind, Kohler has said that he has worked tirelessly at the defensive end, and is confident in his abilities.

If you look across social media or internet message boards, it is easy to see many Michigan State basketball fans are worried about next year’s team. This offseason has inspired little confidence. But remember, Izzo is a Hall of Fame coach and Michigan State is still a premier basketball program and coveted destination for many players. While things have progressed very slowly this offseason, don’t count out the Spartans just yet.