Since the football season is officially over when you blow a 24-6 second half lead to Rutgers, it is time to move on to something more fun like basketball season.
The last three years both our defense and rebounding have been historically bad by Izzo standards.
Last year was the only year of the three we even made the sweet sixteen or finished in the top 25 (#20), and we won zero big ten titles, or big ten tournaments - I know a lot of teams would kill to make the sweet sixteen once every three years but we have been spoiled by Izzo.
Even without one key players returning (Hauser) we are ranked #4 in the preseason polls this year only behind Kansas, Duke and Purdue.
If you want to know why, the biggest reason is Tom Izzo who routinely makes the final four about every four years and a lot of pundits feel he has the team to do it again this year.
Here is just a little Izzo appreciation so we don’t forget how good we have it in basketball:
Izzo only needs 1 more B10 conference title to tie Bobby Knight and Piggy Lambert at 11 ( no other active coach has more than 4, and when we go to 18 teams it will be even harder to collect them )
#1 active coach in elite eights at 10
#1 active coach in final fours with 8 (pretty impressive to win 8 of 10 elite eight matchups)
Most overall wins of any coach at a B10 school in history
Most tournament wins in history by a B10 coach.
Most NCAA tournament wins as the lower seed in history
Most Sweet Sixteens with a team seeded 5th or lower in history
Most consecutive NCAA tournament appearances of any coach in history including Wooden, Coach K, Dean Smith, Bill Self etc.
Side note on Hauser:
It is time to acknowledge the improvement Hauser made over his career. Last year he was our best three point shooter, best rebounder and best free throw shooter. Hauser was only half a point away from being our leading scorer, and was even #3 in dishing out assists, and #4 in steals. Pretty good numbers for an athletically challenged power forward who a lot of people were hoping would not return for his extra year.
Starter - Hoggard (6’4" 210#) senior
Backups - Fears, Holloman, Walker
Hoggard just keeps getting better every year, here are his freshmen, sophomore and junior numbers:
His three point percentage went from 17% to 22% to 33%
Assists went from 2 to 5 to 6
Points went from 3 to 7 to 13
His free throw percentage went from 60 to 63 to 80%
He is a good leader and a good pass first point guard.
He is able to bully his way to the hoop and score or draw fouls, since he is bigger and stronger than most other point guards.
Starter - Walker (6’1" 185#) graduate student
Backups - Akins, Fears, Normand
One of the few un-replaceable players.
He is able to single handedly take over a game and get his own shot when the game is on the line.
He led the team in steals and points while shooting over 40% from the three point line.
Walker can also run the point in crunch time if Hoggard is hurt or in foul trouble, and has been second in assists on the team the past two years.
Starter Akins (6’4" 190#) junior
Backups - Carr, Hall, Normand
The second most irreplaceable player.
Our most versatile defender, and was our most athletic player last year.
He also has improved every year almost tripling his points while almost doubling his assists and rebounds, all while shooting
40% from the three.
Starter - Hall (6’8" 220#) graduate student
Backups - Booker, Carr, Kohler
An enigma of a player.
He shows flashes of brilliance taking over games on both sides of the court, but then has multiple games where he fades into the background, possibly due to his lingering foot injuries.
He was our 5th leading scorer, and 3rd in both rebounds and blocks.
Even as a forward he was 4th in both assists and steals, and he is our best returning free throw shooter.
Hopefully he finally has a healthy full year, but at least there is a lot of talent backing him up if needed.
Starter- Sissoko (6’9" 250#) senior
Backups - Cooper (6’11" 240#), Kohler (6’9" 245#), Booker (6’11" 220#)
The rumors are that Mady has put on a lot of muscle which never hurts banging down low in the big ten.
He obviously has the athletic skills as he showcased in the Kentucky and Gonzaga games last year.
Unfortunately he has yet to demonstrate any consistency, and has not shown the hands to routinely catch the ball and put his dunking ability to use.
Mady is a great natural athlete who can run, jump, rebound, and block shots.
Hopefully this is the year that he finally has enough basketball experience to put those natural gifts to full use.
If not we have quality depth behind him to play center by committee if needed.
Booker (6’11" 220#) was our top recruit at #11, and a McDonald's all American. He is fluid and smooth, and has a good jump shot with range. A bit on the skinny side, but is a good shot blocker and runs, dribbles and passes extremely well for someone an inch away from 7’. Once he puts on some muscle he will be the type of big man the NBA loves.
Fears (6’2" 190#) was also a McDonald's all American, and the #32 recruit. He is a pass first point with good vision, instincts, and leadership. Not a big three point threat, but has a decent pull up jumper. Izzo has compared him to Mateen Cleaves, which is high praise. Hopefully Fears will be running the point and pushing the team for many years like Cleaves did.
Carr (6'5" 220#) was not quite as highly rated at #46, but probably has more notoriety as he is a highlight reel dunker and insanely athletic. Izzo says he may be the most athletic guy he has ever coached, and that is really saying something with Bridges, Richardson, Jaren Jackson etc. Presently he doesn’t have a consistent jump shot, but can rebound, attack the basket, and electrify the crowd with his dunks. As soon as he develops a reliable jump shot, and becomes a shut down defender, he will be off to the NBA.
Normand SF (6'5" 190#) He was ranked as the 124th recruit, has a good jump shot, and is a good dunker in transition.
He is often compared to Matt McQuaid but it remains to be seen if he has Matt’s defensive skills.
If teams try and press we can play five guy that can all handle the ball and pass well, so they should shred a press.
Fears / Holloman
Walker (ran the point at his previous school)
Akins (who was recruited as a point / combo guard)
Booker a center that can pass and dribble.
If you try and play fast you again will be in trouble tying to keep up with
If you try and play big we have plenty of size, except like most teams we don’t have someone to match up with a huge center like Edey (7’4" 305#)
Hoggard 6’4" 215#
Akins 6’4" 190#
Hall 6’ 8" 220#
Booker 6’ 11" 220#
Cooper 6’ 11" 240#
For most teams the only way to handle our athletes will be to play a zone and hope our two 40+% three point shooters have an off night.
The other possibility is to play hack a Shaq and send whoever is playing center to the free throw line as the three returners shot a combined 57% from the free throw line last year.
Preseason predictions have 10 big ten teams mentioned by Lunardi's in his bracketology projections.
MSU, IND and OSU all have top 12 recruiting classes on the way in, and Maryland is in the top 20.
Indiana added a five star center and a 5 star power forward.
Pn St brings in point guard Baldwin the Atlantic 10 player of the year, and defensive player of the year.
OSU stole Minnesotas best player Battle who has scored almost 1500 points already.
ILL added small forward Damask who has scored over 1600 points and averaged 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
Iowa brought in a center Krikke who averaged 19 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists, and has also scored 1600 points.
Our only transfer action was Pierre Brooks leaving for Butler, who we will play in the Gavitt games as the ACC/B10 challenge is no more. ESPN changed it to an SEC challenge when the B10 locked them out of their new TV contract. Since 2009 the B10 was 8-3 against the ACC with 3 ties.
This year in the pre-season we play:
#2 Duke in Chicago ( Duke has an ridiculous twelve top 25 players on their roster, we have one, but we have a lot more upperclassmen )
#8 Tennessee at MSU ( exhibition but you can bet it will be a serious clash )
#12 Arizona in Palm Springs ( Arizona has three five star guards on their roster )
#17 Baylor in Detroit ( Baylor brought in a 4 star center, three 4 star point guards, and a 5 star shooting guard so it is good we have them in November )
Aside from the Palm Springs trip to play Arizona this is a very mild travel schedule for Izzo, and won’t exhaust the team with travel time and lots of back to back tournament games.
#3 Purdue brings back their top 7 scorers from the team that won both the big ten regular season and tournament titles.
That includes national player of the year Zach Edey who in only two games against us scored 70 points and pulled down 26 rebounds.
Unfortunately we only play Purdue once, and it is at their house.
Our other one plays are Iowa, OSU, Rutgers, @Indiana and @NE.
Side note on the transfer portal:
19 of the top 25 teams are starting players that started for other teams last year, we are one of the 6 who stuck with their own players.
One out of every five basketball players that gives up their scholarship and enters the transfer portal is disappointed, not getting another scholarship offer anywhere.
We have the athleticism and depth to match up with anyone.
Walker, Akins and Hoggard would be tough to lose, but almost anyone else can be substituted for without a big drop off.
I expect two big changes this year over last year:
First will be a vastly improved defense.
The last three years our shooting percentage defense has been abysmal at 74th, 93rd and 119th.
The three years previous to that we were normal Izzo, ranking 4th, 3rd and 1st nationally.
The other related area that fell off the last three years was rebounding where we were only 65th, 41st and 65th in rebounding percentage, after having been 9th, 6th and 1st the previous three years.
The reason is we were not recruiting as many great athletes, and had to play defensive liabilities like Hauser because we needed the offense they could provide.
This season should be much different assuming one of the centers can step forward and provide good rebounding and shot blocking.
We are now very athletic and very deep, and there should be no easy jump shots or drives to the basket for our opponents.
Second is the return of the normal Spartan fast break.
This years team has nine 4 stars, one 5 star, plus Tyson Walker and Carson Cooper - that is depth!
With 12 talented players we should be able to weather foul trouble and injuries, and will have some great practices.
More importantly last year we couldn’t run the break due to a lack of depth, and this year we should be able to run teams out of the gym.
That means a return to easy transition and early offense baskets, and making teams pay for any attempts at grabbing offensive rebounds.
That should tire out big centers like Edey, hopefully keeping them on the bench sucking wind.
Also most teams don't have such a deep and talented bench, and will be forced to play guys they would rather use as cheerleaders when their starters tire out.
Other key factors are:
Injuries, for some reason we seem to have a problem with foot injuries as both Akins and Hall have been sidelined a lot with them, and before them it was Langford.
Which Hall and which Sissoko are we going to get most nights?
If we get the good versions we are a scary team that can play with anyone, if we get the disappearing variety then the road to victory is harder.
Can the freshmen live up to the insane expectations? Booker was the #1 recruit at one point, Fears was a five star at one point, Carr’s hype is out of control to the point Andy Katz has him as one of the top 10 small forwards in ALL of college basketball, and he was not even a five star recruit. Personally I don’t think he will even be the starting small forward on our own team (unless Akins gets hurt).
Personally I have much lower expectations of the freshmen as very few freshmen do well in Izzo’s complicated system. However having them as quality depth may be critical, and next year we will need them as our entire starting lineup may graduate.
Almost all the players were heathy and got a full summer of gym work and bonding in, the only player that did not was Hall who was resting his foot to avoid another stress fracture. Izzo's teams really excel when they get full summers and full Christmas breaks in to practice together.
To win the National Championship you have to be good and get lucky. Next year lines up well as Detroit will be hosting a sweet sixteen and elite eight just like they did in 2000 when we won our last National Championship.
This is an Izzo type of team with tons of experience that will be starting four seniors and a junior, a rarity in todays one and done era.
Even more importantly they are hungry after the overtime loss in the sweet sixteen, and Akins, Hoggard, Hall and Walker all returned to try and get Izzo his second National Championship.
I love the depth and athleticism, and really think we will return to the championship standards on defense, rebounding and the fast break that the Spartans are known for.
I am going to predict this years team adds at least two banners to the rafters, one for a Big Ten championship, and one for a Final Four.