The Michigan State Spartans are coming off a rocky season that saw four freshmen work through the transition from high school to college basketball. With a year of experience and more stability in the frontcourt, the Spartans look like a potential national title contender.
SG Eron Harris
Harris was the only starter out of the group, but he saw his season cut short after a gruesome knee injury in which he is still recovering from. He was never the player fans expected when he came in as a transfer from West Virginia, but Izzo was never afraid to comment on his work ethic and he was a consistent starter for two years. He is the biggest loss of the three, but Langford will be a competent replacement and will eventually be a better player.
SG/SF Alvin Ellis III
Ellis was a competent bench player last year that knew his role. He was solid defensively, a good shooter and did not try to do too much. He is a similar player to Matt McQuaid but with less upside. MSU will miss his outside shooting and defense, but McQuaid assuming a larger bench role will ultimately be better for the team.
PF/C Matt Van Dyke
Van Dyke, the former walk on, was critical to the team”s success last year as they were destroyed by injuries in the frontcourt. With injuries to Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Miles Bridges, MSU was left with a frontcourt of Nick Ward, Kenny Goins and Kyle Ahrens (kinda). Van Dyke was a good defender off the pick and roll and a decent rebounder, but his lack of athleticism hindered him from ever being a real contributor. With all those guys healthy and the addition of Xavier Tillman, the loss of Van Dyke will be obsolete.
PG Cassius Winston, sophomore
Don’t expect to see Winston coming off the bench like he did for a large portion of last year. He is a much more talented player than fellow point guard, Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn. He is your typical up-tempo, pass first point guard who can initiate the offense. Think of a college version of Jeff Teague but with a better shot. Winston struggles defensively but should be improved after a season of guarding collegiate players. If the opposing point guard is the team’s primary scoring option, expect Tom Izzo to put Josh Langford on the point guard and have Winston match up with the shooting guard. Winston will always be the third or fourth scoring option for his whole career, so you won’t see him on any all-conference teams. But he is easily a top-5 point guard in the Big Ten. Watch for lineups with him playing shooting guard alongside Nairn as well. He has a good enough outside shot to play with Tum Tum.
SG Josh Langford, sophomore
Langford had a quiet first year. He was recovering from a foot injury in the first half of the year, and it looked like things began to click at the end when he replaced Harris in the starting line up after his injury. He is the perfect 3&D guy to play alongside Winston, as he was the only MSU player to shoot over 40% from deep and he is the best perimeter defender on the team. The most underrated part of his game, however, is his mid-range. He made a living off of that toward the end of the year. Langford is not much of an creator and he is not strong on the glass either, but he is a great catch-and-shoot wing to play with creators like Winston and Miles Bridges.
SF Miles Bridges, sophomore
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year turned down a lottery selection in this year’s NBA Draft by coming back for his sophomore season. He does it all. He can create for himself off the dribble. He is the best rebounder on the team. He shoots the three ball well for a forward. He can guard every position on the court. And he really has no weak spot in his game. He is an absolute matchup nightmare in the post for any small forward in the conference. He will be the best player in the Big Ten and an early-season Naismith Player of the Year Candidate.
PF Jaren Jackson Jr., freshman
Izzo’s biggest recruit in this year’s class may not start at the beginning of the year, but he will by the end. The long stretch-4 is the ideal power forward in today’s game. He is a natural rim protector on defense and has the shot to stretch the floor on offense. His athleticism will let him guard the perimeter well, and his polished post moves will be tough to guard. AT 6’10” and 226 pounds, there are some forwards who may give him trouble in the post. He will need to show toughness on defense and a willingness to hit the glass. All in all, Jackson will be one of the best freshmen in the league.
C Nick Ward
Ward was Michigan State’s “glue guy” last year. He was never hurt. He was consistent on an everyday basis. And he did what he was good at: dominating the paint. At 6’8” 250 lbs., he is a force for any center or power forward to guard. He has beautiful post moves and can body up with almost everyone. Where he struggles is with lateral quickness and height. What he gains with his big body, he loses with his quickness. This led to foul trouble last year as he couldn’t stay in front with anyone on the perimeter. At 6’8”, he is also undersized for a center. He struggled guarding guys like Isaac Haas of Purdue. With the frontcourt depth of Schilling and Carter however, he will no longer have to be put in these tough matchups.
The Second Unit
PG Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn
Tum Tum will fit his role perfectly next year. He is surrounded by playmakers. He will have to do three things: initiate the offense, play strong defense and be a leader. He cannot shoot. He is undersized. He has many weak spots in his game, but he does these three things well. Izzo should avoid matching him up with any guards or putting him in lineups with lack of playmaking. But if he is utilized well, he will be a vital piece off the bench. If he’s asked to do too much though, he will struggle.
SG Matt McQuaid
McQuaid has shown signs of being a breakout star for MSU the past two years, but has also seen himself slip out of the rotation completely. When he is hot, he is a lethal three-point shooter. And depending on the right matchup, he can be a great defender. But he has gone through stretches where he struggles even catching a hard-thrown pass. With the lack of wing depth, McQuaid will get heavy minutes this year. Whether the good or the bad McQuaid comes out is the real question.
SF Kyle Ahrens
Ahrens has seen minimal playing time in his first two years, but that will change this year. Ahrens was used as a small ball power forward, but with the abundant amount of power forwards and centers on the roster, Ahrens will get moved back to the wing. You know what you’re going to get out of him. He is a decent shooter. A decent defender. A decent rebounder. He is just…decent. But on a team with really only two other true wings (Bridges should really be playing power forward), he will be receiving plenty of minutes. Look for Izzo to use Bridges as a small ball power forward, which will open even more playing time for Ahrens.
PF Kenny Goins
The former walk on is arguably the second most versatile defender on the team behind Bridges. He has the strength to guard centers and the athleticism to guard perimeter players. He is also the most willing player to leave his body on the line while crashing the boards. Goins is just an absolute liability on offense. Besides the occasional screen set, it is like playing 4 on 5 when he is on the floor. He will get his minutes as the backup power forward because he is good at what he does, but his role may diminish from last year.
C Gavin Schilling
He’s back. One of MSU’s most consistent players for the past three years missed all of last season with a foot injury, but he used his redshirt so he would be able to play this year. Similar to Goins, Schilling lacks offensive fire power, but boy, can he play defense. Watch his film on pick and rolls, he may actually be the best big man pick and roll defender in the Big Ten. I’m not kidding. That in itself would get him playing time on just about any team in the country. He is possibly the most important bench player on the team as he is the perfect backup for Ward and his defensive inabilities. He will get more playing time than Ward in a handful of matchups.
Others who will receive playing time
C Ben Carter, senior
Carter started at Oregon, then transferred to UNLV, and then transferred to MSU last year before seeing his season end with his second season-ending injury of his career. The NCAA granted him a 6th year of eligibility, so he is on the roster. Izzo could have used him much more last year than he will this year. In his press conference, Izzo kept referring to Carter’s role as “veteran leadership.” That is not something you want to hear if you want to get a lot of playing time. He has shown stints of being a great scoring big-which would compliment Goins and Schilling well- but his sample size is not big enough to know if he will be effective in the Big Ten. Carter will be used as strictly an emergency big, which makes it a shame he wasn’t around next year where he may have been a starter at certain parts of the year.
PF/C Wavier Tillman, freshman
Tillman is yet another talented player to add to this deep frontcourt. Think Ward 2.0 when you think of Tillman. An undersized center who has the body to bully weaer centers in the post. He needs to focus on losing weight and possibly molding into more of a power forward. With Ward, Schilling and Carter at center, it will be almost impossible for him to see the court. He can maybe carve out some time at power forward as more of a scoring threat than Goins if he loses weight. Even though he will likely be a minor role player this year, he will have a fruitful career at MSU once the players above him on the depth chart leave.