Column: First marquee win of the season should get MSU basketball fans excited
After MSU’s 63-45 win over reigning National Champion and then-No. 9-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels Sunday night, Spartan fans can finally measure the team’s growth since last season.
Sunday’s win surely washed out the sour taste many fans felt after the Spartans fell 88-81 to No. 1 Duke earlier this month in the Champions Classic. After falling to the Blue Devils twice and being blown out by Kentucky and Kansas since last season, Sunday marked MSU’s first marquis win since Miles Bridges and the sophomore class came to campus.
Once a highly-touted group of freshman last season, the sophomores are now a maturing nucleus, no longer afraid of the big stage. The Spartans are ready to contend for national prominence.
But, where exactly is their ceiling?
Before I get into that, let me say it’s good to be back. I covered this team last season — as head coach Tom Izzo trekked his team through “uncharted territory” plagued with inexperience and depth issues. Not many in my position are fortunate enough to get to cover the same team two years in a row and for that, I’m thankful.
When I covered this team last year, so often you would see glimpses of what this team could be, but guards were sometimes too selfless and would settle for shots, and a scrappy frontcourt sometimes struggled to pound the ball inside.
There’s no way last year’s team wins that game Sunday.
In the limited sample size of this season, MSU is living up to its potential it showed last year. With the added depth of forwards Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., the Spartans size up with the deepest rotations in the country.
Miles Bridges is undoubtedly the face of the program and the only thing that can bring the preseason Player of the Year down to Earth would be an injury. His goal is to bring another National Championship to East Lansing and even if he doesn’t, he surely can’t be deranged enough to return for his junior season. If Bridges truly wants to take control of this team, he must learn to be more assertive with his shots.
Cassius Winston — named the most valuable player in the PK80 Victory Bracket — is MSU’s X-factor. His defense has improved drastically since last season and his scoring ability from the perimeter and driving the lane makes him a dangerous point guard.
Joshua Langford, who scored a career-high 23 points against the Tar Heels, is developing into a dependable, yet still sometimes streaky, shooting guard. But when he — or backup guard Matt McQuaid — become hot, MSU becomes almost impossible to defend.
With standout scoring performances from McQuaid, Winston and Langford over the weekend, MSU proved its worth even with a limited role from Bridges.
Don’t be surprised if Nick Ward declares for the NBA Draft after this season. Izzo has repeatedly called Ward a “poor, poor, poor, poor man’s Zach Randolph” but with each lockdown defensive performance, another “poor” can be shaved off. He’s physical enough to lock down the defensive glass himself and can score in bunches in the paint.
Coupled with the length of Jackson to help crash the glass and the 6-foot-11 freshman’s ability to score from beyond the arc, the Spartans have the best starting five on paper in the Big Ten.
Winning the Big Ten is more than attainable. Purdue is a shell of itself from last season after losing Caleb Swanigan. Same with Michigan after Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin graduated, and D.J. Wilson left early for the NBA. MSU’s most daunting competitor in the Big Ten looks like it will be Minnesota.
But before you crown the Spartans as National Champions and punch their ticket to San Antonio, Texas, for the Final Four, remember there are still kinks to be ironed out. MSU displayed a defensive showcase against the Tar Heels, but turned the ball over 24 times, resulting in 21 points for UNC. MSU is ranked 306th in the nation with a -3.0 turnover ratio and are averaging 21.2 fouls per game as of Monday.
Until this team cuts down on the turnovers and limits the unnecessary fouls, MSU will be prone to a couple of losses that’ll bring them down a peg.
Fans, however, should be comforted by the win against UNC. MSU proved it can once again win a big game on a national stage. And should No. 3 MSU take care of business against No. 5 Notre Dame Thursday at 7 p.m., the Spartans will cement themselves as a serious contender for a National Championship.
It’s a game MSU should win since it’s at the Breslin Center. It’s also a game that can leave a pungently unpleasant aftertaste.