COLUMN: MSU basketball next season will be National Champions or bust
The decision by MSU star forward Miles Bridges to stay for another season puts the Spartans as the team to beat in the NCAA.
With their overall talent sky high, it’s National Championship or bust for head coach Tom Izzo and this team.
Not too long ago, MSU fans put their heads in their hands in somber and frustration as Middle Tennessee State and Giddy Potts ended their dreams of a National Championship before it started. That Denzel Valentine-led team was supremely talented, but next season, the combination of Bridges and freshman forward Nick Ward along with highly-acclaimed recruits Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman give the team size and athleticism.
Just this season, players like guards Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid were seen as catalysts for success. Next year they will look more as role players than potential stars. With talent as much as Langford, a McDonald's All-American, appearing like a role player means one of two things: either he didn’t pan out or there is a swarm of talent around him. In this case, it's the latter.
Bridges, Langford, Ward and Jackson will be four of the starting five next season. The last spot should go to Cassius Winston, who will have endless options to pass to. His vision is unmatched on the roster, but his defense is embarrassing at times.
It would not surprise me if Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. starts for defensive purposes, but the world is on a string for Winston. He will have every possibility to step up and facilitate the offense.
Classically an Izzo-run team focuses on three objectives: defense, rebounding and running the break. This usually ends with a subpar half-court offense, but the talent should overcome that no problem.
Next season, Izzo will hope to be the No. 1 rebounding team, just like in 2015-16 season, with Bridges, Ward and Jackson all high active rebounders.
Also, Winston and Bridges in the open court — forget about it.
The last point to address is the defense, which is usually a struggle for a young team.
Langford will need to step up as a lockdown defender, and the rest of the team needs to heighten its defensive awareness. To their fortunes, each of the freshmen last season logged enough minutes to virtually become juniors. With Izzo’s focus on the defensive side, that should be cleared up over the course of the season.
Jackson’s size and shot blocking ability will also aid the defense. But a large impact could come from the return of Gavin Schilling. He will play a backup role and primarily defend and rebound, per usual, but he will have a chance to take the young MSU big men under his wing. His knowledge about guarding ball-screens could help lockdown the interior.
The largest difference between the Valentine-led team and next season’s roster is still maturity and experience. The talent from MSU will all sit in the sophomore and freshman class, with Nairn leading the way in the locker room and on the practice court.
What helps them out is the slug of games in the beginning of last season. High end battles with Duke, Arizona and Kentucky primed them for big scenarios. Now they just need someone to motivate the team for road games and take over close games during crunch time. Clearly this has to be Bridges, it is one skill he needs to develop more.
The Valentine-led Spartans were electric from beyond the arc, as Bryn Forbes shined. Bridges is an above average shooter, Langford as well and McQuaid should he return to his old self with less responsibility on his plate and a full season of workouts.
Izzo should have less frustrations than the past few seasons with the exit of Deyonta Davis, when he was going to return, Caleb Swanigan's switch from MSU to Purdue. However, I'm sure he wouldn't want it any other way.
With a university handling the case of former MSU employee Larry Nassar and sexual assault allegations against members of the MSU football team, basketball will try to be a positive outlook for the student body. This team will have size, depth, athleticism and shooting, so the ball is in their court.