Column: Tillman, Goins and Ahrens all worthy of starting spot
Football season may be in full effect, but basketball season is right around the corner.
The Michigan State men’s basketball team has several returning key players in juniors Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Nick Ward, along with seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid. With the loss of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges to the NBA draft earlier this year, there are a number of questions being raised.
Perhaps the biggest is: who’s going to play power forward?
“I think that (position) is the biggest question,” coach Tom Izzo said after his team’s first practice Sept. 26. “Whether we go real big with X (Xavier Tillman), or whether we go real small with Kenny (Goins).”
Most of the starting lineup appears to be set, as Winston, McQuaid, Langford and Ward all seem to be locks going into the season. However, the Spartans will be attempting to replace a lot of production from the power forward spot.
The top-two in the running figure to be sophomore Xavier Tillman and senior Kenny Goins, but according to Izzo, it’s still anybody’s job.
Old school can still work
If Izzo opts to start Tillman, it would likely mean playing big and rolling with an old school playing style as last year’s team did. They led the nation in blocks (251), ranked seventh in rebounds per game (41.1) and tied for 19th in scoring defense. Tillman’s 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame would help solidify defense the interior defense and replace some of the production lost with Jackson, the 2017-18 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
However, Izzo has caught some flak in recent years for not adapting to the modern-day playing style, which consists of fast-scoring offenses fueled by quick, athletic players. Izzo lost to archrival University of Michigan in the two teams’ last three meetings and has failed to make it out of the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament every year since 2015.
It’s not as if the Spartans have struggled offensively, however, as they ranked eighth in the country last year in field goal percentage (49.6 percent) and tied for top-15 in three-point percentage (40 percent).
Tillman may be the top man for the job, as he impressed on both ends last season. Though he played just 8.7 minutes per game, he averaged 2.6 rebounds and totaled 23 blocks through 35 games. On the offensive end, Tillman proved to be an efficient scorer, shooting 65 percent from the floor to earn his 2.8 points per game.
But, the game is changing
Because of the pressure to keep up with up-tempo conference opponents such as U-M, Izzo may opt to go small to help boost athleticism. This would help replace some of the three-point production lost by Bridges and Jackson, who both shot over 36 percent from three during their time in East Lansing.
The other option Izzo mentioned was Goins, who measures an inch shorter than Tillman at 6-foot-7. He also put up solid numbers last season, averaging just under 14 minutes per game and converting on 45.8 percent of his field goal opportunities. He also played well on defense, as he racked up 22 rejections.
Another candidate in the running may be senior Kyle Ahrens, who did not play last season because of a nagging foot injury that kept him sidelined.
“The other guy that has kind of been a lost guy is Kyle Ahrens,” Izzo said. “We’ve always loved his athletic ability; he’s got the highest vertical on the team. He’s finally healthy, and he’s shooting the ball like he always did.”
Two seasons ago, the 6-foot-6 wing played in 34 games for the Spartans, averaging 2.6 points in 8.2 minutes per game. Ahrens also shot 42.9 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from long range.
Experience is key
Though Goins and Ahrens may not stack up as well against Tillman statistically, they do have him beat by a long shot in the experience category, which is something of great importance to Izzo.
“We had four sophomores and a freshman that we started a lot,” Izzo said about his team last season. “I think that experience hurt us a little bit. In the big picture of things, we won a lot of games, but as I said, when you’re trying to win championships, experience helps.”