Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Column: Experience, upperclassmen will benefit men's basketball team

November 1, 2018
Junior forward Nick Ward (44) makes a basket during the game against Northern Michigan at Breslin Center on Oct. 30, 2018. The Spartans defeated the Wildcats, 93-47.
Junior forward Nick Ward (44) makes a basket during the game against Northern Michigan at Breslin Center on Oct. 30, 2018. The Spartans defeated the Wildcats, 93-47. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News
snews-2018-amb-14

College basketball finally made its long-awaited return after a seven-month-long hiatus. After a season filled with off-the-court distractions for MSU Coach Tom Izzo and his players, they will be ready to move forward with a clean slate. 

In that newness, the Spartans will rock an older, more sophisticated look on the court.

MSU dominated the 2017-18 regular season, winning the Big Ten outright through strength, size and athleticism. They led the Big Ten in scoring margin (+15.3), field goal percentage (49.6 percent), rebounding (1,439), blocks (251) and assists (670). However, people tend to forget about the regular season success come tournament time, where MSU didn’t do as well.

Despite their dominance on the court, they had one major problem last season: Youth.

Their youthfulness likely contributed to their problem with giving the ball away. They turned the ball over 459 times last season, 2nd most in the Big Ten, and finished the season with the worst turnover margin in the conference at -3.1.

“We had four sophomores and a freshman that we started a lot, and I think that experience hurt us a little bit,” coach Tom Izzo said after his team’s first practice Sept. 26.

After a third straight year of failing to make it out of the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament, Izzo feels his team will be better prepared for March this time around. Although MSU suffered two tremendous losses in forwards Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. to the NBA, the Spartans’ experience this year will make up for the loss of talent. 

“We’re going to probably start three juniors and maybe a senior,” Izzo said. “I think the chances of that experience paying dividends for us is going to be important.”

The upperclassmen Izzo alluded to are guards Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid; and forward Nick Ward. Who rounds out the starting five is an unanswered question, but senior Kenny Goins and sophomore Xavier Tillman should be the front-runners.

Tillman is coming into this season 15 pounds lighter than the start of last season. However, Goins likely has the edge over Tillman for two reasons: Seniority and the lack of big bodies on this season’s roster. 

If Izzo opts to start Goins at the power forward spot — the choice he made in the Oct. 30 93-47 exhibition win over Northern Michigan — it would likely result in a starting five consisting of only upperclassmen, a complete flip from last year’s starting unit which consisted of all freshmen and sophomores. 

To see the last time all upperclassmen received the brunt of the court time, you’d have to go back to the 2014-15 season, in which the Spartans made it all the way to the Final Four and were stopped just short of a National Championship appearance by Duke. Two members of that group – Bryn Forbes and Denzel Valentine – are currently on an NBA roster.  

Having talent will help you win games as it did last season, but any good coach will tell you it’s experience that wins championships. 

“In the big picture of things, we won a lot of games,” Izzo said about his team last season. “But as I said, when you’re trying to win championships, experience helps.”

Though the Spartans will likely not be as dominant in the regular season this time around due to having to replace the production of Bridges and Jackson, their improved maturity on the court should pay dividends come March. 

After finishing in the top-10 in the Preseason AP Top 25 rankings for the second season in a row, an NCAA Championship doesn’t seem too far out of reach for Izzo and the Spartans.

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