Monday, July 6, 2020

COLUMN: Final thoughts on MSU basketball and what the future holds

April 12, 2019
The Spartans huddle during the first half of the NCAA Final Four game against Texas Tech at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 6, 2019. (Nic Antaya/The State News)
The Spartans huddle during the first half of the NCAA Final Four game against Texas Tech at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 6, 2019. (Nic Antaya/The State News) —
Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

Let's make one thing clear: Michigan State basketball overachieved this season.

Yes, the Spartans were left in a Final Four field against beatable teams. And yes, they were outplayed by Texas Tech. Coach Tom Izzo could have won his second national championship but like so many other things in life, things weren't meant to be.

This year, at least.

To squander what this team did: Beating a top-10 Michigan team three times, Big Ten regular season and tournament championships and a win for the ages over Duke to advance to the Final Four. Any label of failure is ignorant.

The way MSU bonded like superglue after season-ending injuries to Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens to ascend to this point is impressive enough. Chemistry like that is rare.

And it shouldn't be overlooked.

"I feel this team gave me every single drop they had," Izzo said at an end-of-the-season news conference on Wednesday. "I don’t want to say (this team) maxed out, but came as close to maxing out as any team I’ve had."

This team had a special feel to it even early in the season. It just had a telepathic sense everyone was on the same page. An indescribable awareness of togetherness, mental grit, if-you-fall-I'll-pick-you-up mentality that MSU's more talented teams in recent years lacked.

That begins with Cassius Winston. The conductor to MSU's hardwood symphony. He became the guy when his team needed it most, while at the same time orchestrating the offense to facilitate others. His teammates adopted his level-headedness and it's a great example of what a great leader can do.

If Winston comes back to MSU, I'd imagine he'd be an early favorite for National Player of the Year. And I expect him to return. Izzo does too.

But if he thinks the time is right to turn pro, it's possibly the highest his draft stock will ever be.

Assuming Winston returns, next year's group has the potential to reach over the hump this team couldn't. Aside from graduating seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid, Izzo predicts the entire team to be back.

The chemistry will be there. And so will the hunger for getting back to the Final Four.

"We know what it takes to get here," forward Xavier Tillman told me after the loss to Texas Tech. "We're happy we got here and now we know the work that needs to be put in to get here."

But since this is likely my last State News story ever (more on that later), I'd like to play Nostradamus and predict what next year's team might be with a few final predictions and musings:

Cassius Winston will join elite company

Winston will have the chance to do what no other collegiate player has ever done if he comes back. He currently has 1,411 points and 715 assists in his three-year career and finished this season with 733 points and 292 dimes. Assuming he stays healthy and puts up numbers similar to this season, Winston could become the first college basketball player with 2,000 points and 1,000 assists.

He's already the Big Ten's all-time assist leader, surpassing former MSU great Mateen Cleaves during the Sweet Sixteen. Many have already put Winston in the highest tier of Spartan point guards, along with Cleaves and Earvin "Magic" Johnson (who Tom Izzo joked Wednesday could coach the team now after he stepped down as Los Angeles Lakers president).

The biggest divider between Winston from the other two is a national championship. And the next group may be better suited winning it than this year's.

The guard tandem of Joshua Langford and Aaron Henry will be the best in the Big Ten

Izzo said Langford, who suffered a season-ending stress injury in his left foot on Dec. 29, should be fully healthy by June 1, barring a setback. Langford's pull-up jumper from the elbow would have serviced MSU great against Texas Tech, but Langford could have a breakout season offensively if his shot is still there. Defensively, as long as the injury doesn't linger, he's already one of the best perimeter-defending guards in the conference.

I'm excited to watch Henry next season, and you should be too. Izzo has long said a player makes his greatest strides between his freshman and sophomore years. And given the fact he started 22 games and averaged 32.0 minutes during postseason play, he's practically a sophomore already. I say he needs to work on his shooting confidence, but during the tourney he averaged 50% shooting from 3-point range. He has the athletic ability to blow past guys and be dangerous from inside and out. I could also see him playing small forward in stretches Izzo wants to play small.

Off the bench, Gabe Brown and Kyle Ahrens will provide great depth at the wing that MSU desperately needed this season. Four-star combo guard Mark "Rocket" Watts could be versatile in backing up Winston and creating his own shots. I wouldn't be surprised if Watts began starting in the second half of the season.

Even if Nick Ward leaves, MSU's front-court will be just fine

If any player leaves, I think it'll be Ward. Of course the hairline fracture suffered in his left hand kept him out for five games and he was never quite the same after returning, but after exploring the NBA Draft last season, it feels like he's eager to leave school. But if he stays, he'll be power forward and Tillman will play small forward. If Ward leaves, Tillman will assume the team's big slot.

Tillman has the athletic ability and has shown enough growth the past two seasons, it wouldn't surprise me if 2019-2020 was his last at MSU. He's an elite defender in the high post and has the ability to shoot from deep. If he improves on his post moves and proves he can make contested threes, he could be a mid-to-late first-round pick.

Thomas Kithier can provide a lot off the bench. So can Marcus Bingham Jr., who will probably be the small forward backup. As it stands, Bingham is a poor man's Jaren Jackson Jr., but can make threes. He needs to bulk up and could be a force if he does.

Incoming forwards Malik Hall and Julius Marble can fill any holes in an already deep front-court. Especially if Ward returns, I wouldn't be surprised if one (probably Marble) was redshirted.

Congratulations are in order

I wish the best of luck to McQuaid and Goins and hope the future holds great things for them. Whether basketball is in their future or not, McQuaid crafted himself into a leader by example. Goins began his career as a walk-on and five years later will always be remembered for hitting the game-winning three over Duke superstar and likely first-overall pick Zion Williamson. McQuaid and Goins are also two of the nicest players I've ever covered.

Cheers are also in order for Tillman and Ahrens. Both are getting married this summer. If you haven't read how Tillman balances basketball with family duties, you'll be surprised what his daughter means to the team.

Thank you and goodnight

If you've made it this far, kudos. I'm not usually the type for mushy goodbyes, but being on this beat for three seasons truly means a lot to me. I'm so thankful for the readers who reached out and interacted with me so I could deliver content the best ways possible.

Lastly, I'd also like to thank my editors, Olivia Dimmer, Jake Allen, Rachel Fradette and Marie Weidmayer. Liv hired me even though I had no journalism experience and helped me find the career I want until I'm six feet under. Jake, Rachel and Marie made the executive choices the last three years of putting me on the beat, along with guiding The State News through some of MSU's darkest days.

The State News helped me grow in ways I never anticipated. If you're a student reading this and you want to be in my shoes, I highly encourage you apply for the summer or fall semester.

As for what the Spartans could do next season, I think they have a legitimate chance at three-peating as regular season conference champs. We already know the chemistry and talent is there for an other Final Four run.

But the difference next year is if things are meant to be.

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