The image has already been cemented in history. Junior guard Cassius Winston breaks free with the ball as time expires. Senior forward Kenny Goins begins the celebration and in the background, future number one pick Zion Williamson looks up as he acknowledges defeat.
This was in the final seconds of the Elite Eight last season, where Michigan State knocked off number one seed and championship favorite, the Duke Blue Devils.
Now going into the 2019-2020 season, the Spartans are the favorites, ranked Associated Press’ preseason No. 1 for the first time in school history, and they’ve been embracing it.
“It would be an honor if that happened and if it did, we would embrace it,” Head Coach Tom Izzo said.
“With the brutal schedule we play early, especially in the first 26 days, I think it’ll be important to maintain a perspective regardless of wins and losses and what we’re really trying to accomplish. ... While I’ll embrace the expectations, while I’m excited about it, I’m hoping we are gonna still remain the same blue collar institution that we are.”
Duke embraced also being the best, and for a long time into the season, but that didn’t help them finish it out with a championship. What some called the best freshman class ever didn’t even get a Final Four banner.
The favorites didn’t finish. This year, they will.
Michigan State will finish, not because they are embracing their No. 1 ranking, or even because they have probably the best player in college basketball this year in senior guard Cassius Winston. Both will play a part, but the reason the Spartans will have a historic season is because of all the things they have that last year’s Duke team did not.
This year the Spartans check all the boxes and fill all the holes that Duke did not, starting with depth.
Regardless of the amount of stars Duke had on each recruit coming in, and the rest of the roster they filled out, their attack came from four guys: Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. With Tre Jones having a subpar year compared to what was expected and the reason he is most likely returning this year instead of entering the draft, the ball really only ran through three guys.
Those three guys were responsible for 58.7 of their 83.5 point average. When those guys didn’t show up, Duke didn’t have much to turn to.
Michigan State is not that.
As true a Spartan team could be, if one man goes down, the next one comes up. We’ve seen it in years past, as recent as last year. When one Spartan goes down, another one rises to the occasion.
Look at former Spartan forward Nick Ward’s injury last year. As he spent time off the court, waiting for his hand to heal, senior Kenny Goins and sophomore Xavier Tillman had some of the best games of their careers.
As Ward saw a decrease in minutes, Tillman’s jumped, and he showed up. He scored nine in the Big Ten Championship and averaged 13.6 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, with 19 against No. 1 seed Duke.
The story looks to be the same this year.
With question marks still semi-looming over senior forward Kyle Ahrens' ankle, senior guard Joshua Langford being out until at least January, Izzo not wanting to run Winston into the ground like last season and an open spot in the starting lineup, there will have to be some players who have to step up. Michigan State has them.
With a freshman class that includes guard Rocket Watts and forwards Julius Marble and Malik Hall, Izzo has guys who can immediately make an impact in college basketball.
But not only is there a strong freshman class. Izzo’s young returners will also look to make their mark.
Sophomores Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier have all impressed Izzo this season, and could be the key depth that the team needs to stay rested and make a push to another Final Four.
Aaron Henry is more than a starter now. In Izzo and the players' eyes, Henry will be “one of the guys” that they will need to lean on to score and take over games, and Henry is eager to do so.
“I’m excited for it. It’s everything that I prayed for, it’s everything that I hoped for, my parents as well. I’m excited to play. I’m just ready. Big things expected out of all of us, and I’m just ready to get it started,” Henry said.
Izzo said at Media Day that Gabe Brown was in the gym more than anyone since Shawn Respert, Loyer has put on 20 pounds and Kithier has been looking good as a big man next to Tillman. To be the bullies this year instead of the deer in the headlights, what we saw flashes of last year, all three pose the argument for good minutes and add to the depth of the team.
Near 7-footer, Marcus Bingham Jr., was asked if he wanted to redshirt last season, but he said no, saying that he wanted to help the team any way he could. Now the sophomore is poised for a big year as a role player for this No. 1 ranked team.
These four sophomores plus all the upperclassman on the team lead into another importance of this Michigan State team.
Comparing again to Duke, they have been a team known to be mostly freshman. Good freshman given, but freshman. They come in with no college basketball experience or leadership at that level. They dominate, but with experience comes more preparation, especially in big moments. The big moments that Duke did not show up in last year.
Thirteen players on this Spartan team have played Spartan basketball before. The experience of college basketball, the experience of each other and the chemistry that builds is only going to make this team better.
Because of the experience this team has, Michigan State will have the option of going big, going small, playing from the perimeter or crashing the paint. Even having a larger rotation of players, just based off each team that they play.
To not be stuck into one brand of basketball makes them a hard team to prepare for and very dangerous.
Not to mention that they do have the returning Big Ten Player of the Year in Cassius Winston.
Izzo called Winston his quarterback. The guy you can build a team around. When you have that, everything falls into place.
"We have some depth, we have a quarterback. We have a quarterback that is very stable and very solid and I think is making improvements. And (he) understands that without getting carried away with his own goals and ambitions. I mean Cassius can score it, I swear he’d still rather pass it. Hard to beat that from one of your stars,” Izzo said.
They will be able to rely on Winston, but also lighten his load, moving him around, taking him off and on ball and being able to give him rest. Rest will come from the experience of Loyer, possibly the defense of redshirt sophomore Jack Hoiberg and of course, the immediate impact of Rocket Watts.
With experience also comes leadership.
From Winston to Tillman all the way down to players you wouldn’t expect, Michigan State will have a lot of leadership this year.
Izzo said that Hoiberg has been one of the most vocal at practices. Hoiberg’s response marks the mentality for the entire team.
“We have however many games a year, around 40, and we have hundreds of practices. I feel like that’s really where the leadership comes and where we are able to find out who we are in terms of our places on the team,” Hoiberg said.
There are only so many games. There are hundreds of practices.
To have each and every player on this roster with a leadership mentality, they will be able to hold each other accountable, limit distractions and keep their eyes on the prize.
After getting a taste of what could be, Michigan State has come into this season focused and ready.
They have the depth, the experience, the chemistry, the leadership. Most importantly, from the way each of these players have carried themselves, freshman to senior, starter to bench player, this team has the desire to win a championship.