Friday, June 5, 2020

Column: Why this year's favorites won't finish

November 5, 2019
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman (23) covers Texas Tech guard Matt Mooney (13) 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)
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman (23) covers Texas Tech guard Matt Mooney (13) 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

Six days after defeating Zion and Duke, the darlings of the NCAA tournament, the Michigan State Spartans had to face defensive stalwart Texas Tech. The injuries didn’t hamper the Spartans in the tournament up to that point, until that night. 

With Kyle Ahrens out, Nick Ward recovering, and Cassius Winston playing with knee tendinitis on little rest, Michigan State was toppled. The Spartans were gassed in the game with little depth. The injuries finally got to them. 

This wasn’t the first time the men’s basketball team had fallen short of winning the national championship when that was expectation. 

The Spartans in 2010 had high hopes heading into the year after falling short in the championship game in Detroit, but MSU was derailed by injuries when Kalin Lucas ruptured his achilles against Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

That 2010 squad already had guard Chris Allen out with a foot injury, Delvon Roe recovering from knee surgery, and Raymar Morgan with a broken tooth. The Spartans eventually fell to Gordon Hayward and now-Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens’ Butler squad in the Final Four. 

In 2011, then-Freshman Branden Dawson tore his ACL against Ohio State in the season finale. The Spartans still came into the NCAA tournament as a No.1 seed led by MSU legend Draymond Green, but missed Dawson’s production and fell to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen. 

In 2013-2014, the Spartans had a roster that included Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling, and Adrieian Payne. Michigan State also had future stars in Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine giving quality minutes off the bench. When they met the seven seed UConn Huskies in the Elite 8, it seemed all but assured that MSU was making it to another final four. Then, the Shabazz Napier show began, and the Huskies busted onto the scene and brought down the green and white on their way to win a stunning national title. 

In 2015-2016, the Spartans were the trendy pick to cut down the nets as a two seed as they were led by player of the year Denzel Valentine. Then Middle Tennessee State happened. 

In 2016-2017, Tom Izzo had arguably the best recruiting class in his career with Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, and Joshua Langford all choosing Michigan State. Expectations were high once again, but the Spartans never seemed to hit their stride. To make matters worse, senior guard Eron Harris fell with a gruesome knee injury against Purdue, who, at the time, seemed to end the Spartans hopes of even making the tournament. However, the Spartans were able to recover and make the tournament before eventually falling to the Kansas Jayhawks in the second round. 

Lastly, in 2017-2018, expectations were at the highest they had ever been with NBA talent stuffed into the roster. After winning over thirty games before getting to the NCAA tournament, the green and white were looking to advance deep into the NCAA tournament after two back to back first weekend exits. However, MSU was stifled by Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse zone, resulting in yet another big upset for Tom Izzo’s squad. 

This season has not even begun and Tom Izzo’s squad is already seeing a myriad of injuries between Langford’s foot, Ahrens’ ankle, and Thomas Kithier’s nose. Not to mention, the NCAA has still not ruled whether Marquette transfer Joey Hauser will be eligible this season. 

Mentioning all these situations where the Spartans fell short isn’t to say that MSU cannot handle the pressure. Izzo has proven that he can win with any team he can put together. That’s why he is a hall of famer.  

This is more of a testament to college basketball itself. 

Players like Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Rocket Watts were looked at as a luxury before the season. Now, they must make those necessary strides to replace Langford’s production.  

Watts was looked at as a guy who could provide quality minutes off the bench behind Winston and Langford. Now, he has to replace what Langford was supposed to provide for the green and white. There’s no doubt he has talent and the ability to score. His shot looks great and his dribble moves and explosiveness even better. The question is, can he replace the perimeter defense Langford brought? 

Henry replaced Langford last season, and did a great job doing so. His play down the stretch for MSU was incredible. But can he build on that? He must and then some. Henry has to be able to show that he can reliably hit the three ball and finish at the basket.  

Gabe Brown had a coming out party against LSU in the sweet sixteen last NCAA tournament, but cooled off right after that. He’s gotten noticeably bigger since last season; the time in the weight room shows. If Gabe Brown can be a reliable guy on defensive end of the floor, then watch out. 

The front court is going to need players to step up as well. If there’s a part of the team that does not have depth, it is the front court. Xavier Tillman is the only big last year that brings back a ton of experience. Kithier looks to be the guy to play next to Tillman, but it would be preferable if he were able to come off the bench to relieve Tillman at the center spot. 

For that to happen, Marcus Bingham is going to have to prove he can defend. We know his talents on the other end of the floor. His shooting ability at his height is almost impossible to defend. However, can Marcus Bingham show the defense that Izzo wants to see? 

For Bingham to get consistent minutes, he’ll have to show that he can guard bigs one-on-one in the post, something that isn’t easy with his six foot, 11 inch, 225 pound frame. Bingham will also have to show that he can guard the pick and roll, which we haven’t seen him play enough minutes to know if he can do that on a consistent basis. His shot-blocking ability, however, cannot be understated. His wingspan and athleticism could result in an amount of blocks that we haven’t seen since Jaren Jackson. 

The other option is for either Malik Hall or Julius Marble to emerge. Hall shows great promise and looks to be a guy who can be a future star for the Spartans. People like to compare him to Kenny Goins, which is accurate in some ways. 

Hall can spread the floor and has the size to be able to thrive as a stretch four, but to replace Goins, his defense has to be at a high level.

Goins just had a very high basketball IQ, and a type that only came with years of experience. Hall won’t have that right away. 

Julius Marble, on the other hand, has that grit and grind that Izzo loves and has been compared to former Spartan Andre Hutson. His build is ready for Big Ten basketball, but it is those freshman mistakes that will sideline him at times. 

The amount of ifs that have to happen now with Langford gone is why this team won’t finish. 

The amount that could go wrong outweighs the amount that has to go right. 

One more injury to an important cog like Winston or Tillman could drop MSU from a final four team to a team that is out by the second round. 

One hot-shooting night from Middle Tennessee State can end the season.  

One bad shooting night can end the Spartans against a team like Syracuse. 

With Langford out, Michigan State needs Cassius and Xavier to stay healthy. They need the freshman to play wise beyond their years. They need Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown to grow.  

College Basketball is liked for many reasons; but the main reason is the unpredictable nature of the sport.

Only time will tell if MSU can withstand all the variables.

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