Michigan State women’s basketball is off to their best start since 2012-2013. The Spartans are 8-0 after their road win over Purdue started off the new year in winning fashion.
In the 2012-2013 season, Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant’s Spartans went on to make the NCAA Tournament later that year after starting 10-0. That squad would lose in the second round to Maryland prior to them joining the Big Ten conference.
Eight years later, the Spartans are heading back to East Lansing to prepare for their matchup against Maryland, looking to become 9-0 on the season.
How did the Spartans get here in the midst of a pandemic? Here are five reasons Michigan State is off to such a hot start.
Oh, what being healthy can do for a squad.
Last season Michigan State was riddled with injuries all year long after being projected one of the best teams in the conference. The Spartans, with Mardrekia Cook, Victoria “Coco” Gaines and Shay Colley, all being out for the season a year ago along with on and off injuries to Tory Ozment, Moira Joiner, Taryn McCutcheon and essentially the whole team derailed what looked to be a positive year.
Even with the ongoing pandemic, the team has remained healthy outside of Cook missing a couple of games for minor problems. This has allowed the team to play cohesively and help Merchant set her rotations and develop consistency.
A healthy Michigan State last year would have made the tournament and some, this squad will do the same if they can continue to stay healthy and COVID free.
On any given night, Merchant has about 13 players that can come out and give meaningful minutes and about 10 that will likely play on a nightly basis for her squad.
Michigan State in particular has tremendous depth and versatility with its wings. It all starts with the veteran Ozment, who is one of the team's best shooters and defenders. At 6-foot-1, she has the size to guard teams' bigs as well as the quickness to guard a team’s backcourt.
The sophomore pairing of Moira Joiner and Julia Ayrault has been phenomenal for Coach Merchant as well. Ayrault is another do-it-all type player for the Spartans. Ayrault is a tremendous shot blocker with her athleticism and can also guard multiple positions at 6-foot-2 with great speed. Ayrault is unique offensively as she can create off the dribble and stretch the floor.
Joiner is one of the team’s best on-ball defenders and shooters as well. She is currently working her way back into the lineup after suffering a concussion earlier this season.
With Nia Clouden and Alyza Winston cementing the backcourt (we’ll talk about these two soon), that just leaves the frontcourt for some to be desired. Taiyier Parks has been the starter all year long but has struggled to be consistent. Parks will need to learn how to better handle double teams and become more aggressive in the post to be the star down low Michigan State is looking for.
However, Penn State transfer Alisia Smith is making an instant impact in the post after being ruled eligible by the NCAA prior to their matchup against Oakland. She put the Big Ten on notice, scoring 15 against Purdue off the bench. Smith has a long wingspan that affects players down low from getting an easy basket and has the ability to score down low on the block. Smith can also stretch the floor a bit in the mid-range game, something nobody outside of freshman Kendall Bostic can do.
In the midst of a pandemic where players can be in or out at a moment's notice, this depth will be crucial throughout the Big Ten season.
3. Nia Clouden is an assassin
Clouden is that type of player that comes into a game, does her job, fills the stat sheet, and before you know it, she just dropped 20 points on you.
Clouden has an extensive offensive skill set where she can pick and pop in the midrange or from beyond the arc as well as create space when driving to the basket, much like Cassius Winston on the men’s side a year ago.
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When the time comes that Michigan State needs a basket, she can go get one too, which will be much needed in the tough Big Ten conference and in potential postseason games later on.
Great teams need great guard play, and the Spartans have it.
4. Alyza Winston as the X-factor
Winston is the key to how far the Spartans can go this season.
Thus far, Winston is averaging 14.3 points after joining the starting lineup as a shooting guard. She’s been up and down, scoring 20 and 25 against Minnesota and Iowa but as low as five in their last game against Purdue.
For Michigan State to be a true competitor in the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament, Winston has to be a more consistent scorer. With teams like Maryland on the docket, Michigan State will have to keep up and her shooting will be vital to that.
Winston can do a lot for the Spartans outside of her shooting as well as her blazing speed can allow her to get to the basket with ease. Her defending can be special at times too with her speed and attention to detail on that end, but Winston can get beat on the ball sometimes, something that she’ll need to improve on.
If Winston can become the consistent scorer that she’s shown she can be, the sky is truly the limit.
5. The ability to win in multiple ways
Lastly, this Michigan State team with their depth and a variety of skill sets can win in many ways. If they need to grind out a defensive win as they did against Purdue, they can do that. Need to outscore a hot-shooting team like Iowa? They can do that too.
Their ability to win in multiple ways is something that is important, especially in a league with so many teams with varying play styles.
“On the women's side, I think it's really unique because, for example, you have teams that have a power five or someone that's really a problem inside, and then you might play somebody that's a completely different style, that's a little more face-up than post up,” Merchant said. “That's another unique thing that I think when you look at the six teams in the top 25, they play uniquely different styles. There's more ways to be successful in the country and in our league than just one way. I think it's going to provide a unique challenge for us as we go into every game on what that opponent's strengths are.”
The Big Ten is the deepest conference in the nation right now for women’s hoops, which forces you to have to adapt game by game. Last year the Spartans with limited depth couldn’t do that, but with playmakers all over the floor and varying skill sets, they can play with anyone, making them a truly dangerous team.
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