With four returning starters and four freshmen that make up the one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, Spartan head men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo will have quite the balancing act to pull off with a roster full of both tried and true talent and exciting young potential.
The returning starters include two graduate students in forward Malik Hall, and guard Tyson Walker–who earned a No. 10 rank in the Almanac’s top 100 players and a spot on the All American third team entering into this season.
The two other returning starters both declared for the NBA draft in April before electing to return to East Lansing in late May. As senior guard A.J Hoggard–who also earned himself the No. 42 spot in the Almanac and junior guard Jaden Akins will be integral parts of the Spartan season.
“They’re going to be the staple of what we are. They have the experience of winning, and the experience of losing … They’ve done both, and I think there’s nothing like experience," Izzo said.
Izzo went on to talk about the importance of the older guys and the influence they can have on the incoming freshman class.
“Having upperclassmen that are willing to help the younger guys, Jeremy, Coen, Xavier and Gehrig don’t realize how lucky they are,” Izzo said. He went on to praise his upperclassmen for the great job they’ve done with mentoring the young guys.
The Spartan's elite recruiting class is one with four, four star or better recruits with three of the bunch being in the top 50 players in the country. Izzo described his incoming class as, “damn good freshman,” which is more than fitting when looking at the individuals that make up the class.
The highest ranked player of the group is five-star freshman center Xavier Booker. Booker earned himself the No. 11 spot in his class while also being the second-best center in the nation. As a senior in high school, Booker averaged 15 points per game, 8 rebounds per gamer and just under 2 blocks a game to earn a spot in the McDonald’s All-American game.
Izzo said during the press conference that he is happy with the coaching staff and senior forward Malik Hall taking Booker under his wing.
“He's got a ways to go. He's got to get stronger, got to get more aggressive, but since school started, he’s really started to take a step in the right direction,” Izzo said.
“They’ve been there for me every step of the way. When I make a mistake, they don’t bring me down, they uplift me and encourage me ... So next time I do it I can do it better” Booker said about the older Spartan frontcourt and how they’ve helped guide him in the preseason.
Not ranked far behind Booker is the No. 32 player in the class and fellow McDonald’s All-American freshman guard Jeremy Fears, who Izzo described as his Mateen Cleaves 27 years on.
“He's a leader, he's vocal, he's helpful, he's gained some weight, he has all the qualities to be a one hell of a guard here,” Izzo said as he emphasized the impressive leadership qualities of the freshman.
Fears spoke about the importance of being a leader even as an incoming freshman.
“It was something I asked former players—how do you still try to be a leader with upperclassmen,” Fears said. “There’s three other freshmen, so I can help them, still try to help the sophomores, and still try to give pointers and tips to the upperclassmen.”
The third Spartan freshman that was in the top 50 of their class is high-flying freshman forward Coen Carr, although Izzo noted he’s not sure where the highlight-reel freshman will play.
“He's got to continue to work on his shot, but he plays so hard, and he's such a good kid, and he just keeps getting better,” Izzo said.
Carr himself later spoke about the value of having such an experienced senior class.
“They’re gonna help us throughout the season to help us play the game, how it works, March Madness they’ve been there ... It will help us learn quicker, and mature faster,” Carr Said.
The final freshman of the Spartan class is the 124th ranked-4-star freshman forward Gehrig Normand. Who Izzo has said reminds him exactly of former Spartan basketball player, and current member of the Men’s basketball coaching staff Matt McQuaid.
Normand didn’t commit to MSU until late August, but he described receiving the call and former Alumni as something that was meant to be.
“My first phone call was Matt … I was a big McQuaid fan when I was a little kid watching him in college at Michigan State. It was just big for me hearing his voice, just talking to him that was a blessing,” Normand said.
Normand also spoke about the leadership the upperclassmen bring to the team.
“Every day in practice, there's a little detail they’ll notice about your game or what you're doing that can help you,” Normand Said. “The little things, they help a lot … Learning from Tyson and seeing the way he moves ... and the plays he makes, just learning from him is huge.”
The Spartans remarkable mix of battle tested experience and young, exciting talent will make them one of the marquee teams to keep an eye on this season.
Head Coach Tom Izzo and unnamed players are set to speak to the media once again a week from today on Oct. 10 in Minneapolis, Minnesota for Big Ten Media Day. Then their preseason will begin on Oct. 25 when the Spartans face off against Hillsdale College at the Breslin Center with tipoff set for 7 p.m. ET.