- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Lourawls Nairn
Key Losses: Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis
Key Newcomers: Jaren Jackson, Xavier Tillman
Postseason Projection: 1 seed
Outlook: Tom Izzo has built a dynasty up in East Lansing over the past 22 years. During Izzo’s coaching tenure, the Spartans have made an incredible 20 straight NCAA Tournaments and now look to be one of the best 2 or 3 teams in the country once again in 2017-18. Last season was Izzo’s “worst” team since 2010-11, the result of suffering through several key injuries and relying on five freshmen for significant production. The injuries may have been a blessing in disguise, as the young guns were forced into action allowing them to gain vital season and tournament experience. And now, Izzo’s stellar 2017 class looks to reap the fruits of their prior season labor. If you looked up “loaded” in the dictionary, you would see a picture of the 2017-18 Spartans – even Vegas gives them the second best odds to win this year’s National Title (7/1).
Nobody on the MSU roster “benefitted” more from the injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter than rising sophomore big man Nick Ward. Ward was the 39th ranked player in the class of 2016 per ESPN, but wasn’t expected to make quite the splash he did last season. On an advanced stat level, Ward was the Spartans’ most valuable player last year, impacting the game on both ends at the highest level on the squad – even higher than future Lottery pick Miles Bridges. Per Hoop Lens, Sparty scored 1.10ppp when Ward was on the floor; that number dropped to an atrocious 0.99ppp when Ward sat. Ward is a traditional big man without much flash (mostly shoots lefty baby hooks over his right shoulder), but he is an efficient scorer and ranked 2nd in the country in free throw rate. He also ranked 2nd in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, a source of a lot of his buckets during the year.
While Nick Ward may be the unsung hero of the Spartans, the face of the program will once again be Miles Bridges, who shocked the world when he decided to come back to college for his sophomore season (3MW may or may not have broken that news to the Twitter-verse). Bridges, a 2nd Team All-Conference selection, led the Spartans in scoring and rebounding last year and ranked in the top ten in the conference in true-shooting percentage, block percentage, and defensive rebounding percentage. The former top ten recruit combines a hard-nosed penetration game with a feathery long-ball touch making him nearly unstoppable on offense. All eyes will be on Bridges this year as he stakes his claim for a spot on one of the coveted All-American teams.
In order to live up to the lofty expectations this season, MSU will need its complementary players to step up behind Bridges and Ward. Izzo has himself one of the best backcourt supporting cores in the country in Josh Langford, Cassius Winston, Tum Tum Nairn, and Matt McQuaid.
Winston and Nairn will again serve as the squad’s point guards this year. Nairn earned more starts during the year, but Winston often saw more minutes off the pine. To any third party observer, it was pretty obvious who the better ball player was between the two – it appeared Izzo was really starting Nairn out of upper-classmen loyalty than anything else. Winston certainly had his issues with turnovers, but his assist rate was out of this world (46.7, good for 2nd best in the country and #1 in the Big Ten), and the on court / off court numbers between him and Nairn are staggering. Sparty’s offense saw a similar spike when Winston played as when Ward did, compared to when he sat, while MSU became less efficient when Nairn played:
Expect Winston to receive the lion’s share of the minutes this season while Tum Tum falls back into more of a “senior mentor” role.
Langford had an up-and-down season, but started to play more consistent in the latter half of the year. By conference play, Langford was a regular starter and was Sparty’s best three-point shooter during the season (41.6%). With Bridges and Winston taking care of the creation roles, Langford likely remains a glorified spot-up shooter, but he certainly has more in his arsenal than just catch-and-shoot; he’s liable to break out for 15 or 20 on any given night. McQuaid, on the other hand, is all spot-up, but don’t let his goofy looks fool you – on a points per possession basis, McQuaid was MSU’s best overall defender last season, a tribute to his scrappy style of play and willingness to mix it up.
Like the backcourt, the frontcourt, too, has a wide array of weapons. Aside from Ward (and Bridges if you count him as a forward), Izzo can throw out Ben Carter, a UNLV import, Gavin Schilling, a senior vet, or one of his two excellent freshmen, Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman. Carter and Schilling will both give MSU toughness, rebounding, and rim protection off the pine. Jackson is much more offensively inclined than Carter or Schilling; the lanky McDonald’s All-American is one of the best forwards in his class and could be a Lotto pick next summer.
Putting Jackson next to Ward almost seems unfair – the two should complement each other very well on both ends as Jackson can step out to the mid-range and fares better keeping up with offenders away from the basket. Tillman is a freaking man-child. Seriously, watch his high school videos; he looks like a 35-year old grizzled vet against a bunch of string-bean 15-year olds. He’ll serve as a bruiser off the bench in the same vein as Schilling.
Bottom Line: No coach played more of his bench last season than Tom Izzo, a nod to MSU’s injury situation and the amount of burgeoning talent on the roster. This year, Izzo should be able to comfortably go nine or ten deep with adequate backups at every position on the floor. That depth combined with a high level of star power should propel Michigan State to a #1 seed come Tourney time. Once in the Dance, I’m not one to bet against Izzo in March.