#1 Michigan State 2019-20 Preview

- Ky McKeon

Key Returners: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Xavier Tillman, Aaron Henry, Kyle Ahrens
Key Losses: Nick Ward, Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid
Key Newcomers: Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble


Outlook: Michigan State enters 2019-20 as the preseason favorite in just about every poll in the country. Tom Izzo once again proved that he is one of the best talent developers (maybe THE best) in college basketball after his Spartans cruised to another Big Ten title and a Final Four. Last year’s Final Four appearance was Izzo’s 8th in his head coaching career, which spans back to 1995. For comparison, Duke’s Coach K has 12 Final Four appearances since 1980 and UNC’s Roy Williams has 9 since 1988. What makes Izzo’s resume so impressive is the fact that he wins at an elite level with “not quite elite” talent. Since ESPN started tracking class rankings back in 2007, Michigan State has had only three top ten recruiting classes (2010, 2012, 2016). Izzo has garnered a well-deserved reputation for recruiting the right guys to fit his style and getting the most out of the talent on his roster. This season, Sparty brings back five players with starting experience including Cassius Winston, the first AP First Team All-American to return to school since Creighton’s Doug McDermott in 2012.

The importance of Winston’s return to East Lansing cannot be overstated. In Winston, Sparty has arguably the best college basketball player in the country occupying the most important position in the game. Everything MSU does on offense revolves around Winston, who took his game to another stratosphere last season, improving his scoring from 12.6 PPG as a sophomore to 18.6 PPG as a junior. Ball movement is king in Izzo’s motion offense – the Spartans have ranked #1 in the country in assist rate three of the last four seasons – and Winston is the engine that drives the motion. Winston has led the Big Ten in assist rate every year he’s been in college and his offensive game is a microcosm of the Sparty offense at large. He’s a career 43% three-point shooter and can get to the foul line and into the lane at will.

Here, Winston shows off his famous runner:

And here, Winston shows his ability to use a ball screen and shoot off the bounce. In 2018-19, Winston scored 0.996 PPP off pick-n-rolls (90th percentile in the nation) and only 63% of his made three-pointers were assisted:

MSU is so tough to defend because it, like Winston, can score effectively from every level of the floor – in addition to being a master talent developer, Izzo is a master game planner and instructs his team to take what the defense gives them on a nightly basis.

Last season, Winston’s usage skyrocketed as he was forced to take on the lion’s share of the scoring load. This year, he’ll have his right-hand man back (though word is he may not be 100% to start the year) in Josh Langford, who played just 13 games before going down with an ankle injury. Langford started 2018 on a tear, pouring in 15.0 PPG which included a 29-point performance against Texas. He is vital to Sparty’s offensive attack as a secondary creator and floor spacer. Langford has never shot below 40% from three in a season and the Spartans scored a blazing 1.20 PPP when he was on the floor in 2018.

Matt McQuaid’s departure is underrated given his ability to defend and never-ending motor, but Izzo will have plenty of backcourt pieces at his disposal to pair with Winston and Langford with the return of Aaron Henry and Kyle Ahrens and the addition of freshman Rocket Watts. Henry is the favorite to win the Big Ten award for “Most Likely to Have Announcers Call Me the X-Factor Before a Game” after seeing major minutes in his freshman season. He’s a versatile two-way player who possesses gobs of potential to make a leap in 2019-20 and be a program cornerstone in the near future. Ahrens will serve as a solid “glue guy” rotational piece when fully healthy. Like Langford, Ahrens battled through injuries throughout the 2018-19 campaign. Watts is Izzo’s highest ranked recruit in the class of 2019. Aside from having an awesome nickname (his real name is Mark - not as cool), Watts projects as a confident combo guard that can handle the ball and score from all three levels and has “future Sparty stud” written all over him. He’ll look to hold off former Michigan Mr. Basketball Foster Loyer for backup guard duties.

Izzo squads are typically strong on the offensive glass and last year had the luxury of playing three monster trucks at the 4 and 5 spots. Nick Ward and Kenny Goins are gone, but junior Xavier Tillman returns, another player prime for a breakout year in 2019-20. Tillman captured the Big Ten’s 6th Man of the Year award after ranking 7th in the conference in O-Rating, 4th in block rate, and 3rd in offensive rebounding rate. He started to blossom offensively as a sophomore, expanding his range past the arc and shooting 81.2% from the charity strip in Big Ten play, and functions as a lock-down paint presence on defense. Expect big things from Tillman this season as he becomes the undisputed primary option in the frontcourt. He’ll see his minutes skyrocket, and he’ll look to wreak havoc on the offensive glass:

The main unknown on this roster heading into 2019-20 is who Izzo will pair with Tillman in the frontcourt. 4-star freshman Malik Hall and fellow rookie Julius Marble could carve out some playing time in the wide open frontcourt. Izzo has shown plenty of love this offseason to Hall in particular, saying he could even occupy the starting 4-spot as the season progresses. Sophomore Thomas Kithier likely has the inside lane to start the season. He put up good numbers on the block when he saw the floor in 2018-19 – nearly every one of his shot attempts came near the bucket – and he should at least be a solid rebounder. Marcus Bingham is also an option and offers much more in the realm of rim protection and can space the floor with his outside shot. If Izzo wants to go small, sophomore Gabe Brown showed flashes of potential last season serving as a spot-up shooter and playing primarily on the wing.

Bottom Line: Michigan State should be rock solid this season with a roster full of known entities and potential breakout studs. Izzo’s defense should remain tough in the paint and continue to force opponents to play long possessions and shoot contested outside shots. Sparty is a disciplined, well-coached team led by one of the best players in the country – what’s not to like?