Key Returners: Cassius Winston, Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid, Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins
Key Losses: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Key Newcomers: Marcus Bingham Jr., Foster Loyer, Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry, Thomas Kithier
Outlook: Five months have elapsed since that [unbearably grotesque] Round of 32 debacle against Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, which sent the Spartans home packing prematurely for the 3rd year in a row - I genuinely hope all who tuned in to that rock fight have had their eyes examined for permanent retinal damage this summer.
As an Indiana University alumnus, watching that game brought back chilling nightmares of IU's 2013 Sweet-16 meltdown against the Orange when their patented 2-3 zone stupefied Tom Crean and the Hoosiers. The evil genius Jim Boeheim must've cast a similar spell on Tom Izzo - you know, the Hall-of-Fame coach renowned for his postseason game preparation - as the Spartans opted to slingshot 37 threes at the rim, only 8 of which would fall. A lack of offensive cohesion, combined with some head-scratching personnel decisions, culminated in what may go down as one of Izzo's worst coaching performances in his long, illustrious career at Michigan State.
The 2018-19 season offers a brand new slate for Sparty - one hopefully free of the dark cloud which engulfed the program in suffocating off-the-floor distractions - and a chance for Izzo to wipe away those recent postseason blemishes.
The key this year for Izzo and the coaching staff is optimizing their front court lineup combinations. Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman will co-headline what may be the most physical front line tandem in the country, tipping the scale at combined 500+ pounds. The Ward / Tillman duo are in many ways mirror images of each other, not just in build but in playing styles and tendencies.
In terms of fit on the floor together, the two bruising bigs present something of a double-edged sword for Izzo - while pairing the two next to each other up front gives Sparty an overwhelming advantage in the paint (particularly on the glass), the new 'pace and space' revolution in college basketball make them increasingly vulnerable as high pick-n-roll defenders, an area where Ward struggled mightily last season.
Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press broke down this exact conundrum facing Izzo this season. An interesting quote from Tillman reveals Izzo doesn't appear to be implementing any groundbreaking lineup changes to address this challenge:
“With the offense we’re headed towards right now,” Tillman said, “me and Nick just have to work on our 15-foot jump shots and 3-point shots. That way, one of us can play the 4. … In order for us to play at the same time, one of us has got to be able to step out.”
The article also cites Tillman's offseason mission to lean his body (Ward has undertaken similar initiatives), which will be critical for maximizing his versatility on defense. Tillman is certainly the more mobile of the two behemoths, a big reason why he started to gobble up some of Ward's minutes down the stretch last year. Ward and Tillman almost never shared the floor last season, playing just 30 total possessions together all season, per hooplens.com.
Ultimately, the two-way rebounding dominance and elite shot-blocking that Ward and Tillman bring to the table - in addition to Tillman's rapid development as a facilitator out of the post - should outweigh the downside risk of smaller, quicker opponents exploiting the duo out on the perimeter. And if foul trouble does emerge as a recurring problem, Kenny Goins is back in the fold to eat up minutes off-the-bench, along with a trio of ultra-talented 6'9 freshmen, Marcus Bingham, Gabe Brown and Thomas Kithier. Bingham is the most prized prospect of the five incoming freshmen and the combination of his skill and fit alongside Ward or Tillman make him a strong candidate to push for a starting spot. When you watch how smooth and fluid he is with the ball at 6'10 blessed with a 7'4 wingspan, it immediately explains why Bingham says he models his game after Kevin Durant.
Moving out to the perimeter, Izzo will rest easy knowing his 1, 2 and 3 spots lie in the hands of three proven upperclassmen, Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid and Josh Langford. All three enter the 2018-19 campaign with at least two whole seasons of Izzo's tutelage under their belt, which is evident on both sides of the ball - they each guard their respective positions well defensively and their willingness to share the rock within Izzo's pass and screen heavy offense is contagious. In fact, over the last two seasons, Michigan State has ranked 3rd and 1st nationally in percent of field goals assisted on - as our boy Jon Rothstein so eloquently puts it, "sharing is caring" and no one embodies that phrase more than the Spartans.
Waiting in the wings behind the aforementioned veteran trio is another upperclassmen (Kyle Ahrens) and two more freshmen (Foster Loyer and Aaron Henry), all three of whom received glowing reviews for their performances at the Moneyball Pro-Am earlier this summer. While Ahrens is a feel-good story after missing all of last season with a foot injury and Henry is an uber-versatile wing that should play his way into the rotation, Loyer is the guy who's actually generating the most buzz this summer.
Let's be clear - Winston has a strangle hold on the starting point guard spot - but don't be surprised if Loyer emerges as an off-the-bench microwave this season. Despite standing just 6'0 and lacking the explosiveness of other blue-chip guard prospects, Loyer's skill and basketball IQ are as advanced as any freshman in America. He's become somewhat of a local legend in the state of Michigan after his 40-point outburst in the state championship game (see clip below):
While the ceiling of his impact this season may be limited by the incumbent veterans in-front of him, don't be surprised if Loyer makes his mark on a few big games this season with some instant offense off-the-pine.
Bottom Line: Let's put the Devil's Advocate hat on for a quick second - there are legitimate reasons to be somewhat bearish on the Spartans' outlook as a top-10 team in 2019. The primary concern is that this year's roster seems to lack a dynamic offensive 'alpha-dog' - in other words, a guy who can go create something for himself or for others without a designed set play or a multitude of screens. While Sparty always seems to have balanced offensive attacks, Izzo usually has a bonafide talent somewhere on the floor (Miles Bridges, Denzel Valentine, Gary Harris and Draymond Green are a few precedents) to act as a safety blanket when half-court possessions break down. And while you can make a case that Winston is that dude this year, I just don't see him as an explosive, game-breaking creator. One could argue that he was a major beneficiary of playing alongside NBA-caliber talent in Bridges and Jackson last season (I'll also bet my house that he doesn't shoot 50% from 3 again this year), so it remains to be seen how effective he'll be as he moves up the offensive pecking order.
The bottom-line is that Michigan State deserves to be the early favorite to repeat as Big-10 champs and should very well be in-line for a top-3 seed come next March - but the absence of top-notch talent could cripple Sparty's ability to compete with the crème de la crème of some of the nations' elite squads, who could ultimately stand in their way of another Final Four berth next March.